Interview with Carol Stephenson

IBR talks with the outgoing Dean of Ivey Business School about her highly celebrated tenure and how the school has changed in the past ten years

Carol Stephesen BioIBR: Your transition into business education came after 30 years in telecommunications; how did you manage such a dramatic shift in industry focus?

CS: The problems that you are solving are similar, whether you are in education or the private sector; there are human resource issues, people issues, financial issues, and marketing issues. The main difference is the culture. In business, people are focused on the profits and losses, and understanding whether the returns are good or bad for a particular decision. You also have more levers, like bonuses, to help you meet your goals.

In the academic environment, I lead through influence. The way that I am able to make change is by trying to convince people that the idea is a good idea; it has to be well thought out and factual because those under you don’t necessarily have to make that change. It’s an interesting challenge, and some of my private sector experience helped me here. As a part of Stentor, which involved all of the incumbent phone companies at the time across Canada, we had to work on national marketing, technology evolution, and regulations for a group of ten companies, and we could only lead through influence.

I also would say that I am a pretty focused person; once a decision is made, I focus on the execution. I learned that in the private sector. It’s easy to get distracted in an academic environment because there are so many good ideas. If you don’t pick some, get everyone aligned, and then focus on them, you run the risk of being too scattered, and not actually completing anything. So I would say that I learned, in the private sector, how to focus on results and get things done.

IBR: An increasing number of reputable business schools such as Wharton and Stanford are pushing to make more of their content available online. Do you see an opportunity for the case method to be facilitated online?

CS quote 1CS: Well, I think the case method is very much about what we would call the “Ivey Experience”, the sorts of activities that you’re a part of through being physically here and working with the students around you. A lot of the skills that businesses are looking for come from these experiences: the negotiating, the interpersonal skills, the team work, etc. When I ask recruiters what stands out about an Ivey student, they reply “they have so much confidence, they have learned to analyze quickly, come up with a solution, express their point of view and actually implement it.” That comes from what happens in the classroom around case discussions, and I don’t think it’s easy to get that online.

IBR: You have made cross-enterprise leadership a priority during your time as Dean. Could you explain to our readers what cross-enterprise leadership is and why it is particularly important?

CS: The primary example I use to explain cross-enterprise leadership is an acquisition. Traditionally, in a business school, an acquisition would be taught in a financial context, valuing a company and structuring the deal. In reality, an acquisition is less about the deal and more about how you integrate that acquired company. What do you do if the IT systems don’t work together (which always seems to be the case), how do you deal with two very strong competing brands, how do you integrate corporate cultures, etc. For a really good leader to be able to understand and resolve these issues you can’t stick to your own silo of finance, marketing, human resources, etc.; you have to understand how the integration works across the entire enterprise. Hence, cross-enterprise leadership.
It is that ability to look outside your own business unit, discipline, or silo. That will provide a much broader view of the business issue. I sometimes describe it as turning business education on its head, because often you start by considering one function, and then you use that function to solve the problem. In the real world, you have to bring various disciplines together to solve a problem. The case method works well for this; you need the knowledge of various functions in order to solve problems. Once again demonstrating cross-enterprise leadership.

The concept came from my own career. I was on a rotational program early on in management, and what I learned was that the more experience I had in various roles and functions, the better I was at decision making in general. My own experience taught me that having a very good cross-enterprise understanding makes it much easier to lead. I believe in it, and I’ve seen it work successfully.

IBR: During your tenure, what were the key strategies you implemented in order to build Ivey’s brand in key markets internationally?

CS: Well there are a few things that really help Ivey’s brand, and the first is our cases. We are the top producer of cases in Asia and India, and the number two producer of cases worldwide after Harvard. You would be amazed how many people read these cases both at the academic and student level. When I was at the Beijing Olympics, this young woman came up to me and we got talking. When I told her I was from a business school in Canada called Ivey, she said “Ivey! I just did an Ivey case”. Our focus on producing cases has really pushed our brand internationally.

Secondly, I’ve encouraged our faculty to offer opinions to media sources on various business topics, with several placed in the internationally read Financial Times. Every time I visit the UK, I meet with the Editor of the Financial Times and talk to her about what we’re doing. I think the media placement helps our brand a lot.

