Panelists at Foster’s Management for Leadership Tomorrow MBA conference.
Better Together, Better Tomorrow
Thoughts on the future of Foster from the intensive “listening tour” of Dean Frank Hodge
Frank Hodge became the Orin and Janet Smith Dean on July 1, 2019. Since then, he’s been relentlessly on the road and in the air. He’s stood on a pitcher’s mound and in a lot of conference rooms. He’s met with business leaders and alumni, students and peers. Through it all, he’s done a lot of listening and thinking to inform his plan for the Foster School’s future.
Andrew Krueger, Foster’s director of alumni engagement, sat down with Dean Hodge to talk about his first three months on the job.
AK: You’ve been at alumni events in Seattle, San Francisco, Spokane and New York recently. Are you enjoying the experience?
FH: I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and I’ve run into a lot of people while travelling. I almost can’t go through an airport now without someone yelling “coach!” It just happened in New York, in San Francisco, and in Orlando.
It drives home the fact that we have alums everywhere. And having the opportunity, as dean, to reconnect with them has been a real blessing.
I consider myself a positive person. When I’m out of the office talking to people about the Foster School, in most instances I get fed positive energy back. That cycle has been energizing.
What is the role of a business school today?
Capitalism has its critics. And some individual capitalists behave badly. But when undertaken in an ethical way, capitalism is something to celebrate. It allows us an unparalleled standard of living. It drives innovation. And it allows people and organizations like the Gates Foundation to have an incredible impact around the world.
As a business school, we have to think about how we’re contributing to society in positive ways. That comes from not only teaching a skill set but more importantly teaching a mindset. If we’re teaching a mindset that starts with how can I help you?—it makes the community better.
What does being a public school mean to you?
To me, it means that we are an integral part of a bigger picture. We play a key role in the health of Washington State. We’re not a private industry simply providing a service here in the educational space. We’re an integral part of the culture and the community and the state structure that’s here to serve the people of Washington. I’m very proud of the fact that we’re a public institution and we have a mission to educate the future business leaders of the state of Washington.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Foster School?
I think as you get better and better, it’s easy to become complacent and not drive as hard to be better tomorrow than we are today. Measuring ourselves against our prior performance is important to me, so that we can say every time that we’re better than we were before, not just better than our competition.
I think that’s true for any team that performs at a really high level. If you’re winning national championships, your competition is only a part of the process.
MBA applications have been decreasing around the country and a number of b-schools have decided to shutter their full-time MBA programs. What are your thoughts on the issue?
They’ve decided that those programs are not the best use of their money. Businesses do this all the time. They’re saying, “We’re going to sunset a program, and we’re going to go forward with other programs.”
Notice that every school that’s done this hasn’t just announced, “We’re dropping a program.” What they’re doing is allocating resources in an efficient and effective manner that they determine. We need to do the same. We need to be assessing what’s the best use of our limited resources.
I’ve asked people at Foster to kick the tires across programs. Can we do what we’re doing better? Should we be doing something else? When we ask why we are doing it, the answer shouldn’t be, “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”
Are there models for the innovation you want to see at the Foster School?
I like to think we’ve been as innovative as anyone. I want us to become better known. I would also like to be known for our innovation and the significant impact we have on communities. How exactly we message that is something that I’m still working on. Right now, I don’t think that people know enough about the great things we’re doing here at the Foster School.
If you think of UC Berkeley, the first thing that comes to mind is an MBA program that has a focus on sustainability issues. If you think of Wharton, you think of Wall Street. That’s not all they do, but they have a reputation for that.
I don’t think that, as you move beyond the Seattle area, that the Foster School has a strong reputation in any particular area. We need to change that.
This summer you spoke at the California Dean Summit on the campus of UC Berkeley. What did you tell them?
They wanted me to specifically talk about our Hybrid MBA Program. There are lots of places offering online programs. Our approach was all about the learning experience. It wasn’t about offering a program to 10,000 people around the world so we could make a lot of money. It was about optimizing the learning experience through a new way to convey information. We decided a hybrid model—online and in the classroom—was the way to go. That’s when we entered this space.
