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One on One With Deborah F. Crown

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Dr. Deborah F. Crown Has been named Dean-elect and professor of management at the Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business effective July 1, 2016.

By Eric Wright

Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business’ recent honor as the No. 1 master’s program in the country for leadership and organizational development is quite noteworthy. The recognition came from HR.com’s prestigious Leadership Excellence Awards, which has been ranking graduate programs for 33 years. It should come as no surprise that the school has recently attracted one of business and academia’s most formidable leadership experts, Dr. Deborah F. Crown, to serve as Crummer’s Dean-elect, assuming her role on July 1, 2016. Crown has taught, trained and analyzed leadership from the boardrooms of Silicon Valley to the gridiron of University of Alabama football, and most recently served as dean of the College of Business at Hawaii Pacific University.

EW: What drew you to the academic side of the business equation?

DC: I didn’t start as an academic. However, as a working professional responsible for increasing performance and leading others, I wanted to understand what led to higher- and longer-term performance. And the more I uncovered about the subject, the more I wanted to learn. So I entered a Ph.D. program in business to enhance my knowledge in this area, with the intention of returning to the business side of the equation.

One of the things that separated me from others in business research was that I was intrigued by performance in professional sports, and how that could be informative for other business contexts. Today, sport analytics and research enjoys a huge following, but at the time I was getting started, sports was not typically identified as a business industry or as an application field for business research. As I delved into strategy, analytics, and leadership dynamics, I expanded into other business environments, but I continued to use sport as a laboratory for study.

As one who craves knowledge and finding solutions, I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed research. But during that process I found I also loved teaching. Having the opportunity to continue doing both in academia was simply too tempting to pass up. Also, I believe so strongly in the product we produce and the impact it can have on people, business, and communities, that I count it a privilege to play a role in the academic portion of the business supply chain.

EW: When it comes to leadership abilities, how much do you believe can be taught, and how much of it is simply an inherent skill or talent?

DC: I hope you don’t mind if I open with a quote from John F. Kennedy that I believe helps frame my answer…

‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.’

In reality, it isn’t one or the other; it depends on how much the individual is willing and motivated to learn. If you have someone who doesn’t exhibit natural leadership tendencies, but they are passionate about learning to be a leader, their leadership ability may be 80 percent learned and only 20 percent natural. Vice versa, you can have someone with a personality profile that shows leadership potential and could move at an accelerated pace on the path to leadership, but if they aren’t willing to learn how to capitalize on their abilities, they may be less effective over the long run.

EW: In your experience, what do you feel are the primary skills or traits that all leaders have to focus on?

DC: Anyone desiring to be a more effective leader can benefit from conducting a thorough self-assessment. This can help individuals learn things about themselves that enable them to optimize their strengths and work on their weaknesses.

One important skill for a leader is effective communication. This includes written and verbal communication, as well as modeling the behavior one espouses. Although it may sound like a cliché to ‘walk the walk, not just talk the talk’, people typically pay more attention to ‘how’ someone says something versus the content of his or her words. But when we look at leadership effectiveness rather than the perception of leadership, what one does, and its consistency with what one says, is a critical driver.

It’s also important for leaders to be able to articulate a clear vision, along with pathways to that vision. If a leader is able to present a vision but doesn’t help provide feasible pathways on how to achieve that vision, the leader’s effectiveness can be significantly reduced. Additionally, as the business environment becomes more complex and dynamic, a leader’s ability to help an organization navigate the ‘feasible pathways’ toward a vision (versus creating a single plan), can help leaders execute in a way that continuously propels the organization toward the vision.

Leaders also have to be able to promote the development of the people they lead. This includes learning to listen and being cognizant of what is important to others, rather than continuously framing things within one’s own perspective. strong leaders also have a willingness to mentor, coach, and constructively help develop leadership and related skills in others. This includes being honest in identifying and redirecting weaknesses as well as wrongdoings. A leader also has to actively demonstrate that they are serious about succession planning and bringing on people who may be more talented than they are, who complement the environment.

Most importantly, the leader has to be trustworthy and authentic, regardless of how hard that may be at times.

EW: When people are considering an MBA program, which questions should they ask?

DC: First, have you defined your desired outcome and goals? or put more directly, what do you want to learn or accomplish with the MBA? Also, how does getting an MBA fit into your career path? And what is your expected return on investment (ROI)?

Other questions center around issues that extend beyond the courses and curriculum. for example, what are the co-curricular prospects of the program; what are the job, networking and leadership opportunities? Also, what kind of graduate school experience do you want? Do you want to step out and have a full-time experience or will you pursue the master’s while fully engaged in your career; how flexible is your schedule and how comfortable are you with using technology? Anyone interested in an MBA should also realize that staff and faculty, especially here at Crummer, are available to help navigate these decisions.

EW: What attracted you to Crummer?

DC: The learning environment and the school’s steadfast commitment to student learning and student success. The Crummer school has blended cutting-edge curriculum with out-of-class experiences that are usually only available to the most senior of professionals. for instance, Crummer students can participate in the leadership Development Center and receive leadership coaching, participate in board training and then serve on a nonprofit or advisory board. They can also learn from, and collaborate with, leading entrepreneurs, and directly participate in Crummer’s entrepreneurial ecosystem while still a student. The Crummer faculty are also all distinguished in their fields, thought leaders, and thoroughly invested in student success. Each of them would be students’ ‘favorite professor’ at other universities, and at Crummer they all share that position. Another unique element that I haven’t seen elsewhere is that graduates essentially have a lifetime pass to all the elements of the Crummer experience. At any point after graduation, they can come back and hone their skills.

EW: How is an entrepreneurial approach reshaping business and the MBA landscape?

DC: An entrepreneurial mindset and orientation has already had an impact. surveys indicate that MBA alumni found their graduate experience contributed to their competitiveness, proactiveness and innovation. Those all reflect an entrepreneurial orientation; they also have a strong, positive effect on organizational performance.

Another factor is that business graduates are moving toward starting their own businesses at a higher rate and at earlier stages in their career. For example, in one study of business graduates who were self-employed, 45 percent started their own businesses immediately after receiving their MBA, which was twice the rate of graduates prior to 2010. That is a remarkable trend in a short timespan. People younger and younger are thinking in terms of creative business ventures, and an MBA helps them get a jump start and can provide for a less turbulent start-up process. And while several MBA programs provide assistance for the earliest stage entrepreneurs, Crummer is unique in that it also provides support for stage two entrepreneurs through the Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship.

EW: With the pace of change and the evolution of knowledge accelerating so fast, how does a school and a graduate stay current?

DC: Only part of what an MBA student learns is ‘content knowledge,’ i.e. concepts and ideas, which are constantly changing. The other part is ‘procedural knowledge,’ skills, strategies and processes that teach a student how to learn. There can be a shelf life on content knowledge, but there is no expiration date on procedural knowledge.

And consistent with the quote I mentioned earlier, that ‘leadership and learning are indispensable to each other’, Crummer leads by learning. rollins Crummer school stays on the cutting edge of business and business education, and provides an environment where students not only learn about best practices, they also have the opportunity to engage in best practices with seasoned professionals.

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