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Georgette Phillips was appointed dean of Lehigh University College of Business and Economics in July 2014. She has since campaigned for a masters in management programme which will launch in August 2015. The US business school also has a 10-month part-time evening MBA programme which she aims to develop.

Ms Phillips studied at Harvard Law School and built a law practice before joining the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where she stayed for more than 22 years and served as vice dean for the undergraduate division.

In her spare time, Ms Phillips enjoys singing in choirs, biking and hiking.

1. When did you know you wanted to be dean of a business school?

My first academic administrative position was department chair. While I found the position to be engaging, it did not tap into my entrepreneurial spirit. When I became vice-dean at Wharton for the undergraduate division I realised how much I enjoyed the programmatic and strategic aspects of academic leadership. Through this position, I saw that I was quite good at creating, sculpting and implementing a vision. It was a natural progression from that job to becoming dean of a school.

2. Why did you choose Lehigh College of Business and Economics?

As I was receiving calls from recruiters, schools generally fell into two camps. On one side were schools that were functioning quite well at their highest level and all I could do was either maintain or (worse) mess it up. On the other side were schools that, no matter what I could bring, lacked the necessary resources (economic and/or human capital) to make a move.

Lehigh College of Business and Economics was neither. They had all the necessary ingredients for upward trajectory (talented faculty, smart students, dedicated staff and commitment from university partners and alumni). I saw the opportunity to take a very good business school and make it great.

I also like the geographic area. We have the good fortune of being in proximity to major urban centers like Philadelphia and New York but the luxury of being the only nationally recognised university in our immediate area, the Lehigh Valley.

3. What is an average day like?

I am generally on campus three to four days a week and off-campus one to two days for fundraising. The first thing I do when I wake up is check my email. Once I get into the office I click on the “5-a-day” top business stories from the Financial Times and if there is an article of particular interest, I click through to read the entire piece. The rest of my day is filled with meetings and updates.

Lehigh has a strong culture of cross-campus collaboration. The campus is also (literally) built into a mountain. So my day often includes a good workout as I walk across the campus to various university offices. I also have office hours for students once a week. This is the first time in 22 years I have not been in the classroom and I miss student contact. I enjoy even this small dose.

4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Academia has the reputation of dragging out decision-making. When I arrived at Lehigh in the summer of 2014, I knew we had to add revenue-generating programmes immediately [but] two decades as a faculty member taught me that programmatic changes need to come from the faculty; not from the dean. So I selected a taskforce to lead the design and structure of the new masters programme. I needed people that understood “the why” of the programme as well as “the how.” From conception to adoption, it was a four month process — unheard of before my arrival. It meant that we did not lose a year of tuition haggling over details.

5. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I am not easily offended but neither do I hesitate to voice my displeasure in the face of sexism. I maintain my feminine side because that is who I am, but some would describe me as an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Being an African-American woman is a double-shot of difference. For some people, this is the first time they have worked for a woman. For some people this is the first time they have worked for an African-American. For most people, this is the first time they have worked for an African-American woman. I use this lack of context to my advantage by quickly establishing the ground rules of what I need from my team to get the job done.

6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

As a dean my biggest lesson learnt has been to keep it simple. The more complicated the presentation [for example], the less likely you will win supporters. The idea can be complex but the explanation needs to be easily digestible. Too much detail (often inserted to ward off potential points of disagreement) gives people the opportunity to focus on the minutiae rather than the proposal as a whole.

7. What is your favourite business book?

My mantra is “Live in Beta”. This is not from a business book but is popular among tech professionals. It means you can’t wait for perfection before you move. It requires accepting a bit of uncertainty as the cost of innovation.

This idea is closely related to a notion explained in one of my favourite business books: The Contratrian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven Sample. He begins his book by inviting the reader to begin “thinking grey, and free.” Thinking grey requires that we acknowledge all of the shades of answers between true and false. Thinking free means that you think without constraints.

8. Which three people, living or dead, would you invite to a business meeting?

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple — his visionary marriage of design and technology pervades almost every corner of modern life.

Antonio Stradivari, crafter of string instruments — his relentless pursuit of the purity of sound, coupled with aesthetic beauty, created a standard that is synonymous with the most exceptional achievement.

Madam CJ Walker, one of the first entrepreneurs to create beauty and hair products for the most underserved of markets: African-American women. Her success led her to become the first female self-made millionaire.

[All three] are alike as each one established their own entrepreneurial path to success. But their approaches are so different. I would be curious to tease out similarities between them. It would also be interesting to discover whether their approach to success is time-bound or timeless as they are all from different eras of history.

9. What has been you best business trip?

At my previous employer, I was on a team that travelled to Cambodia to do due diligence on a non-for-profit organisation that was in a competition to receive funding. Our task was to assess not only the business model but also the sustainability of the organisation and their ability to leverage the funds.

The work began when we ventured to the countryside. The organisation worked with local villages to improve public health by providing them with economic and instructional capital to build toilets. I had never heard the term “fecal slush management” before the trip but by the end it rolled off my tongue easily. During the visit we met with vendors, suppliers and customers and I saw what a difference something I take for granted (sanitary waste disposal) makes to human existence.

10. Which business deals do you wish you could have been a part of?

The rebuilding of the World Trade Center. For me, like so many other people, the bombing of the World Trade Center was more than the tragic loss of life. It was a direct assault on my way of life and value system.

On a completely different note, it was one of the more interesting real estate transactions that, at the time of the bombing, was still under the final stages of negotiation. I would have appreciated both the emotional and business satisfaction of rebuilding an American icon.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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