I don’t want to innovate for innovation’s sake. I want to say, “How are we getting better?” Once we’ve defined that, then I’m pretty happy with being able to shout from the mountaintop.
Dan Poston (former assistant dean of MBA programs) once told me that one of the biggest challenges to making Foster well known is also one of our biggest strengths: Seattle. Once people come here, few of them want to leave. How can we address the issue?
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been traveling so much. When I get a chance to talk at a conference or attend an event, I’m sharing the incredible educational experience Foster is delivering. Because then they talk about what Foster’s doing, and then pretty soon we start getting students from their area or faculty who want to come to the Foster School.
Part of that is creating a diverse inflow, which then naturally will create more of a diverse outflow. The diverse inflow provides diverse thought, and then the diverse outflow allows us to spread the word a little more broadly. As more people look toward the Foster School from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, then we’re naturally going to have people who are going to migrate back to those areas. That’s a cycle that feeds off itself, and part of that is me getting the word out.
Will you talk a little bit about what diversity and inclusion means to you?
I like to use the term “Foster ID Program.” It’s important that “I” come before “D.” The way I view it, diversity is a state that we want to achieve. We get there by being inclusive.
What I want is diversity of thought. Diversity of thought comes from diversity of sexual orientation, ethnicity, political views, socio economic status and more. All of those things provide you with a different insight.
I want people who think and have different experiences to provide input so that we can come up with creative links that have never been made before, so that we can solve problems that haven’t been solved before.
What can we do to bring greater diversity to Foster?
I want people, when they think of the Foster School and when they visit the Foster School, to feel included and welcome. I think that’s the most critical. We need to be true to that. When we put the welcome mat out, we mean, “Welcome, everyone.”
The second piece is, if they don’t know you’re here, then they’re not going to walk through that front door over your welcome mat. That’s the messaging part. That’s where I think being a part of The Consortium, being a part of the Forté Foundation, being part of Management Leadership for Tomorrow that was on campus this past summer, that’s getting the message out.
As you spread the word that the Foster School is a welcoming and inclusive environment that’s a topnotch business school, people will come see for themselves. It’s a long process, no doubt, but something we can achieve.
You recently had the opportunity to participate in the Deloitte Transition Lab, which enables leaders to step back and get clarity on organizational priorities. What did you take away from the experience?
I went in knowing that the overarching theme of “better together, better tomorrow” is important to me—”better together” being the community piece and “better tomorrow” being the innovative, continual improvement piece.
Those parts resonate with me and I can talk about them in different ways, but I didn’t have clear ways to articulate what they meant for the Foster School.
What I found interesting was that we didn’t start with the purpose of using the word “foster” as a verb, but we kept coming back to it. What are we trying to do here? Well, we’re trying to grow something. What’s another word for grow? Foster. Fostering community. Fostering connections. Fostering innovation. Fostering purpose. Those aspects either fall under the community piece—the “better together”—or they’re applicable to the “better tomorrow.”
I added one afterward: Fostering pride. It’s the least developed, but it just hit me that if we’re doing all the other elements well, we should be fostering pride. The students, faculty, and staff should feel really proud, and then when we show alumni and donors and people around the state what we’re doing, they should feel really proud, too.
Is “Better together, better tomorrow” your North Star?
That’s the phrase I’m using to navigate by. I don’t know that when we’re done, that that’s the phrase we, as a community, will decide to use. It’s time that we assess that.
We may decide that some of what we’re doing and saying now is exactly what we should be doing and saying, but I have a hunch that there are going to be some deviations that we’re going to get excited about and really get behind.
In the coming months, I’m going to foster a collaborative process to clarify our purpose, strategy and brand. At the end of this process, I want everyone to feel like they had a voice and believe in the outcome—and want to talk about it.
A North Star needs be a guide that what we all look to, not just me.
The Dean Hodge Listening Tour headed to Asia in November and continues all over the Foster School campus—“Wherever people are comfortable talking honestly about their school,” Hodge says.