Why Georgetown McDonough Has A Dean Of Innovation

In a Georgetown McDonough MBA classroom. Courtesy photo

Did you ever think you’d be a dean at a business school one day?

Never. I never did. I always thought I’d go to the real world and make real money. And, besides, I love teaching, I love my research, I liked consulting with companies, and I like my life and love my family. I was forced into this job. But, I must say this, I’ve always been very creative and innovative, so I never took a job as it was. I always tried to expand the boundaries of it and make it work better for the students.

I was always the good student because I was smart, but did I learn the most just because I was smart? Or did I learn the most when I was challenged in new directions and hit multiple dimensions of who I was in my personality.

And, so, executive education wasn’t doing too well and the former dean, George Daly said, you know, Paul, I’ve been asking you to do this for a few years. And I said, George, I’ve done so much for you, what are you talking about? And, he said, no, no, you have to do this. Just try it for one year. And I said, OK, I’ll do it for just one year. And, guess what? I ended up loving it. I had to learn a bit of stuff, but we did very well the first year and moving onward.

And I learned a lot along the way. But, then I realized being the dean of executive education allowed me to unleash a facet of myself that I didn’t know existed to the extent it was. That you can be creative and innovative and make it work for you and the institution through structures and systems and processes and developing a unique culture. And that’s a challenge — developing an innovative culture in an older university, where you don’t have control over incentives and everything else.

I realized I really loved that challenge and you could make a big difference. And now, nearly seven years later, here I am. And then the previous dean said, you know, Paul, you’re doing innovation anyway, so why not just acknowledge this role and make it formalized. So, now we have teams working on embedding Jesuit values into our people and programs and activities and this could be one of our most competitive advantages in the long term. Because, it’s a wonderful glue that helps us stick together and work through difficult situations and believe in the future and our people and students.

We’re working on two technology projects. We’re working on a more cultural thing of how can we really make this culture of collaboration truly significant. We working on engaging D.C. to our programs even more deeply than before. I have very little doubt that within five years, we will be very different. We will have some failures, but even more successes.

What, specifically, are some of the things your office is working on and what can we expect to see in the next three to five years?

My philosophy is not to expect anything from my office and programs. But, our duty is to allow other people across the school and the university to succeed. And so, we bring in the organization, the energy, the focus. I have a little research and development unit and they are all go-getters. And they all don’t like to hear no. But, yet, they are very good at working with people. I’m not in charge of the full-time MBA program, but my duty is to help the full-time MBA program fully achieve its creativity and potential by working with them and for them.

So, we’re looking for instance, at how we can use technology more effectively in the full-time MBA program in their regular classes. But, we’re also looking at the evening program. Where can it go next? How can we give the students more flexibility than they already have? Do they have to come in twice a week? Can they not come in at all? Can classes be either in-person or online or some combination thereof? And how do we do it in a way that actually enhances that sense of community and their ability to get to know each other and build off each other? Can artificial intelligence help us look at standard courses that everyone does — like statistics and microeconomics and accounting — so that we can highly personalize each of their learning careers on all this basic stuff?

So, we’re looking at wonderful things. And some will work, some will not work, and some will work in ways we never imagined. But, we won’t fail for lack of trying. I can guarantee that.

What are you first thinking about when you wake up in the morning?

I don’t sleep enough — that’s my problem — because my mind is always moving. I’m a strange combination of a strategic planner and a very creative person. I love thinking ahead. What I’ve done for a lot of organizations in the past is help them think into the future and help them shape not just their product portfolio, but their organization, their strategy and finances to help them move in that direction. People think the challenges of looking after your financials is a financial issues, but no, it’s an organizational and operational issues. Both your revenues and costs are driven by where you compete and how you compete. So, the strategic angle really is great.

And, in a way, I’m thrilled with how higher education is changing. There are challenges and some people are going to win because of those challenges. And we fully intend to be those people.

And then I have a creative side to me — my whole family is creative. I’m very good at thinking up a bunch of options and looking at which ones make sense and then choosing the options and helping drive them forward. That’s what helps me keep going through my life, actually.

I’m an electrical engineer, can you imagine? But that’s because I was good at math and I found it easy. But then I soon discovered I was interested in control systems because that was the way the world was moving. And, in some ways, I still do the same thing, but in a different setting and context.

Any final thoughts?

I really think that the academic experience at Georgetown is special. I’ve taught at other schools and have done guest lectures at other schools and the idea of creating an almost magical classroom experience is not as prevalent elsewhere as it is at Georgetown. It’s almost an expectation that you come out of class each time feeling thrilled — both the students and the teachers. Almost every single class I teach, I don’t encourage them to do this, but there are applause at the end. And it’s not because of me. It’s because that’s what the atmosphere is at Georgetown.

Everyone loves learning. We just have to make it a little more lovable and get a little away from the habits that have taken away from real learning. And as long as we focus on maximizing that learning and maximizing that excitement that comes from learning and maximizing the opportunity for people to act on what they know, so it’s a part of them, I think there is no stopping higher education from being incredibly important for hundreds of years to come, regardless of what happens with technology or industry.


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