Interview: Sharon Hodgson, Dean of Ivey
Sharon Hodgson is the Dean of the Ivey Business School
IBR: Change has been a constant theme in your life, including 14 moves across Canada and the United States before you turned 22. How did this influence your perspective on adaptability, and how did these insights inform your time leading transformational growth at IBM?
I have always looked at change as an opportunity. I’ve never looked at it with fear. I’ve always looked at it as: this is where you can go next and find a new place to learn. In terms of how it informs how I go into a change, I think the biggest thing is knowing yourself, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and making sure that you’re doing things to work on your weaknesses. Maybe part of that is the group that you surround yourself with, but you also need to have a lot of self-awareness. I think it’s really important to appreciate how you’re being perceived, how you’re coming across, and be genuine and sincere—that’s the best thing you can do.
Plus, I think you also have to be very open-minded. There are so many differences between institutions, especially when you’re moving around a lot, so you have to try to understand the cultural norms, how things work, and how things get done. You don’t assume; you have to come in listening and not espousing a point of view all the time.
IBR: Today, Ivey students are faced with several career opportunities spanning finance, accounting, marketing, and more. How did you decide to pursue a career in consulting?
Just like all the change that I was going through prior to university, when I got out of university I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. And for me, consulting gave me the opportunity to explore many different industries and a lot of different areas within an organization. In consulting, you can play in any part of the stack, from strategy all the way down to implementation, and you can also play across a broad set of industries. It felt like a really great way to jump in, see what was out there, where I could add the most value, and where I got the most joy,
Investment banking is a lot of the same. And actually, if you look at many of our students, they frequently graduate and go into consulting and investment banking. But then if you look at their progress three, five, and eight years out, a lot of them use that as a stepping stone to get to some other career as they figure it out—‘What do I like?’, ‘What do I not like?’ And ‘Where do I want to play and put my time in?’
IBR: To follow up on the previous question, what would be your advice to Ivey students that aren’t sure where they want to start their careers?
The biggest thing I can say, especially thinking about the COVID situation is: take risks now. As you get older, more settled, and have more people relying on you, it becomes much more challenging to take risks. And right now, you guys are the most, I would suspect, unencumbered you’ve ever been in your life. So this is the time to explore and take a few risks. Also, look at the skills—your half-life on skills is diminishing very quickly. So it’s okay to go into an industry that you’re not a hundred percent sure that you want to be in and give it a try for a couple of years because I think there are going to be a lot of novel areas where opportunities arise related to the pandemic that could be very interesting for short-term skills development. And you may find that you enjoy it in the long run.
IBR: Prior to joining IBM’s consulting business, you worked at Andersen, PwC and PW. What are your criteria for evaluating your fit with a company, and how did you approach job moves?
I had lots of moves during my career—including internally and to new organizations—and I looked at everything as an opportunity. When somebody came to me with an idea—‘Hey do you want to try this? Do you want to try that?’—I usually started with being open-minded and saying, ‘Well, tell me about it. Tell me why this would be a great opportunity for the firm and why it would be a great opportunity for me.’ And some of them were probably more planned than others.
I think about the big move that my family and I made to go to China. My husband and I had said that we wanted to do another international assignment when we were in Philly and we said there are probably only two or three countries around the world that we would want to go to for our family. And one of them was China because we thought what a great chance to get an experience in Asia and really start to understand a culture that’s going to be more and more influential. So we just had it in the back of our minds and they came to me and said, ‘Hey, we need you to run the consulting business, but it’s in Shanghai. Is that going to be okay?’. And I’m like, ‘Hm, I don’t know, let me check’ and I texted my husband saying, ‘How do you feel about Shanghai?’ And he said, ‘When are we going?’ So you also have to be on the same page with your spouse, or whoever’s important in your life, because your decisions aren’t just about you, but also your family.
IBR: Following your work with IBM, how did you decide what direction to take your career next? What motivated you to pursue leadership in academia? How has it differed from corporate leadership?
When I officially left IBM, I thought I actually was retiring. My idea when I left was that I was going to start doing only board work. I was already on one board and was pursuing a second board at the time. But through a roundabout series of things, I realized pretty quickly that I was going to get bored just doing board work and I needed to actually do something that was going to have a more direct impact and keep my brain occupied in a more material way. I created this list of criteria for myself if I was going to take on another big responsibility. Number one: I wanted to make sure that I was in a leadership position and could have a huge impact on the direction of the change. Secondly, I wanted it to be something that was for social good, ideally in Canada. The reason for that is I had an amazing background in Canada growing up and I wanted to be able to give back because as you can see from my career, I left Canada when I was quite young—only twenty-three. So I wanted to come back, and I wanted something that was ripe for disruption. Something where there was going to need to be some significant changes based on the fact that there’s so much disruption hitting the industry right now. Ivey seemed like a really good fit. I didn’t approach academia; academia approached me and I said, ‘Well, no, I am not well versed about this space.’ And we actually walked through what my criteria were and why this might be a good fit. And that’s how I ended up here. Also, Ivey’s already so different from so many other business schools. It’s got so many foundational things going for it right now in terms of its reputation; we’ve got a very unique way of delivering our programming, and it’s got so many innate strengths to be able to bounce off of. But hey, we’re in an environment where we’re under massive disruption—how do you leverage those strengths to actually do good?
