Standing on Strength

Owen’s new strategic plan builds on strong pillars as the school heads toward its half-century mark

From the Fall 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Business


Ask alumni to describe the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management and you’ll hear terms such as collaborative, family and personal. Query students, faculty and staff and they respond with words like individualized and caring. Team leader and collaborative show up in feedback from employers, recruiters and business leaders.

Which is why when it came time to begin strategic planning for Owen’s future, Dean Eric Johnson and his team made developing the plan a collaborative effort that kept focus on Owen’s key stakeholders—students, alumni, recruiters and faculty. During the past year, Johnson and others in the Owen community researched and discussed the future of the business school. The result is an ambitious and practical strategic plan that enhances the core personality of the school while encouraging it to excel and achieve in authentic, smart and game-changing ways. 

We had an opportunity recently to talk with Johnson, the school’s Ralph Owen Dean and Bruce D. Henderson Professor of Strategy, about the plan, its objectives and the foundation under it.

What was the impetus behind this plan?

Dean Eric Johnson: I began my academic career at Owen in the early 1990s. When I arrived back here for good nearly two decades later, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much had changed, not just on campus but everywhere. Nashville is now a much more diverse, dynamic city. Technology and creative destruction have reshaped business. Students are evolving, too. The learning styles of millennials are pushing them toward experiential, immersive curricula. Technology is changing not only how business is conducted but how it’s taught.

What had not changed here are attributes that many students and alumni have always found most distinctive and valuable, like the collaborative culture and individualized approach. As we approach our 50th anniversary in 2019—can you believe it?—we needed a plan that helps us use these fixed stars to navigate a changing landscape.

How was the plan developed?

Board of Visitors members like Sean Rogers, MBA’99, helped provide input and ideas.

Johnson: To no one’s surprise, the process reflected the school’s collaborative culture. We reached out to everyone from alumni and students to corporate recruiters. We engaged Huron Consulting, a nationally known specialist in educational strategy, to help gather input from our stakeholders and think through strategies. Faculty and staff explored issues the school faces. The Alumni Board and Board of Visitors participated at an early stage, when they could be of greatest benefit. Our student government leadership played an important role and all students could offer ideas and exchange views in town hall meetings.

Drawing on data we collected and all these conversations, we found consensus that, among the school’s strengths, our personal scale and collaborative culture really stand out. That shared understanding led to the creation of a new mission statement.

I’ve heard you use the term personal scale before. How do you define that?

Johnson: We cultivate a distinct competitive advantage by concentrating on individual needs.

Our size and focus give us the ability to interact with students, alumni and recruiters on a personal level. Recognizing that students come here with many different backgrounds, we seek to provide the highest-quality learning experience by tailoring the academic experience to individual student development. Our faculty-to-student ratio promotes a close-knit community with exceptional access to faculty and staff.

“The ‘me first’ style has never been part of the Owen fabric.”
—Derek Young, MBA’91, Alumni Board

Our personal-scale advantage extends beyond graduation, as we support our alumni throughout their careers. Likewise, we invest in partnerships with hiring organizations to better meet their unique needs.

Can you give a capsule summary of the strategy?

Johnson: The overall strategy rests on three pillars.

  1. Enhance the personal-scale advantage of both the traditional and Executive MBA programs
  2. Expand and balance the portfolio of programs offered to build synergies and increase impact
  3. Develop and leverage a world-class faculty

We have developed key initiatives and tactics under each pillar. There are things on the drawing board that we are still considering.

What’s ahead for the MBA program?

Johnson: The MBA will always represent the core of Owen’s programs. A key part of the strategic plan involves continuing to improve both the MBA and Executive MBA programs.

We are deepening the immersion experiences that have become an Owen hallmark. We’re adding more short, intensive (both for credit and noncredit) courses that students can complete over a few sessions or in a weekend. For the Executive MBA, we’ve reconfigured the coursework, leveraged online components and added an abbreviated week-in-residence. We worked on an expedited timescale and the revamped program was launched in August with curriculum changes and enhanced use of distance technologies. It will allow EMBA students to complete the degree in 20 months instead of 24. These innovations are also aligned with changes we have been implementing to make the program more attractive to women. The approach is working—this fall’s incoming EMBA class was 37 percent women, which is the highest in history.

pillarsTeamwk525x326In both programs, we are introducing innovation in our successful Leadership Development Program. In the MBA Program, we’re increasing the Leadership Development program experiences during the second year, with a focus on better preparing graduates to hit the ground running. For example, since many second-year students already know by mod four where they are headed after graduation, we piloted a new course in the spring called Learning to Thrive, which involves thinking about leadership in the specific context of the job they’re going to. Shaping according to the industry and strategies of the company links back to personal scale.

As highlighted in our mission statement, we are also focused on initiatives to enhance diversity across all of our programs. First we joined Forté—the premier women’s leadership consortium designed to help women launch meaningful careers. Then, we joined Management Leadership for Tomorrow, an acclaimed talent development program for high-potential minority students. We are also investing in recruiting a broader group of international students and ensuring that they succeed at Owen. Students from 33 countries were represented in our incoming classes this year.

