Leaders allow others to attain their potential: Scott Beardsley

Scott Breardsly, the dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, shares his insights into what makes a good leader


Scott Beardsley, dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Scott Beardsley, dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

After a 26-year career with global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Scott Beardsley joined as the ninth dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 2015. He moved not only jobs but also countries. From Brussels, the heart of Europe, to Charlottesville, into one of the 10 Pavilions on the Lawn, the grassy centre of the University of Virginia. Yet he doesn’t feel like a fish out of water. That’s Beardsley for you. On a recent visit to India, he spoke on a number of issues in an interview. Edited excerpts:

What made you switch from McKinsey to the world of academia?

I come from a family of educators. My parents, siblings, grandparents were all in teaching and education. That’s one reason. At the end of my career at McKinsey, I had two global roles. One, was on the board of directors of McKinsey and the other was the role related to McKinsey University, which was to do with learning, leadership and development of McKinsey employees worldwide.

At the end of my career, I realized that what gave meaning to my life was helping people realize their full potential and that I wanted to do it full-time. As a senior partner in McKinsey, I had very strong economic responsibilities and I found they were at odds with my desire to focus on a full-time university-type of job—teaching, being part of the faculty—so I decided that I would leave McKinsey at my peak and pursue a second chapter in my life, focused on a mission I deeply believed in, and that is higher education.

What made you choose Darden?

Well, you never know where life will bring you, but I always knew that I would like to work for a global outstanding institution, after working all over the world with McKinsey. And as it turned out Darden was looking for a dean. The previous dean was an outstanding man and he wanted to step down so the opportunity was available and Darden is one of the top business schools in the world so it was quite serendipitous that I was looking to being the dean of a top university and Darden happened to be looking and one thing led to another and I ended up getting the job.

You’ve completed over a year at Darden. Tell us how the last one year has been?

I started on 1 August 2015 and moved my family from Belgium to the US a week before and it has exceeded my expectations. It’s been great. The University of Virginia is an amazing place. I like to tell the story that in India you have the Taj Mahal and many beautiful places.

In the US, we have three Unesco world heritage centres: the Statue of Liberty, the Independence Hall and the campus of the University of Virginia that was built by Thomas Jefferson in the last 15 years of his life. He considered the founding of the university to be one of his greatest achievements and what he called “the hobby of my old age.” He designed each building himself and I get to live in a Unesco heritage centre.

So it’s a museum and it’s an amazing place because it is a place where the educational experience is top priority. We have been rated the best business education experience in the world five years in a row by The Economist magazine and that’s because our professors love teaching and helping students achieve their full potential and that ties in with what I believe, in that if you give people a great education and teach them to be responsible then they can go on and change the world and make the world a better place and that’s exactly what I have found in Darden.

Also, Charlottesville (where I live), is on the outskirts of Washington DC and it has been voted as the happiest place to live in the United States. It is also the fastest growing venture capital city. It has a vibrant private equity scene and it’s just outside the nation’s capital, so on that dimension too it has turned out to be a great choice.

What have been the learnings from McKinsey that you have been able to bring to Darden?

McKinsey is a unified global partnership with 1,500 partners where each one of them own McKinsey and that environment is like a school and faculty members where all the partners are elected by a process, they are highly intelligent, have different degrees and they don’t like to be told what to do. Moreover, decisions are made through a participative decision-making process.

That collaborative leadership model works well in McKinsey and also works very well in higher education. McKinsey is extremely global and understands global business and students all want to work in global business and that’s where I come from so I understand what students exactly want. Every year at McKinsey, I would work with students who had just come out of business school—super talented, out of business schools like Darden—and I know what students are looking for.

So that fits in very well. I also did a lot of knowledge research at McKinsey, so my intellectual curiosity also fits in very well in the business school environment. And my mission is to create the next generation of business leaders who make the world a better place.

What, in your opinion, are the traits of a good leader?

Leadership is contextual in terms of what you need to do. For instance, if you are leading in a small town that’s still important but it may be different from if you are leading a multinational. Yet I believe that in all environments, leadership starts with people and your ability to lead other people, and to get the best out of them.

I believe that great leaders are able to allow other people to reach their full potential, so a lot of my focus is on trying to ensure that people are motivated by the higher purpose of what they are doing. Great leaders also align people with their mission so they articulate a vision and create aspirations. Of course, there are many forms of leadership and part of leadership is also managerial, the ability to get things done.

Who would you call a good leader today?

Well, leaders that I admire are Nelson Mandela who rose above human passions, was very forgiving so he was able to transcend controversy and to give back to the world. His humanity was unbelievable. Then I admire the former MD of McKinsey Ron Daniel—he’s still active in McKinsey even though he is well into his 80s. He is a true servant leader—he doesn’t need to work but he helps other people, he’s so generous with his time and has incredible character and quality.

Any advice for students or future leaders?

Students need to believe in themselves and think long-term. If you are in your 20s, too often people think only of the next job but they need to think with a long-term horizon. The legal retirement age in Australia is 70 today and with life expectancy rising, you may work till 75 or 80 years. So they need to think of their career in decades and what tool kit they would need and invest in that now.

For example, how to work on a team, how to work in a collaborative way, how to communicate and think critically. So you need not only functional skills like strategy or accounting but soft skills. I have three boys and I tell them it is rare for someone to be trustworthy and to have honour—there are many, many people who are smart, who are experts on Excel spreadsheets, know many languages and can run equations but the number of people you can trust with your money and with your inner secrets are rare.

So if you are the kind of leader who has integrity and trust and respect and you combine them with those other skills then you are going to go far. That’s exactly what we teach at Darden.

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