Georgetown B-school charts a path to MBA rankings glory

July 9, 2013: 2:11 PM ET

Two years on the job, Dean David Thomas has managed to shake up Georgetown's MBA curriculum and has his eye on the top 10 of the MBA rankings.

By Lauren Everitt

georgetown university business school dean david thomas(Poets&Quants) -- David Thomas digs BHAGs - short for big, hairy, audacious goals. So much so that only a few months into his deanship at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business he was already dropping jaws and drawing stares of disbelief.

Thomas left a two-decade-long career at Harvard Business School to accept McDonough's top post on August 1, 2011. On August 30, he delivered the annual State of the School address and laid out the school's mission: To develop and educate global, principled leaders in service to business and society. Most deans are adept at outlining pie-in-the-sky ambitions. But Thomas' timeline was the real shocker. He was ready to overhaul the curriculum, extend the full-time MBA pre-term, and retool the program's global experience -- in a year.

The faculty was shocked. B-schools typically move like tankers -- with a grudging resistance to changing course. Curriculum redesign can take years, not months. But Thomas took it one step further with another BHAG. He wanted each of McDonough's programs to crack the top 10 in at least one of the major rankings -- Businessweek, U.S. News and World Report, and The Financial Times.

"I had reactions that ranged all over the map from people who said, 'You know, I'm glad you dared to say that,' to people who asked me later, 'Are you serious?'" Thomas recalls.

He is. The dean is two years in to his five-year contract with the school. So far, he's managed to shake up Georgetown's MBA curriculum, and he's confident a rankings boost will soon follow. For starters, he tacked two weeks onto the MBA pre-term. Incoming students now start in early August and attend an intensive three-week module from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. They get a crash course in everything from global supply chain management and microeconomics to financial statements and ethics.

During the pre-term, students are also expected to develop a global business and steer it through economic and ethical shocks. They must navigate simulated situations such as the U.S. government flying off the "fiscal cliff" or finding out that one of their manufacturers is using child labor in China. Thomas believes that MBAs should be exposed to global, high-level issues early on. "Students need the experiential piece -- they're not simply going to learn by lectures," he says.

Thomas has also revamped McDonough's global experience. Originally, students would be assigned to teams in January, they'd examine a real-world issue facing an international business, draw up their recommendations, and then deliver their conclusions overseas during a seven to 10-day trip. Then it was over. Thomas wanted to deepen that experience, so the school added the Global Business Conference where, upon returning to campus, students come together to share their findings with classmates. For instance, three teams working on real estate projects might visit China, Dubai, and Brazil. During the conference, they'd compare notes on how each country's culture, government, property rights, and geography affected their businesses.

Under Thomas' watch, the school also developed and introduced a second-year course on principled leadership, which explores what it means to create a business around the idea of shared value, where everyone the business touches sees benefits -- not just shareholders.

Finally, Thomas went to employers to get their feedback. He learned they were impressed with McDonough's education, but they really needed nimble thinkers with sharp problem-solving skills. Real-world issues don't always offer clean solutions ---people and logistics can cloud things up. So the school introduced two required courses -- Leadership & Social Intelligence and Analytical Problem Solving.

Thomas based all of these changes on recommendations from a faculty committee set up to figure out where the school could improve. The group interviewed faculty, students, and recruiters to pinpoint the school's weak spots. Their findings? The experience wasn't transformational enough, and the plan to produce leaders in service wasn't powerful enough -- plus, the MBA orientation was "vanilla," Thomas says. "We were not as good as we could be," he adds. But he wasn't looking for comfortable conclusions. "If we do something that doesn't inconvenience faculty -- that means we've designed our curriculum around our needs," he says.

The committee presented their findings in the fall of 2011. By February 2012, they had designed a new curriculum and presented it to the faculty for a vote. The revised version garnered 88% positive votes -- 12% were abstentions rather than nos. "If you know about faculties, 88% is pretty damn good," Thomas says. The new curriculum went into effect that fall.

Thomas has a knack for upending organizations and bringing the old vanguard on board. He's spent the better part of his career analyzing how organizations develop and where people fit into that equation. He holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in organizational behavior from Yale University and an M.A. in organizational psychology from Columbia University. He's also snagged the Academy of Management's prestigious George R. Terry Award for his book Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America. In other words, Thomas is adept at pointing out areas for improvement, and bringing people together to make change happen.

He traces his proclivity for shaking up the status quo to some of history's most notable change makers -- the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Born in 1956, Thomas was too young to participate in the protests, but he remembers being captivated by the unfolding action. He knew at that point that he wanted to make a difference and considered becoming a lawyer. "Lawyers and preachers were the people of that movement. One group went to jail, and the other group got them out of jail," he says.

Later, he discovered that "lawyers didn't always change the world." He set his sights on education. "When I was 22, my dream job was to be chancellor of the New York City School system," he remembers. He was fascinated by the career of Frank Macchiarola, New York City's schools chancellor from 1978 to 1983 and a legendary educator who pushed for integration and better performance in public schools.

But as a student at Yale, Thomas stumbled across the study of organizational behavior. He thrived on analyzing how organizations evolved and determining how to change them for the better. This was his ticket to effecting change. He also found a mentor -- Leroy Wells, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Yale University.

Right now, Thomas is working on improving Georgetown's MBA rankings. The school lost ground in U.S. News and World Report's 2013 rankings from No. 24 in 2012 to No. 25 in 2013 -- the same spot the school held in 2011. The full-time MBA program is 40th on The Financial Times' 2013 list, and 30th on Businessweek's 2012 scorecard. Poets&Quants ranked the full-time MBA 22nd in 2012.

Georgetown's part-time programs fared better. The evening MBA landed in 11th on U.S. News and World Report's 2013 ranking of part-time programs. Businessweek placed the evening MBA at No. 26 in 2012 and the EMBA program in 24th. Poets&Quants' 2013 ranking put Georgetown's EMBA in the 33rd spot.

Thomas is quick to point out that he still has three more years to boost the school's numbers. And you can bet he's keeping tabs on them.

So what else does Thomas have in store next for Georgetown's B-school? For starters, he's keen on boosting the school's diversity -- a topic he's written about extensively. Currently, 26% of the full-time MBA students are minorities and 33% are female. "Those numbers make us average," he says. "

Under his watch, the school is also dabbling in online education. In June 2013, McDonough announced its first online offering -- the Master of Science in Finance. The program, which is scheduled to start in January 2014, blends an online curriculum with an on-site orientation and an international consulting project. The school is also drafting blueprints for an executive leadership program with an online component. However, Thomas says he is not looking to transfer the full-time MBA online any time soon.

The dean doesn't excuse himself from his own BHAGs. "I would like my legacy to be represented in the fact that no one inside of McDonough doubts that we are a premier school, and every day we wake up and behave that way, not with arrogance but with a focus on being the best." He's still got another three years, and McDonough now knows what he can accomplish in one.

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