A key thing that came out of our research with Huron, and from recruiters and alumni, was the importance of critical thinking. Bruce Barry (the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management) is leading a committee to strengthen critical-thinking skills. The work is still in process, but they’re looking at something that builds on either side of the internship, helping students better prepare for the experience and then drawing on what they learned there. We are excited about it. I don’t know that other schools are talking about this the way we are.

What’s the strategy behind beefing up the portfolio of other programs?

Johnson: There is growing demand for career-launching programs like one-year master’s programs in accounting and finance and for targeted programs for established professionals, like the Master of Management in Health Care. For its first 30 years, Owen was a one-product company—MBA in two flavors. Responding opportunistically to the marketplace, we started developing new programs in the past decade without an overarching strategy. Now we’re being more intentional.

PillarsGen450x300Our Master of Science in Finance has received significant recognition and reached a 100 percent placement rate for the Class of 2015. So it made strategic sense for us to expand that program by 25 percent this year. Likewise, our No. 1-ranked Master of Accountancy programs (Assurance and Valuation) also place 100 percent of graduates each year, so we’re investing to grow those programs. Both programs create synergies by supporting more classes, activity and impact in finance and accounting.

Demand for entry-level marketing talent offered another opportunity to develop a unique professional master program. Marketing is an area where we have significant depth and strength, and it’s our second largest faculty group after finance. A study of competitor offerings and market needs led us to conclude that we should work toward launching a new Master of Marketing degree next fall to leverage our strength in that area and expand Owen’s impact.

How does the Executive Development Institute fit in?

Johnson: We are making a robust—and highly strategic—expansion of the EDI, whose offerings have great upside potential. We created a new executive director position for EDI and attracted Skip Culbertson from Darden to lead it. He has reorganized the group, hiring new staff and launching new initiatives, with the goal of doubling the institute’s business in five years. Traditionally, Vanderbilt’s relationships with companies focused mostly on helping students land jobs. Now we’re taking a more holistic view of building long-term strategic partnerships with top companies such as Nissan. In addition to sending our students to them, we’re encouraging them to send employees to us for EMBAs or EDI courses. We also want to involve companies more in the academic centers and research engines of the school. To lead this effort, we promoted Career Management Center Director Read McNamara to assistant dean of corporate partnerships and elevated Emily Anderson, MBA’99, from director of internal operations and coaching to head the CMC.

How is faculty development a pillar of the plan?

The international stature of the Financial Markets Research Center is a role model for future Vanderbilt Owen centers.
The international stature of the Financial Markets Research Center is a role model for future Vanderbilt Owen centers.

Johnson: The heart of any university is its faculty. We must redouble our investment in their career growth to ensure a world-class program. We’re doing that in several ways. The Financial Markets Research Center, which has become a thought leader in the research world, brings Nobel laureates to Vanderbilt every year. We have expanded the center’s activities with more research seminars and conferences. Enabling our junior faculty to interact with some of the most distinguished professors in the world is valuable. So we want to establish new centers that have both faculty development and student program missions.

For example, we recently established the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures to provide a focus point for research on market-based solutions to poverty and to expand student opportunities in social entrepreneurship. Likewise, we have launched what will become an annual peer conference in which our marketing faculty focus on a particular topic with scholars from other institutions. Over the next five years, we will expand this concept to other areas as well and launch new centers.

Teaching is also an important part of faculty development. Associate Dean Nancy Lea Hyer is leading an effort to help faculty incorporate best practices regarding technology—we’ve recently integrated a lot of new technology into our classrooms.

pillarsTech480x360How does building up a postdoctoral program impact faculty development?

Johnson: Having five to eight postdocs spend one to three years with us after completing their Ph.D.’s helps us build a larger community of scholars here, and that interaction benefits all parties. It also increases the reach and influence of our own faculty, as young scholars carry their experience at Vanderbilt into the wider academic world.

How does Owen’s plan align with Vanderbilt’s strategic direction?

Johnson: No plan is developed in a vacuum. We worked to ensure that elements in our blueprint not only serve Owen’s goals but dovetail with the strategies of the larger university: trans-institutional initiatives, residential experience, health care solutions and educational technology.

The recently launched J.D./M.S.F. degree, for instance, adds to Owen’s portfolio while also advancing Vanderbilt’s focus on creating more trans-institutional initiatives and leveraging the strengths of various schools. Our faculty are also involved in several cross-disciplinary research and teaching projects that have received funding from the university’s Trans-Institutional Program initiative (see Owen News).

This year, we began a new, interdisciplinary research seminar on health care that brought in top speakers and included others from the Vanderbilt community who are dedicated to health care solutions. The research seminar, as well as the annual student-run Vanderbilt Health Care Conference, add to Vanderbilt’s—and Owen’s—role as a national hub for identifying solutions in health care delivery and policy. This emphasis contributes to the health care component of Vanderbilt’s overall academic plan.

Another key goal of Vanderbilt’s academic strategic plan is ensuring that every undergraduate engages in an immersive creative and independent project while at Vanderbilt. Lessons learned from Owen’s immersion experiences serve as models for creating and maximizing immersion experiences for all Vanderbilt students.

How do all these initiatives fit together?

Johnson: It all comes back to our mission statement. We’re viewing everything through the prism of delivering world-class education on a personal scale. That’s our identity and also our competitive advantage. It’s how we plot our course and how we measure success.