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'A force for the good'

March 9, 2012


Sri Zaheer.

A conversation with Sri Zaheer

By Bill Magdalene

On March 9, 2012, Sri Zaheer becomes dean of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. A Carlson faculty member since 1991, she's been serving as interim dean since last June. Zaheer took a few minutes from a hectic schedule to talk about the school, the idea of business, social media, and her "most brutally honest sounding board."

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When you started out at Carlson twenty-one years ago, did you ever imagine you might one day lead the school?
Absolutely not. We came here as assistant professors straight out of a graduate program at MIT. [Note: Sri Zaheer's husband, Aks Zaheer, is a professor in Carlson's strategic management and organization department.] At that time we thought we'd be here for three years. But the cities have a way of holding you here. And I just found an amazing group of faculty, people who were excited about their work, who were such an inspiration for our own work. That just made it fun to be here. And the students were amazing. It was fun to be in the classroom, fun to engage with the business community here.

What's your biggest challenge as dean, right now?
We have a gem of a school, but we have to get the world to recognize it for what it is. We need to bring the world to Carlson. It's an amazing place in terms of the ideas we're generating, the students we're training, the community that exists here. There's such exciting work going on in areas like sustainability, like social media. We're doing things that are going to shape the future of business.

If you were talking to a group of school children who wanted to change the world one day, what would you tell them about a career in business?
Business is one of the greatest creators of economic opportunity, of development, of just enabling people to fulfill their goals in life. And it needs to regain its position as a force for the good. Because of late there's been quite a lot of negative press about business.

A lot of people worry about corporations ruling the world. But [business] is really not about that at all. It's really about creating the new ideas of the future. It's about enabling consumers and employees and people in general to both improve their own quality of life and contribute to improving the quality of life of others.

This is something I care deeply about. We have to figure out: How do we create the next generation of principled and innovative leaders who can once again establish the idea of business as a force for the good?

How was that idea of business lost?
It's a range of things. Just as in the general population, there are people in business who have not behaved as ethically as they should have. I'd be the last person to say that everyone in business is a saint. They're not. The other thing, I think, is that in the process of pursuing shareholder wealth, we have to recognize some basic principles.

Wealth creation is one of the greatest objectives out there. I've nothing against it. But it cannot be done at the expense of weaker groups. It has to be done in a way that is thoughtful and mindful of all of the stakeholders involved—in the community and in the firm. This is a piece that we've lost in the process.

Do you have a sense of the steps needed for business to be seen again as a force for the good?
Absolutely. Particularly in the undergraduate program, we have the opportunity to instill a service orientation: that as you're doing business, that as you are creating wealth that'll help lift a lot of boats in the future, you also have to be aware of and dedicated to principled leadership and to engaging the world in a way that is respectful of—and doesn't trample on—the needs of others.

What's one strength of Carlson you'd like to develop?
The experiential piece. Because we have the ability to help shape the dreams of our students. We can take someone who has been a nurse, a musician, a personal trainer, people with very diverse backgrounds, and through the process of going through our enterprises—we have four enterprises, which are hands-on learning experiences that are intensely experiential and go on for about fifteen months—we can take them and make them ready to go into the world of work as something else.

If a nurse wants to be a finance person, we have the ability to train them in this period. They're working on real projects, which are being paid for by companies. They get to the point where they can be as good as someone who's already been in that industry earlier. They can interview just as well. They can get placed in those kinds of firms.

That is why our placement record is phenomenal. We're very good for career changers. We're also good for career accelerators, in our part-time M.B.A. program. But for those who want a second chance at doing something quite different from what they've been doing before, I would challenge you to find a better M.B.A. program to do that.

How does Carlson's focus on international business connect to the concerns of small businesses throughout Minnesota?
The growth of the world economy is consistently going to be significant overseas. So even the small businesses in Minnesota—and many of them are already very good at this—a lot of their growth is coming from exports and from their overseas engagement.

We have the Carlson Global Institute and, particularly, the Center for International Business Education and Research. It has been reaching out to the Minnesota Trade Office and working with small businesses within Minnesota to help them with education in international business, to help them with this whole process of—How does a small Minnesota company become a major exporter to China?

These are the kinds of relationships we have to build with our local community, and we need to support those initiatives.

How engaged are you personally in social media?
I'm pretty engaged in social media. My early years were spent in systems analysis. I was a programmer. I've always been interested in computers and software and thought of myself as a little ahead of the curve. But now I've fallen behind because there's so much change all the time.

I really enjoy social media. It's a phenomenal way to connect with people. I have a Facebook page and finally figured out how to manage it so I can run both my personal conversations with my cousins as well as my professional conversations out of the same page. That's been a huge discovery for me. I'm not tweeting yet.

How does social media influence your leadership style?
I do think that I'll be crowdsourcing ideas about the Carlson School. One of the things I plan to do right away is reach out to all of our stakeholders—our alumni, our current students, our benefactors, faculty, staff—and ask them: What does the school mean to them? What are their favorite memories of the school? Where do they want us to go in the future?

Crowdsourcing these ideas will help me shape my vision for the school. I want to do it very quickly. We don't have a lot of time. I have the advantage of being able to hit the ground running, knowing the school already. The disadvantage is that I don't have the usual three months that somebody [from the outside] would have had to settle in and think about what do they want to do in the first hundred days.

I have to decide what I want to do in the first hundred days in about three days! (Laughs.) But I really want to be able to get out and try and reach as many people as I can—both through social media and also through as much face-to-face interaction as I can manage over the coming weeks.

What's it like having your husband as a colleague at Carlson?
A blessing and a curse! (Laughs.) The blessing bit is that, in some ways, we each understand exactly what the other person does and we're there as an absolutely brutally honest sounding board. I could not have been as productive in my research without his inputs. He can tell me things that even my closest coauthors will not tell me. He will tell me when something I've said is crap.

The curse part is, I think, that we never get away from work. It's very hard to have a life that's separate from work. We try. We've got our ways to cope with that.

Tags: Carlson School of Management

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