California dreamin’

There are few – if any – male deans of business schools who sport an earring, but Richard Lyons, dean of the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, is unafraid of breaking the mould.

Although his background is soundly academic – he is a professor of finance, a graduate of the school’s business programme and has a PhD in economics from MIT – he also has experience of business, with a two-year stint on Wall Street as chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs.

With experience of business and academia under his belt and an innovative approach to deans’ fashion, it was perhaps inevitable that when he became head of the business school in July 2008, he was keen to instigate change – and quickly.

At his urging, but with the backing of the faculty and after considerable research at home, as well as in Europe and Asia, Haas recently announced an overhaul of its core curriculum.

Sweeping changes have been announced that emphasise creativity, experimentation and problem-solving as well as experiential learning.

Behind this revamp are four defining principles, the bedrock on which the redesigned programme stands: question the status quo; confidence without attitude; being students always; and thinking beyond yourself.

He says these principles capture the heartbeat of the Hass approach and were already present at the school.

When he took over the reins, Prof Lyons says it was obvious to him that “a refresh was needed”.

“The world feels different from the world of my parents. It seems to me that as I look out into the future there are a lot of unsustainabilities in the system.”

Citing healthcare, energy, safe water, the economics of ageing and climate change among others, Prof Lyons says he firmly believes that, unless there is a course correction “they would hit a brick wall”. What is needed to make this correction is leaders who can bend the path, who can make changes through innovative leadership, he says.

Prof Lyons wants to attract a different population to Haas. “What do we want? A person who can think outside, who says there has got to be a better way to do this and I am willing to step outside the boundary.

“I think that is identifiable and we would like to be an attractor of these kinds of people … I am hopeful we can bring a different sort of person into the pool.”

But the dean recognises that by “leaning into a different sort of person”, this could in turn mean taking the school down a peg or two in terms of both its ranking – Haas’ global MBA programme is currently ranked 28 in the Financial Times – and its average GMAT score.

“How far would we be willing to go and how far are we willing to go in admissions?” He shrugs his shoulders.

Of course, costs have to be managed, he acknowledges, “we cannot be silly”, but change is very much on Prof Lyons’ agenda.

Business schools, he says, have traditionally been averse to turning down candidates who tick all the boxes, but he says that what is important is that the fit is right, between the student and the school and that, in turn, might mean turning away some otherwise suitable potential students.

“We have a narrative, we have a direction, let’s take some chances,” he says. “Experimentation is the right thing and we can move in this direction and watch the performance move and the people change and the culture change, and there will, of course, be unintended consequences.”

Haas – part of the University of California state system – has long punched above its weight when competing with private business schools with well endowed coffers, he says.

The Haas culture is different, its mission and values are distinctive and, although eager to steer the school in a new direction, he is aware that it must not lose its moorings, especially in pursuit of alternative revenue streams.

California’s current budget difficulties are well known, but Prof Lyons is confident Haas has a sustainable and viable financial model.

As well as raising its fees, the part time MBA programme is a key revenue generator, the dean is spearheading a campaign to raise $300m for Haas: the current total stands at about $120m.

He also has Haas alumni in his sights and is embedding philanthopy into the philosophy of the school. People now realise that private funding is essential, he says.

For a new dean, the first two years tend to be about setting the direction, Prof Lyons notes. And, with his course now set, the dean is waiting to see how the journey unfolds.

A thoughtful and engaging man, Prof Lyons is under no illusion that in setting out to attract different students into the school, he is to some extent entering unexplored territory, but to attract path-bending leaders such changes are necessary.

“I would love to be doing this job in eight years time, but it is not my decision,” he says. “I am taking managed and educated risks along the way and part of this is to have a long-term horizon.

“Do we have the insight and commitment to think in a longer term way? I hope so.”

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