Steve Jones is not your average business school dean. Before becoming the top dog at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler school, he was not an academic, but a chief executive. And he did not work in the US, but in Australia and New Zealand.
Returning to his undergraduate alma mater in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2003 therefore, Prof Jones brought with him a refreshing international business outlook. All of which means he is not afraid to take on many of the sacred cows of the business education world.
His first mantra is innovation. “This is an industry that needs to change faster than it is and it needs outside prodding to do it,” he says. “The industry structure drives the behaviour of the employees...These [faculty] are great people but they are players in a system.”
He argues that if the established US business schools do not change then they will be outstripped by rookie rivals, particularly in Asia. “What I expect will happen in the emerging markets is that you will see much more innovation,” he warns.
The combined pressures of accreditation and the need to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals mean business schools are not addressing the needs of business, he believes. He argues that published research should be judged on its relevance to business as much as its academic rigour, and he believes this needs a sea-change in thinking.
It is the same philosophy that informs his attitude to selecting students for the MBA programme. “We are changing the criteria by which we seek and admit students to put more emphasis on evidence.” In the past, admissions have been determined by the academic world and, he says, “academics hire in their own image”, which essentially means high GMAT scores.
Instead he is putting the emphasis on applicants who demonstrate drive, ambition and perseverance – qualities that he believes are essential to leadership.
In this emphasis on leadership Prof Jones, 55, has taken a very different approach to the MBA than his predecessor, Bob Sullivan, now dean of the Rady business school in San Diego and a blue-blooded academic. Prof Sullivan spent his years at Kenan-Flagler promoting the school as one that specialised in sustainable enterprise; Prof Jones believes that is no longer a selling point.
“Five to 10 years ago it was emerging and we were one of the leaders,” he says. “Now it’s part of what most schools do. It’s a real strength of the school, but it doesn’t define the school.”
Instead of sustainable enterprise, leadership skills and a global perspective are now on the agenda. With dual US and Australian nationality, and with years of experience as chief executive at one of Australia’s largest financial services companies, Suncorp Metway – not to mention an MBA from Harvard Business School – Prof Jones is well-placed to comment on all these issues.
Increasing the international experience of students at the business school has been one of Prof Jones’s priorities and these days around 60 per cent of them have some international experience as part of their programme, be it internships overseas or study abroad. “If we’re not sending someone away with a global perspective we really haven’t done our job,” he believes.
Broadening the international mindset of the faculty is also on the agenda. Since he took up the deanship, about one third of the school’s faculty has left, he says, but this has meant he could replace them with more globally-minded professors. This, he says, is all about mindset. “What you’ve got to have is that way of looking at a situation that varies depending on the circumstances which you are in.”
More widely, Prof Jones has strong views on some of the pervading issues in business schools. While many of the top US business schools – Harvard and Stanford, for example – are targeting younger students, often straight out of undergraduate programmes, for their MBA programmes, Prof Jones believes this is folly and a direct result of their inability to attract older students.
“If they could get all the top-quality 26-year-olds, you wouldn’t get this,” he explains. “[Matriculating younger students] runs contrary to what companies are saying. They want students who can get things done,” he insists
And as to whether the ideal MBA should be one or two years in length? “For the traditional programme, 18 months would be just fine. But if you want to accelerate skills, then two years is barely enough.”
His faculty, he says, will acknowledge the merit of some of his points.