Ten Questions - Carolyn Woo

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Carolyn Woo is dean of Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in the US, a position she has held since 1997. Ms Woo previously served as associate executive vice-president for academic affairs at Purdue University.

In 2002, Ms Woo was elected the first woman chair of AACSB International, the global non-profit organisation for the advancement of management education and she currently serves as a member of the board of two publicly traded companies.

Ms Woo’s research interests focus on strategy, entrepreneurship and organisational systems and she has received a number of academic excellence awards for teaching and research, including the Salgo-Noren award for outstanding teaching in the masters programmes.

Ms Woo lectures regularly on individual integrity, ethical systems and corporate citizenship.

(1) What is the average day of a dean like?

I start with prayer every day. Then usually I attend meetings, which can take up six to eight hours of the day. The people who come in to my office range in age from 18 to 80 - from students who are failing to prominent chief executive officers. The activities range from evaluations to award ceremonies, saying “yes” to saying “no,” mind-numbing bureaucratic practices that I inflict on others and trial balloons they try out on me; talking to a colleague and talking into microphones for interviews. Then I try to work out in the pool at the health club. At the end of the day, I go home to be with a wonderful husband, and then eat dinner - inevitably too late. One habit I have developed is to quit checking email at least an hour before I go to bed so that I don’t wake up obsessing about work.

(2) What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy most the ability to bring out the best in people and hone a winning strategy that emanates from a deep sense of mission and a truly collaborative culture. As a business school, we deeply believe that business is not a necessary evil but a necessary good. However, this can only come about if business leaders (1) lead with integrity, (2) create organisation systems and a culture that foster right conduct and (3) adopt business models that achieve economic success in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. Our faculty is proud of this mission and they own this.

(3) When did you know you wanted to be dean of a business school?

I actually never sought out the administrative positions that I have held. These include being director of an MBA programme and the associate provost at Purdue University, and my current deanship at Notre Dame. I was first drafted to direct an MBA programme because I cared deeply about it. I was a graduate of the programme before I was a faculty member. The other opportunities came about in similar ways. By then, I knew I enjoyed administration. I believe that passion and a deep desire to make an organisation better creates a life force that propels leadership and draws others in.

(4) Who are your business heroes?

My business heroes are those who achieve success in a way that reflects value for their customers and care for employees. They seek accountability and most importantly, adhere to a high standard of personal integrity. They are the unsung heroes whose stories rarely get told amidst all the scandals. Some of them include Jim Sinegal of Costco, Roxanne Martino of Aurora Funds, Paul Purcell of Baird, Keith Sherin of GE, and Dan Hesse of Sprint. They demonstrate that business can attain both economic success and social good.

(5) What is your favourite business book?

My favourite publication relating to business is the newest encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). It states that true development must concern the whole person and extend to all persons; ie integrity and the greater good. It specifically points out the potential for business and markets to serve, not to exploit. Charity that involves “loving thy neighbour” is not only an individual endeavour, but should be part of our political and business systems. The encyclical cautions us that the moral energies needed to direct markets cannot come from the markets themselves, but from people. Caritas in Veritate, by putting humanity back in all human enterprises including business, is an honour to our profession.

(6) What advice would you give to women in business?

Don’t obsess about being a “Woman,” with a capital “W.” Be the best person you can be. Keep promises and do your homework. Let these be your professional signatures. Be generous, give people a second chance. And don’t magnify every slight.

(6) How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I am a Chinese woman who started my career about 30 years ago in the US. I mostly have been in environments that are predominantly male and Caucasian. Yet I have flourished, and have been supported and mentored beyond reasonable expectations. I think it is important not to start with a chip on your shoulder and make assumptions. I don’t seek to belong, necessarily, but to be able to make contributions in an environment that is task-focused, professional and respectful of individuals. If there is behaviour that I consider inappropriate, I first ponder whether it is my own “thin skin” reaction. I make allowance for the fact that my perception is not necessarily accurate, and if needed, find a way to pose the problem. Usually there is a way and a channel to address real breaches. Overall, I find that it is most important to understand the common ground and enjoy individual differences on a work team.

(8) What is your favourite memory of school?

My favourite memory of school is the friendships I made starting from first grade. Hong Kong is a highly competitive academic system that requires students to go through public testing in grades 6 and 11 in order to advance to the schools of choice. We were taught by missionary sisters from the US who cultivated personal excellence without small-minded rivalry. Today, I am still in constant communication and interaction with classmates from those years. Whenever we gather, we celebrate each other’s lives.

(9) What is your life philosophy?

I wake up every day feeling tremendously blessed and want to return thanks in all that I do. I draw tremendous energy from the goodness and the giftedness of people and believe that the people in our lives are not accidents. I also believe that work that seeks to serve others will be multiplied and does not depend solely on ourselves.

(10) What is your plan B?

I don’t have a plan B. I believe it is a gift when our sense of purpose is lived out in professions that use all of our talent and honour the people and causes that grip our hearts. After my first two years out of school, the jobs and board positions I held came to me out of the blue, as I could never have imagined such bounty. I think the key is to give your best to the people and organisation who have committed to you. The rest will take care of itself.

Charlotte Clarke

Since initial publication, this article has been amended to correct the number of board positions Ms Woo currently occupies.

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