IBR: Education, now more than ever given COVID-19, is experiencing disruption across the board, from changing demographics to new technology to an evolving job market and tightening budgets. What are the biggest sources of change you see in this space right now?
First of all, there’s internationalization and globalization and it’s become more pronounced as part of the pandemic. Students come internationally to our schools, but our students are also looking for more international experiences. The playing field is not Canada; the playing field is international and that’s both for students and for faculty and it’s getting more global as we go.
Second, there are regulatory disruptions that are happening and you guys would have been the beneficiaries of a big regulatory change that happened two years ago when the government announced a 10 percent reduction in tuition. But there are other ways that they are engaging in our world to decide things for us and so we’ve got to be able to pivot based on that.
There are also changing expectations of students in terms of personalization and designing your own program. I say design your own adventure when you come to university, but also be cognizant of the changing expectations of recruiters. For example, recruiters want more digital fluency, they want more people who understand and appreciate the norms of equity, diversity, and inclusion and how to actually embrace that and drive that. There are pieces around the always-on interconnectivity that you guys will want to have access to. But also, how do you leverage technology in a classroom? I mean, you talk about Zoom, but how about VR? How about AR? How about your cases? Instead of just reading a case, how about you actually put on your glasses and you go onto the shop floor and start to see more about what’s really happening on the shop floor instead of reading about it. What about AI in the classroom? How do you figure out who’s paying attention and who’s not paying attention and whether or not their contributions were super valuable to the conversation?
There’s lots of stuff with course content to write. And I just get what we’re hearing from students and recruiters about areas that they want more. They want more on sustainability, more on inclusion, more on digital fluency, but I also try to keep that core of what Ivey already is, which is the case-based Socratic method, Cross-Enterprise Leadership, where people learn how to solve complex problems, be persuaded and persuasive. So there are pieces to leverage off of and places where we’ve got to go new.
IBR: Obviously, you’ve spent quite a bit of your career kind leading big change at various companies. Did that help or inform your opinion anyway when you came here to do the same thing at Ivey?
I will say that the big challenge we’ve got is that we were right in the middle of the strategy, actually the very beginning of the strategy, just doing an environmental stand when COVID hit. The big thing that I know about change is that you’ve got to engage the community. Trying to execute all the stuff from the top is not going to be effective in terms of driving change. And we’re just in the beginning of that process to actually go through and get the faculty and staff engaged to do this. That’s what you need to do in an organization if you’re going to be effective in building and delivering a case for change and then ultimately get it done.
That said, I can’t leave this conversation without saying this: everybody thinks academia is so difficult to change. There’s the perception that, after hundreds and hundreds of years, it doesn’t move. I would just say this: think about how fast we moved; we pivoted in three days to a completely different mode of delivery. And the quality of what was done was really good. I think over the summer, the faculty even did a lot more to build up not just how they were going to deliver the classes that were in-person, but also digital assets that would help with learning. I don’t think anybody can say anymore that academia can’t change; academia changed really fast and I think Ivey did really, really well in making those changes and it’s a huge shout-out to the faculty and staff for the work that we did, but also to the students for being adaptable, which will be an important element going into the next two years.
Someone gave me a great quote the other day. They said, ‘The speed of change has never been so fast, and yet it will never be this slow again.’ Think about what the skills are that you’re going to need in the future—adaptability, being able to manage change at lightning speed—you guys all need to be intellectual athletes. We talked about the half-life of skills and the skills that you’re developing today. Some of them will be embedded like lifelong competencies, but some of these will be things that you’re going to have to constantly upgrade. So make sure you’re continuing to learn.
IBR: Given your experience with systemic and transformational change both personally and professionally, what advice do you have for Ivey students entering a post-COVID workplace?
Be open-minded, take some risk. Now is the time to take risks. You have no or very little encumbrances in your life, and mostly your encumbrances get bigger as you grow older. So take the risk now. Be agile, be flexible, and be an intellectual athlete. Make sure that you’re constantly challenging yourself to learn and grow.