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Experiential learning, entrepreneurship and innovation will shape the MBA of the future

Scott Beardsley has been leading the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business for three months now. MBA Channel caught up with him to hear about his first impressions, how he wants to shape the business school and what the future of the MBA looks like.


Picture: Scott Beardsley

After your first months in office, what’s your verdict?

The Jeffersonian excellence that is pursued at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business is of a similar rigor to the one I was familiar with at my alma mater McKinsey & Company. Darden is very global and connected to Washington DC, yet located in a Tuscany-like vineyard region on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world; the only university Unesco World Heritage Site in North America. Now officially three months into my role as dean I can say that I am still blown away by this school. I love its mission to develop and inspire responsible leaders and to advance knowledge. I love its values, which fit very well with my own value system. We have some of the best faculty in the world. Darden is known for providing the world’s best MBA educational experience, and I can’t think of any other place I would rather be.

That’s almost a declaration of love to your new school. You have been very committed to your previous employer McKinsey & Company as well where you have done extensive research into the topic “business in society” and initiated the McKinsey Climate Change Special Initiative. Can we expect similar activities at Darden?

At Darden, we have the Institute for Business in Society, which prepares leaders to positively impact society through business. The institute focuses on topics including social entrepreneurship, business resilience, conscious capitalism, public trust in business and public-private partnerships. For example, in collaboration with Concordia and the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships, the institute honors the world’s best public-private partnerships, which deliver value to communities and to the world. We will continue to accelerate activities in this important field. On climate change, sustainability, and topics such as water Darden faculty have a number of exciting research projects underway in conjunction with other parts of the University of Virginia. One of Darden’s strengths is entrepreneurship and innovation, and these insights are being applied to these societal challenges. I am very supportive of these initiatives.

So will we see a bit of the McKinsey experience at Darden in the future?

McKinsey has a similar governance structure to Darden, which is shared, collaborative and consultative. Knowledge and people are the prime currency of both. Neither faculty, nor senior partners at McKinsey like to be told what to do. At Darden, as I did at McKinsey, I will focus on people and aspire to help everybody think through how they can achieve their full potential, which is something I believe in very much. If you focus on the people, you will get better results than if you just focus on specific, extrinsic goals. The type of student that fits well at Darden is one that seeks to make the world a better place, and has the ambition and perseverance to do so.

Your predecessor Bob Bruner once told us that he regularly met with CEOs, chief marketing officers, chief HR officers, and chief technology officers to gain a clearer idea of changing needs and expectations and to avoid sitting in a pure academic ivory tower. What are your plans in this regard?

I have literally met hundreds of executives since I have started at Darden. Just this week I had meetings with several Fortune 500 Presidents and CEOs in addition to private equity executives. Darden has an incredible dynamic global network; as a French citizen who has lived the past 24 years in Brussels in Belgium, this is important to me personally. I will continue to do this, as it is very important to stay close to stakeholders and to the world of business practice. Throughout my career, I have worked extensively in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States and have had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading organizations. I think it’s very important for business school leaders to be out in the world staying close to the world of practice and energizing connections.

How do you plan to shape Darden in the coming two years and influence the MBA market?

I am more interested in shaping thought leadership and the lives and destinies of Darden students than I am in shaping MBA industry structure. We aspire to be very global, and to focus on students and companies. Now in its 60th year, Darden is an established institution that is among the best in the world. That being said, I believe Darden can lead the way for the MBA market by thinking big and continually asking, “what can we do better in each area?” It’s sort of like a tiebreaker in a tennis match. What is the difference between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and the 20 tennis players behind them? They work hard to improve a lot of little things. The great ones succeed by carrying out a process of continuous improvement to build on their strengths. For instance, we are experimenting with a variety of blended synchronous and asynchronous technology enabled learning offerings that leverage our faculty excellence, while also developing holistic leaders by emphasizing mindfulness and wellness in our students. Faculty are investing in thought leadership and research to address the challenges facing both business and society.

What does the future of the MBA degree look like in your opinion?

The degree of the future will respond to increased interest in experiential learning, an emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, the surge in technology as a platform for learning and a global focus. Equally there will also be a lot of interesting innovation in non-degree offerings by top MBA programmes that will complement the familiar executive and residential MBA offerings.

And at Darden…

At Darden, we will remain true to our mission to improve the world by developing and inspiring responsible leaders and by advancing knowledge. We will also continue to focus on delivering the most dynamic educational environment which was named the best in the world by the The Economist for the fifth consecutive year. Our professors don’t lecture; they use the case method and simulations to immerse students in real-life business situations. Our four semester format with a summer work experience prepares students as skilled decision-makers, who are responsible, entrepreneurial and global leaders — leaders that the world needs.

Scott C. Beardsley
is the new dean at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Beardsley arrived at the Darden School after 26 years at leading global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He spent the last 24 years in Belgium before moving to the US this year. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Tufts University, an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and an executive doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

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