THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Laura Tyson - The first American dean at London Business School heads an institution short on both women and generous alumni. Fresh from Berkeley and ex-adviser to Clinton, she moves easily between dons and power-brokers. Bu

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The first American dean at London Business School heads an institution short on both women and generous alumni. Fresh from Berkeley and ex-adviser to Clinton, she moves easily between dons and power-brokers. But can she put LBS on a par with Harvard?

I can hear Laura Tyson before the door opens, chatting chummily to someone who sounds like they are giggling a little too much. They burst out like two teenagers. Tyson, wearing slacks and silk shirt, is short, trim, with big, brown eyes and a swept-back, brown bob. I try to say hello, there is an awkward shift in gear, an assessment as Tyson waves me in, and then she warms.

'Photos? You didn't tell me there'd be photos, I'd have done my hair!' She laughs, big, wide smile, real-looking teeth. She looks like she could get away with a bad-hair day. At 54, going on 44, she is smart, personable and very likeable. She is also, I would guess, shrewder and tougher than her demeanour suggests. She will need to be. As the first American to take the dean's job at London Business School, and the first woman ever to get a senior academic position there (not one resident female professor before, never in its 37-year history), worrying about her hair is the equivalent of Daniel checking his nails on the way into the lion's den.

But I'd also guess she is good at front. She sits me at the meeting table in her long, second-floor office overlooking Regents Park and wanders elegantly off to make a phone call. I count the number of photos around the walls and on the shelves: 33, of which 11 are small pics of Tyson's family and 22 are larger, framed blow-ups of Tyson with Bill Clinton and other American notables. Get the message?

In fact, I'm getting a lot of messages. Firstly, of charm and status. Secondly, what LBS is trying to say to its own staff and the rest of the world with Tyson's appointment. As a former economic adviser to the President of the United States, ex-dean of Haas Business School at Berkeley, California, and a good-looking woman to boot, she is a prime catch for an institution that, for all its strengths, has in the past been accused of being a little too male and maybe a teensy bit dull. Business schools are all about reputation and LBS, it seems, is not afraid to give its image a makeover.

Does she think that her appointment sends out a message? 'Well, I don't think that is why they appointed a woman,' she says rather coolly, 'though maybe it's a signal to some people. It's probably just great to have someone from a US institution because that's the major competition, and good to have someone who's experienced as a dean so the learning period for the job is not so long, and nice to have someone who is not British, as it is a very international school.'

She pauses to let me take that in, then continues: 'But I also know that LBS has one of the lower representations of female faculty and female students, and I think this is an opportunity for the school to work on those representation issues.'

Big smile. Steely glint in the eye. If I were one of those '93 world-renowned business experts' (school's press info) that sit in the full-time faculty - nearly all men - I might be shifting a bit uneasily here ...

Anyway, she doesn't slap me down for sexism, she steers me through the issues, moving with ease from chatty friendliness to complex explication - she is, it seems, a straight-down-the-line, easy-on-the-ear, very brainy communicator, probably what you'd expect from someone who's moved smoothly from academia to Washington and back again. No wonder the Economist thinks Professor Tyson will give LBS much-needed 'glamour and clout'. No wonder Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP boss and joint deputy chair of LBS, who claims the first approach to Tyson, is also feeling rather pleased with himself right now.

But running LBS is more than just about communication. Consider the competition. LBS may be the biggest and best business school in Britain but it competes on a global playing field in a game where the Americans have virtually run off with the ball. The best American business schools are older, more prestigious and vastly richer - Harvard alone has an astonishing dollars 1 billion endowed income; LBS has virtually none. In the latest Financial Times league table of top schools, nearly all the top 10 were American. LBS, Britain's leading contender, came in number nine after European rival Insead. To push up the table, LBS needs funds fast.

Then ponder the internal mix. Nearly 1,500 postgraduate students plus 5,000 executive education students drawn from 70 countries, more than 100 faculty academics drawn from 22 countries, five different degree programmes, 300 research papers, articles and books published each year - running a school like LBS, which is now virtually divorced from its government-funded origins (it is loosely affiliated to the University of London but takes only 6% of pounds 55 million income from the state), requires an almost ludicrously complex mix of financial, HR, marketing, academic and Machiavellian skills.