Finally, we’ve started ‘issue forums’ where we take a faculty member and the research that they’re working on, and pair them with a practitioner to do a forum under Ivey’s name. It creates discussion around issues that are important to the world of business. If people are hearing about and recognizing your work, to me that is the biggest brand builder.

There is no doubt that growing our brand internationally is challenging given our position in Canada. I often ask people in the US, “how often do you hear about Canada?” “Well very seldom, unless it’s Keystone.” That’s a little bit like all business schools in Canada. We actually have to work harder than others to get brand awareness just because of our geographical location.

IBR: Ivey has greatly expanded its HBA program in recent years under your guidance. Was the smaller HBA program unsustainable given the aspirations for what it wanted to become?

CS: In business terms, I would say it was an underutilized asset. We had this great asset called the HBA program, and we were doing little with it. We weren’t marketing it, and we weren’t really talking about it. You would be considered crazy in business if you had something that you knew was one of the best things in your product portfolio, and you chose to ignore it. So during our strategy setting in 2005, we said this is a huge asset but look at who’s in the program – mostly students from southern Ontario. Why wouldn’t people from across the world want to come to this, wouldn’t that make it an even better program?

We decided to take action, so we implemented a gradual growth program. We made sure to keep the growth slow enough to maintain quality candidates, adding one section at a time, and hired more faculty. We had a really good product roll-out plan in order to do this well.

IBR: What were some of the other tactics beyond just the product roll-out strategy? Of the strategies used, which focused on expanding the appeal of Ivey beyond just southwest Ontario to across Canada, and the world?

CS: First, we went to 400 high schools across Canada and started talking about the program, eventually bringing with us some of the HBA graduates from those schools. We then talked to guidance counsellors and students about the program to increase overall awareness, going to the market as opposed to just placing big ads in the newspaper. It was a pretty grassroots initiative, which took a lot of resources, time, and effort, but was well worth it.

IBR: The shift to a one-year Ivey MBA has affected the schools rankings and perception of quality. How have you and the school dealt with those views and what are the benefits to the one-year as compared to two?

CS: It goes back to our 2005 strategy. It was driven by the opportunity cost for a student to be out of the workforce for two years instead of one. We also found that with a 12-month program, we had a 92% contact time with the students as the two-year, which really swayed our decision.

We also looked at whether recruiters would hire these students without the four-month placement in the middle of their program. We found that the percentage of students who work at the same company after graduation as their four month placement was actually low, around roughly 20%. So we took all the factors together and said why wouldn’t we make a change. We knew that this was happening in Europe and we thought there was a strong opportunity to implement it in North America as well. We tested afterwards whether the placement rates worsened – the answer was no, they actually got better.

CS quote 2In regards to the rankings, they don’t measure whether it’s a one-year or two-year program. At the same time, there were a few silly things that happened due to the timing of the convocation. But I have always said, do not run your strategy based on rankings because the methodology changes all the time. It was courageous, but I think it was a good move. I can’t imagine going back to two years.

IBR: Currently, the composition of Board of Directors worldwide has an unbalanced gender distribution; how do you think this impacts the strength of company governance?

CS: Three of the four boards that I sit on have three or more women, but I have been on boards where I have been the only female, and it does make a difference having a couple of women; gender goes away.

CS quote 3I hate to overgeneralize, but I also believe that women tend to be less afraid to inquire if something doesn’t make sense to them. It comes back to that diversity that we talked about before; you have different people, different thinking, different styles and it’s that diversity which makes for better governance and Board discussions.

I do think that we need to increase the number of women on Boards. Twenty years ago I would have said that as women hold more senior executive positions, they would start to get onto more Boards, but it hasn’t really happened. Why is this? It’s a complex issue and there’s no single answer, but recently there has been a lot more attention on it, which is a good thing.

The OSC has just come out with some proposed guidelines which will be interesting to see. They’re still in the consultation stage right now, but essentially it’s the ‘comply or explain’ model. I think that causes Boards to think about “do we want to explain this?” I think it is actually a good strategy, we’ll see what happens.