GBL Farewell Interview with Dean Erika H. James

Since 2014, Erika H. James has served as the John H. Harland Dean of the Goizueta Business School; effective July 1, 2020, Dean James will become the Dean of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Before her departure, Dean James graciously answered some of the business librarians’ questions about her time and legacy at Goizueta.

How has your research on crisis management prepared you to be a leader during the COVID-19 pandemic?

First, it’s important to distinguish between the more familiar term “crisis management” or “crisis communication” and what I have been studying over the years which is “crisis leadership.” There is a hierarchy of sorts, where crisis communication is one facet of crisis management. We all have come to learn how critical it is to communicate effectively and frequently in times of crisis.  But, communication is not the sum total of crisis handling, or what we understand to be crisis management. Crisis management includes effective communication but it also involves a host of non-communication behaviors that allow an organization to address the immediate or acute phase of the crisis. What I have studied is broader than crisis communication and even broader than crisis management. To me, crisis leadership is both a mindset and set of behaviors for effectively leading an organization before, during and after a crisis occurs. Crisis leadership is about anticipating the needs of an organization and its stakeholders. It is about building and sustaining positive and productive relationships with employees, vendors, customers/clients, shareholders, and others so that you do not find yourself needing to build those relationships at the moment a crisis hits. Crisis leadership is about culling all of the resources necessary to counter the crisis when one does hit. And, crisis leadership is about reflecting and learning from what the organization experienced in the crisis as a way to inform future decisions that might mitigate or prevent future events from occurring. Finally, crisis leadership is about the actions one takes to actually realize the proverbial opportunity from crises. This, of course, can only happen if the leadership of the organization has taken the time to reflect and learn.

At Goizueta, I tried to operate as a crisis leader from the beginning. This meant that it was vitally important to me to build positive and productive relationships with faculty and staff colleagues, with our alumni, with our students and with a host of key partners. I also worked to anticipate. I was constantly asking questions about the future of education and the future of business education, in particular. I wanted to bring in a futurist to talk with our faculty and key staff leaders in the school. People didn’t seem quite ready for that, but that didn’t stop me from learning as much as I could from colleagues elsewhere to try to develop a sense of what would be happening in the realm of education and the various influences that would shape it 5, 10, 20 years from now. One of the things I focused on very early in my tenure as dean was the need to elevate the teaching experience.  Goizueta has phenomenal teachers, but I have believed for a while that the traditional residential format would become less valuable as every year students were coming to us from high schools, colleges or workplaces that were leveraging technology and other innovative practices. Students who were coming to business schools would be expecting something similar to what they had experienced in their previous schools or work environments. That meant that we needed to become much more innovative in how we delivered education. Yes, the residential in-classroom experience would continue to be important, but I felt we needed to supplement that with other platforms and newer educational delivery approaches. We were on the verge of this work when the pandemic hit, requiring us to move on-line quickly. Simply moving on-line was not the innovation I had been looking for, but it had the effect of motivating faculty to experiment with technology in new ways, something that many had been reluctant to do before being forced to do so by the pandemic. So, that anticipatory focus and thinking about the shifts in education has set Goizueta Business School up to be able to take advantage of the move to online delivery in new and even more progressive ways because I had been able to secure funding for innovative teaching pedagogies before the crisis hit and we had already started this work.

How have you refined your leadership knowledge and skills during your time at Goizueta and what key insights from your time here will you take and apply as the new Dean at Wharton?

