Alison Davis-Blake is the first female dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Before joining Carlson in 2006, Prof Davis-Blake was the senior associate dean for academic affairs at the Mc Combs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was the Eddy Scurlock Centennial professor of management. She has taught at all levels of higher education and she co-founded and co-directed an executive masters degree programme in human resource development leadership at McCombs.
Prof Davis-Blake has a bachelors and a masters degree from Brigham Young University and she holds a doctorate in business administration from Stanford University.
1. What is the average day of a dean like?
There is no such thing as an average day in the life of a dean. The days involve a mix of strategic and tactical activities, a mix of short-term and long-term activities and a mix of planned, emergent and emergency activities.
2. How do you deal with pressure?
First, I set priorities. Second, I check my assumptions and thinking with others. I find that when you’re under pressure you have a tendency to become isolated and think that you have to act now - an approach that can easily lead to errors. Third, I don’t ever, ever make an important decision, or especially send an email, when I’m tired, or angry, or emotional. To do so is asking to make a mistake.
3. Who are your business influences / heroes?
A lot of my thoughts on what it takes to be excellent in business come from three people from three different worlds: Clarence Darrow, the attorney for the defence in the Scopes Monkey trial, (the trial of a biology teacher who was accused of teaching evolution). He’s a hero because he’s someone who could make a lonely decision and stand on his own when everyone thought he was wrong.
Second is Abraham Lincoln and his exceptional skill in turning enemies into friends.
Third, and from the world of business, is Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines who founded a company in a very troubled industry on the premise that if you put people first - your employees first - you can be profitable and successful.
4. What is the best piece of advice a teacher or student gave you?
From my major advisor in graduate school: “Sometimes your gut will tell you things that your head can’t.” I find that to be very true. You have to take in all the information in decision-making. Intuition, emotions and thoughts that aren’t fully formed can be important inputs into decisions.
5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Never, ever, ever act on an issue involving a conflict or disagreement between people without hearing from all of the parties. If you do, you will make a mistake.
6. What advice would you give to women in business?
You should work to achieve excellent outcomes through a fair and transparent process. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself.
7. How do you deal with male dominated environments?
There have been lots of cases where I’ve been in the minority or in the extreme minority; sometimes because of gender, sometimes because of discipline or functional expertise, sometimes because of age. I find all these situations to be the same. If I’m in the extreme minority I always assume I need to perform twice as well to get half the credit as a member of the majority group and I act accordingly.
8. What is your favourite business book?
The Human Equation by Jeffrey Pfeffer. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who is running a business where people are critical to success, which is most of us.
9. What is the last book you read?
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. I found this book really memorable because it demonstrates how, when interacting with other people, if you fail to understand both your assumptions and the fundamental assumptions that others bring to the table, tragic results can ensue.
10. What inspires you?
Helping other people to achieve a goal that they thought was beyond their reach. I think that’s what higher education is all about - giving people a vision that they can be something that maybe they dreamed about but didn’t think they could actually realise. That’s why I’m in this business.