Has Tyson got these skills? Indubitably, says Sorrell. 'She's got a very strong academic record, she's run a business school before, she's willing to do the difficult things, she understands the strengths and weaknesses of the school, she has a vision for the future ...'

No doubt she would blush if he went on. But will she change things or will she, as her British-born predecessor John Quelch was judged to do, concentrate more on marketing the place than shaking it up? No-one's saying just yet. And LBS's business academics are notoriously hard to please; some of them feel that the school's contribution to the British economy, attracting and keeping top-line talent in the country, has never been properly acknowledged, nor signalled effectively by any of the past LBS bosses. The school is also, they say, pretty bad at persuading alumni to dig deep in pockets and still too much the plaything of great and good non-alumni who sit on the governing body and don't donate anything at all.

Not an easy bunch to manage, you might think. Quelch, incidentally, did only three years at LBS before returning to Harvard, where he'd taught before. Academic gossip says his American wife had had enough of London, but there were also internal tensions over his pounds 266,000 salary - large by British college standards - and appointments he'd made.

Gossip insists, too, that Tyson, who worked on Al Gore's unsuccessful presidential campaign after advising Clinton, may just be treading water here before the next American election campaign, filling in time before a new job comes up. It's also been noted that she hasn't actually left Berkeley but negotiated a series of one-year leaves of absence running consecutively. Only in academia ...

Tyson's smile tightens when I put it to her that the arrangement casts doubts on her commitment. 'That's not the right way to characterise what the situation is,' she says slowly. 'The University of California is generous with its leave policy and I didn't feel ready to give up that relationship.'

I bet. Actually, she adds, she's a good fit at LBS for a number of reasons: she likes managing business schools and she likes the 'mission' at LBS in terms of its 'international definition'; it wants to grow globally and is prepared to throw resources at expansion. And then there was timing: it was relatively propitious for her to leave Haas, where, she says, she'd made good progress. And she had worked with a number of LBS academics, knew the school well and liked what she saw.

The clincher, apparently, was the fact that her journalist husband Erik Tarloff adores London. He went to school here when his father - a blacklisted Hollywood writer - moved to the UK in the 1950s. He has friends here. 'Yeah, Erik really loves London, he's spent a lot of time here, he's got the right level of sarcasm and scepticism. He virtually is British!'

She laughs again, widening those eyes. If it is calculating, it is masked by a lot of easy-going good humour. Still only in her second month at LBS when we met, she is clearly feeling her way in, trying to work out just how polished a front - how much humour and hair-doing, or un-doing - we Brits require. Reading the non-verbals, as any ex-pat manager will tell you, is always the most difficult task in an overseas posting.

She says that she likes change, something she picked up from her father. He was an accountant-turned-financial officer who worked his way up from poor roots, settling his family in suburban New Jersey and raising three kids, of which she was the eldest. She describes the environment as 'upwardly mobile'; her father's side of the family was Italian, her mother's a mix of Swedish and Dutch, both her parents determined that their own children should prosper.

'My father is very goal-oriented, he worked hard and took pleasure from his accomplishments,' explains Tyson. 'But he liked change, he gets bored real quickly, and always wants to be doing things. I'm the same. My husband and son have an expression about me: 'doing and doing and doing'. If I'm just walking down the steps I will be pulling weeds out, sweeping the porch while having a conversation!'

The parental push paid off for all the family - Tyson's younger brother is now a professor at Harvard Medical School and her sister an executive at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. 'Dad was really ambitious for us,' says Tyson, 'though his ambition was actually for us to be extremely successful in making money from business.' Something which, she says grinning, none of them chose to do. 'So now Dad's thinking: 'None of them is really rich, where did I go wrong?''