I believe that leadership is an evolution and I have certainly evolved as a leader during my time as Dean of Goizueta Business School. My husband, whom I have always considered to be my personal leadership mentor, shared with me a saying he used as an executive with ExxonMobil – “a leader works with the people and lets the people work with the work.” The longer I was in my leadership role at GBS, the more I found this to be an important aspect of leadership. Ultimately, leadership is about a willingness to demonstrate trust in your people. I look for trustworthiness (and strive to demonstrate trustworthiness myself) in three ways: competence, communication and follow-through. When I experience those forms of trust in people, it becomes easy to focus my efforts, as a leader, on creating an environment that will allow others to thrive and do the work that they have been charged with doing. I have come to understand that only when everyone is given the freedom and trust to operate as their best self, will the school ultimately perform at the highest levels. It has been a true joy to watch people grow, evolve, and feel pride in their work and in the school. When I start at Wharton this summer, to some extent, I will be starting over as I learn my new team and work to build mutual trust with my new colleagues. Like Goizueta, Wharton is already a high performing organization. However, I do think there is an opportunity to make a positive difference at the margins.

What would you like your legacy to be for your tenure at GBS?

As a psychologist, people and relationships matter to me. When I started as dean, the school was coming out of the damage created by 2008-9 financial crisis. For a sustained period of time the school had to take austere measures to weather the storm. Those kinds of things can adversely affect how people feel about an organization and their sense of psychological commitment to it. So, it was important to me that we work on creating a positive work culture, one where people felt committed to the school and to each other. Engagement was important because I wanted the faculty and staff to really feel like Goizueta was their home away from home and that the people with whom they worked was like a second family. I wanted us to be aligned in wanting this school to succeed and we all had to be rowing in the same direction for that to happen. I set out three core principles that would drive the school: Collaboration, Influence, and Resources. By collaboration, I felt like we had to work together and that meant breaking down the silos between faculty and staff, between academic areas and even between the business school and the rest of Emory University. For influence, I wanted the school to focus on garnering influence both in the academic communities through our faculty scholarship, and in the corporate communities through engagements with our faculty, students and alumni. And for resources, I wanted to ensure that we were good stewards of our financial resources, our facilities, and our people. As I leave the school 6 years later I can look around and see the positive impact of the focus on collaboration, influence, and resources, in tangible ways such as: meaningful growth in the school’s endowment, upgrades to the buildings, professional development tracks for staff, gender diversity of our faculty at all levels, new academic partnerships across the university, and national awards and honors for our faculty.  In addition, I can also feel the changes in nontangible ways. There is a palpable energy at the school now.  We have fun and people are willing to work in extraordinary ways, and oftentimes outside of their job description, to advance the school. The biggest compliment I have received as dean was when a longtime member of the school said, “it’s a good time to be at Goizueta”. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

When you think back on your time at GBS, is there anything that you wish you had the chance to accomplish that you were unable to?

We really accomplished a lot in my time at GBS. I had goals around the school becoming more collaborative, more influential and better resourced. As I look around the school, I can see significant progress in all three of those areas. Is there more to be done? Of course! But I believe there is the right leader for every moment in time. I think I was the right leader for Goizueta at the time that I started as dean in 2014. We achieved extraordinary things and celebrated the Schools Centennial while I was dean. We have a platform upon which the next dean can build and take Goizueta to new heights. So, while there is still work to continue with some of the initiatives that were started, there are also tailwinds to get the school over the finish line. Now, it is time for a new dean, with a new vision and a new set of circumstances to identify where Goizueta will go from here. 

What is your favorite business book and why?

I’ll probably get ridiculed for this but my favorite business book is one I wrote with my friend and colleague, Lynn Perry Wooten. It is called, Leading under Pressure: From Surviving to Thriving Before, During, and After a Crisis. It is essentially a book on leadership with a focus on what it takes to lead an organization in extreme situations. During my time as dean of Goizueta, I tried to model my own leadership approach after the primary tenets in the book. Then, in the final months of my tenure as dean, a crisis actually hit (the COVID pandemic). The ideas Lynn and I wrote about in the book were to be tested just as I was leaving. These last three months (March – May 2020), were like nothing I (any of us) have experienced before, but I can say with all certainty that the early moves I made as a leader 5 ½ years prior set GBS and me up well to thrive during this unprecedented time. We have made it through the acute stage of the crisis and, as we write in the book, Goizueta is well positioned to create the proverbial opportunity from the crisis. 

What are three words that come to mind when you think of the business library?

Secret weapon