Darden’s New Dean: Getting To Know Scott Beardsley

Scott C. Beardsley headshot

Scott C. Beardsley, ninth dean of the Darden School of Business

Scott C. Beardsley, the new dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, combines the global business acumen of a decorated consulting career with a lifelong love of education that comes from growing up in a family of educators.

Beardsley, appointed dean designate in January, officially assumed the role Aug. 1, along with the Charles C. Abbott Professorship in Business Administration traditionally held by the dean. He succeeded Robert F. Bruner, who completed a decade-long tenure and will take a year’s sabbatical before returning to the faculty.

Beardsley comes to Darden after 26 years with the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., where he most recently was a senior partner leading learning and leadership development for all of the firm’s consultants. Until his recent move to Charlottesville, he was based in the firm’s Brussels office.  

UVA Today caught up with Beardsley as classes began, to discuss his goals for his deanship and the Darden School.

Q. The deanship brought two major transitions for you: from the private sector to higher education, and from your home in Belgium to a new one in the U.S. How has the transition to Charlottesville been so far?

A. The transition has been terrific and it is wonderful to be back in my home country. Charlottesville is a nice community with great people – who say “hello” walking down the street – and restaurants and scenery. It has made my wife Claire, our three boys and me feel at home. My brother and his family just moved here as well, so it has also been nice to reunite with them after 34 years of living in different places.

The transition from the private sector to higher education feels pretty seamless. In many ways, the culture that I come from in the private sector was one of shared governance with participative decision-making processes similar to what we have here at Darden. The missions of the organizations are different, but both are knowledge-driven, with a lot of highly educated people and an environment of shared governance.

Perhaps the biggest transition has been the cultural one of living in the U.S. after living in Belgium for 24 years, but I am finding the transition to be smooth and what I would have hoped.

Q. You are also a new resident of the Lawn. What are you looking forward to about that community?

A. I am enjoying getting to know my fellow “Lawnies” – both the students and the other faculty and deans who are living on the Lawn. It is a wonderful group of people and a special place. We have had our first wave of events, and it is a lot of fun. We have had initiation into a number of traditions that take place on the Lawn, such as dozens of streakers racing to Homer or a cappella groups singing Queen at 2:15 a.m. – very well, too – over the last few days.

My family is very honored to live there and we are looking forward to upholding the original intent, which is to encourage faculty and student interactions in the pursuit of knowledge. In August, we hosted the first-year class of Global MBA for Executives students for a reception in the garden. We are also organizing a seminar room downstairs that we hope can be used for flash seminars.

My goal is for every student at Darden and the faculty and administration to have a chance to come over, have a look at the pavilion and participate. When I begin teaching in spring 2016, I hope to have my own seminars there.

Q. What are some key strategies that you will carry over from your time at McKinsey as you lead the Darden School?

A. Personally, I will try and manage my energy as much as I manage my time. I have discovered over my career that it is incredibly important to ensure that busy people manage the sources of their energy – whether physical, emotional, spiritual or intellectual. You need to do things that give you the energy you need for all of the other things that you do. For me, this means that I will continue to pursue some of my passions – tennis or music or spending time with my family.

Professionally, at McKinsey I learned to be very fact-based – to develop hypotheses, check alternative hypotheses and consider what will happen if the hypothesis is not true or if you do nothing. I will encourage people to speak up and to voice any dissenting opinions.

Oftentimes, the best ideas come from unexpected places. For example, the people who are closest to the situation and work on it day-to-day may have the best solution. I want to hear them. I aspire for Darden to be a place where anybody feels that they can speak up to suggest improvement, no matter where they are in the organization.

I aspire to help everybody think through how they can achieve their full potential, which is something that I believe in very much and focused on at McKinsey. If you focus on the people, you will get better results than if you just focus on specific, extrinsic goals. You’ve got to help people focus on the noble purpose of what they’re doing.

