The Dean and CEO Roles: A Hands-On Comparison

in Dean Freeman, School
July 27th, 2011


With many years under my belt as a CEO and almost one year as Dean of a business school, I am amazed by the many similarities between the roles.

Let’s start with the position of Dean.  The Dean is a steward of students and faculty.  It is a senior leadership role dedicated primarily to serving the students, providing them the very best possible learning experience through a highly engaged and committed faculty and staff.  The Dean supports the faculty in their research, teaching and service, and the staff in their efforts to run the school effectively and efficiently.  The Dean raises the capital required to fund the school’s strategy.  Above all, the Dean supports the students, who are investing in every way to get an education so they may ultimately become responsible and successful global citizens.

“In either position, you are always on, 24/7, with time your scarcest resource.”

The CEO’s role is remarkably similar.  CEOs continuously engage with their customers, employees, suppliers and communities.  In the same way Deans constantly represent their school with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends.  CEOS and Deans are responsible for providing organizational leadership in a highly competitive global environment (I now appreciate first-hand how academia is every bit as competitive and complex as the corporate world!), from setting strategic direction with clear initiatives, goals, and expected outcomes; to gaining alignment and support of the strategy; to raising financial resources and sustaining research and development efforts; to overseeing efficient and effective day- to-day operations; to measuring results. In either position you are always on, 24/7, with time the most precious resource.

Are there any significant differences of note?  Yes.

“The overarching business of business schools is to…teach students the essential skills to become responsible global leaders. This is a much higher calling than at most businesses.”

The overarching business of business schools is to create knowledge through cutting-edge research and to teach students the essential skills to become responsible global leaders, all while operating in an appropriate and effective way fiscally. This is a much higher calling than at most business enterprises, who are seeking to provide a financial return for their investors. As a result the metrics are very different. Research productivity and teaching outcomes — instead of cash flow, revenue growth, and earnings — are the core measures.

What are the implications for Deans? We must raise our game, inspire knowledge creation and dissemination, and, at the same time, run our “business” very well. This challenge exists for all Deans, ranging from schools of business, to engineering, arts and sciences, or fine arts.

In academia, shared governance has evolved over centuries between the administration and faculty. Although this could be considered an impediment to change, industry and academe are alike in that transformation within industry is very difficult to achieve as well, even in the best of circumstances. Like a CEO of a company, a Dean must set the organization’s vision and priorities, and deliberately earn support from the constituents, most importantly the faculty. In both settings, the collective team needs to come along with you for progress to be made.

“As in business, the collective team needs to come along with you for progress to be made. “

The popular press often oversimplifies how easy it is for a CEO to wake up one morning, go to work, and say, “We’re doing X. Get on board and let’s go.”  Whether we are in academia or leading a company, getting results is hard. We need our colleagues to come along with us. If significant change is required, we must have a compelling vision and reasons to support the transformation. Then we must identify the first steps toward making progress and take action.

The common bond between the role of Dean and CEO is that we are leaders… We must listen, learn, and teach, and focus on creating lasting value in our respective environments