It is hard to imagine that a business school dean could change a school by sheer force of enthusiasm. But you get the impression that Joel Podolny might just do that.
Tall and bearded, Prof Podolny, 41, looks as much like an arctic explorer as he does a traditional bookish business school professor. Yet his academic credentials are second-to-none.
Prof Podolny joined Yale School of Management as dean in July 2005 after three years at Harvard University, where he was jointly appointed by the school of arts and sciences and the business school – he was director of research at the latter. Before Harvard he was at Stanford business school for 11 years, most recently as senior associate dean of academic affairs. He earned his PhD from Harvard in 1991.
“I have been really lucky,” he says. “I’ve been at Stanford and Harvard and some of the best places in the world.”
At Yale, his enthusiasm is proving infectious, even with the more conservative faculty. He is, says one senior member, a “real leader”. This is illustrated by the fact that the school introduced a new curriculum for the MBA programme last autumn in what must be record time for a business school – the proposal had been voted through only six months earlier.
The essence of the changes, says the dean, are related to the way businesses have changed. It used to be the case that business school departments were aligned with business school careers – marketing or finance. Businesses now are far more complex. “We’re at a unique time where all practice is being questioned,” says Prof Podolny. “What are business schools as professional schools doing if they are not noting down this kind of behaviour?”
A typical marketing textbook might have chapters on the design value proposition or bringing the product to market. But, he says: “If you talk to the CEOs, what they are obsessed about is how you get a handle on what customers want.”
The views of chief executives formed one of the central planks of the thinking behind the new curriculum, says the dean. “Usually a curriculum change is done by the faculty. This time we talked to recruiters and we looked at other schools.”
This focus on the organisational role rather than the disciplinary topic means that in the first year MBA students will study eight courses, working across public sector and private sector boundaries and addressing both internal and external constituents – courses with titles such as employee, investor, and state and society.
“What’s critical in these courses is that they are interdisciplinary in design and in content,” says Prof Podolny.
This has meant developing new teaching materials. As a former Harvard man, Prof Podolny has real insight into the way cases are written and taught.
“Nobody executes the case method better than Harvard,” he says.
“But are there things about the case method that we can improve? I think there are and I think we should.” Last summer, faculty at the school knuckled down to develop interdisciplinary case studies to complement the new curriculum.
On the new programme an overseas study tour is compulsory, with participants this month travelling to Argentina, China, Costa Rica, the UK, India, Japan, Poland, Singapore, South Africa and Tanzania. Initially, faculty leaders could be found for only seven of the eight tours, so the dean volunteered to co-lead the eighth, to South Africa and Tanzania.
“It’s kind of cool to think that the whole class will be overseas at the same time,” says Prof Podolny. “We’re going to try to structure it so that they are all aware of what the other groups are doing.”
The speed with which the changes were introduced at the school of management is partly due to its small size, says the dean. Stanford and London Business School, with 379 and 310 first-year students respectively, are two other schools that have revamped their curriculum – and both are small compared to the juggernauts such as Harvard, Wharton and Insead.
“I don’t think it is an accident that you see smaller schools looking at curriculum reform with an interdisciplinary character,” says Prof Podolny. “It’s easier to do if you’re small.”
Indeed, the dean decided to reduce the number of applicants last year to 200, slashing the number of sections from four to three, in order to prove the new curriculum.
“While we could increase it next year, I’d like to do it again at a smaller size and then increase it,” he says.
In the short-term, that increase in numbers is likely to be small, but the school of management has been allocated land on the Yale site on which to build a new campus. “I’d like to have students in their seats by 2010,” says the dean.
All of this means that fund-raising is high on the agenda. The school has raised $125m towards a goal of $300m, half of which will go to the cost of the new campus.
Prof Podolny is undoubtedly an impressive salesman for the school. “The great thing about [the school of management at] Yale is our mission, ‘to educate leaders for business and society’. Every school has its central problematic.
“At Yale the problematic is how do you succeed for yourself and have a positive impact on society. How do I do well but have societal impact: that to me is unique.”
He enthuses about alumni who have achieved both. Linda Mason, a graduate in 1998, for example, is chairman of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the world’s largest provider of employer-sponsored child care, which operates more than 450 centres in the US, Europe, Canada and the Pacific Rim.
Another example is Tim Collins, chief executive of Ripplewood Holdings. The US private equity fund has led several of the largest private equity transactions, and Mr Collins was instrumental in the takeover of Japan’s Long-Term Credit Bank, renamed Shinsei Bank, which helped restructure the Japanese economy.
“My read on Yale was that the mission was right. What needed to be put in place was the curriculum,” explains Prof Podolny. It now looks as if that is in place as well.