Q. What are some of your short-term goals for the first year of your deanship?

A. My main goals are to listen to the diverse group of stakeholders we have and get their advice and counsel. I want to learn from those who have gone before me and have far more perspective on the situation, so I will go on a listening tour.

My second goal is to jointly craft with Darden stakeholders the major pillars of our strategy that will become the front end of our advancement campaign and form the basis of where we will put our energy in the coming five years. We’ll work to set the long-term direction and identify some of the sub-issues.

My third priority is to really understand the team that I have, see what they can do and solidify the team that will take Darden to the next level. There is a lot of good talent at Darden and I want to make sure I understand how to make the most out of that.

My fourth goal is to be somewhat externally present, both at U.Va. and globally. I would like to understand how Darden could work better with the rest of the University. I would also like to connect with external parties: to connect with key opinion leaders, to listen to corporations and to listen to aspiring students and understand how they view this school. Through these connections, we will come up with a good fact base on which we can build and make decisions going forward.

Q. In the long term, what do you see as some of the key challenges in business education? How can Darden lead the way in addressing those challenges?

A. A number of the challenges in business education mirror those in higher education overall. Rising costs (in the United States in particular) are creating an arms race among aspiring top institutions, leading to the need for ever-increasing amounts of fundraising, better infrastructure, more scholarships, higher salaries and expense for faculty excellence and endowing research, and – last, but certainly not least – technological innovation, which is changing the business model of higher education.

Darden already has an incredible platform from which to build. There are many ways in which Darden has demonstrated that it is world-class, such as the faculty’s ability to teach the best educational experience in the classroom, the truly collaborative community and the beautiful Grounds that we have. Several professors have had remarkably popular MOOC classes on Coursera. Since 2013, more than 1.1 million learners from around the world have enrolled in MOOCs created by Darden faculty.

That being said, I believe Darden can lead the way by thinking big and continually asking, “What can we do better in each area?” If each person and area of Darden finds a way to do something just 10 or 15 percent better, we will be able to move to the next level. I think we need a process of continuous improvement to build on our strengths. To move forward, we need to articulate and then pursue a very ambitious strategy.

Q. What do you hope are the defining characteristics of your deanship?

A. My aspiration in everything I do is to leave something behind better than the way I inherited it. I hope that over time, we will be able to say that we were able to take Darden to the next level and that we will be able to say that about any given set of individuals – whether they be our students, our faculty or our administration. I want the people of Darden to feel that they made a difference in the world. I want them to feel that they were able to fulfill the school’s mission and to make a difference in changing the world in the way that they wanted to.

I hope my defining characteristic is that I help people discover a noble purpose they have in life, which will make Darden then the preeminent institution in the world for business education.

Q. Tell me about your new research and book plans.

A. I recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with my doctorate in higher education management. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on non-traditional liberal arts college presidents who have not followed typical higher education career tracks. It was a fascinating piece of research that examined how a non-traditional president is defined; which types of schools, universities and colleges hire a non-traditional president; and the perceptions of non-traditional presidents as seen by the leading headhunters in this country.

I also looked at the experiences of those non-traditional candidates who have eventually made it to the presidency. What did they learn? What were the things that worked? What were the things they found difficult?

I found the research to be very pertinent to preparing for my role as Darden’s dean. Whether you are leading a small liberal arts college or leading a business school, there are many parallels. You need to get to know the faculty, raise funds and innovate with technology – rapidly changing technology – in an atmosphere of shared governance.

I am now in the process of hopefully turning that research into a book that will be of use to others who might consider making a career transition from another profession into the world of higher education.

Q. Is there anything else our readers should know about you?

A. I don’t presume they want to know anything about me, but if they do, I guess I would say that I am somebody who has diverse interests and that I am interested in getting to know them. I am a French citizen, as well as an American. We speak French at home.

I believe that for Darden to be a preeminent institution, we need to represent the global diversity that is on this earth. I have a huge curiosity to know people from all walks of life, from all corners of the world and from all different types of interests. So I guess readers should know that I am a very global and curious person who likes to get to know people from all parts of the world.