Perhaps the real surprise is that Tyson has never parlayed her gift for organisation and communication into a job in real business. After getting a degree in economics from Smith College and a PhD from MIT, she spent 16 years at Berkeley, becoming an acknowledged expert in international competition, before President Clinton appointed her chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 1993. Two years later, she succeeded Robert Rubin as national economic adviser before returning to Berkeley - pre-Clinton sex scandal - in 1997.

'I did go through the process of thinking then, would I go back to academia or join a private company?' she says. She could have walked into a high-paid post at any number of investment banks but she had worked flat out in Washington, and wanted more time for her family. She has been married twice, and has a son in his late teens by the second marriage. (Just to confuse matters, Tyson is her first husband's surname. 'It became my professional name so I kept it, leaving my parents, my ex-husband and my new husband all upset with me!')

In the end, she joined Haas as professor of economics and business administration. A year later she was approached to be dean, but declined. She did, however, agree to join the search committee charged with identifying candidates. She watched the best ones drop out and realised that, really, she had as good a chance as any of solving the problems that the school faced. 'But I wasn't looking for power, I'm not like that.'

Much of what she was trying to do at Haas was loosening the ties between the business school and its university host, allowing it to compete more freely. Ironically, the school, ranked about tenth in America behind giants like Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, had never achieved the same stature as its parent university, primarily because of the nature of those ties. 'We wanted to be able to work with more freedom, pay market salaries to faculty so they wouldn't leave, do more revenue-generating activities and executive education. The MBA fees were controlled by the state so we wanted to encourage other programmes.'

It's the same switch of emphasis from public to private that LBS has navigated over the past decade or so. Because of links initiated between the two schools, the announcement of Tyson's appointment last August was not the surprise that some thought, certainly not to LBS's senior academics, who had already noted the Haas dean's 'light touch' and political skills. They are hoping that her arrival in London will coincide with a new drive to raise funds for LBS to enable it to compete more effectively against its better-resourced American rivals. As one long-serving LBS professor put it to me gloomily: 'You only have to cough and money comes out of Harvard.'

How Tyson will change British corporate attitudes to donating to business schools - especially when state primary and secondary schools, and hospitals, seem far needier causes - is not explained. The reluctance of alumni to give is more a factor of culture than anything else: in America they do, in the rest of the world they don't. Media profile will help, but if even the famous bosses on the governing body are seen as tightwads by the academics (and they are, especially in their reluctance to fund chairs out of their own private resources), what hope has the new dean of pulling funds from anyone else?

Tyson has all this to look forward to. So far, she's been able to throw herself into work undistracted, having left husband Tarloff behind for a couple of months to sort out their son's spring break. She's moving into the dean's five-storey Regency house overlooking the park, and has already announced her arrival with a clutch of interviews, of which this is just one - most people would wait for a few months until they were fully familiar with the new job, but that clearly is not Tyson's style.

Has she encountered any surprises so far? Well, not in media coverage, she says with a smile. Brits tend to comment that her high-collar, buttoned-up style reminds them of Hilary Clinton, and that's fair; when she worked at the White House people could mistake her for Hilary from behind.

And at LBS? Nothing unexpected, just 'common issues' shared by Haas and LBS on expanding and faculty and the appropriate things you can and cannot do. The only real difference she has noticed is the divergence in recruitment patterns. In the US, many firms recruit directly from business schools, often when the students have been in work, then gone back to college in order to make themselves more marketable. In Europe, people choose their careers earlier and big companies tend to recruit from university and train their own staff up.

'Many European firms just do not recruit students from business schools and I am very interested in working with other deans to try and move that along.'

Will she be looking at any new areas? She thinks about it a bit and says she is interested in the debate about Britain's public sector. Britain does not have schools of public policy, as they have in the US, she says, and 'maybe there are interesting things to think about in terms of bringing business education and principles to areas that have not really been run that way'.

She is not sure, however, what LBS's role might be. 'I dunno,' she says. 'In all honesty, I am not thinking about it as a way of LBS making money but as a way of LBS making a contribution to the community.'

I wondered if she got her interest in management and politics from watching Washington power-brokers in action? People's interest in power tends to get piqued the closer they get to it.

No, she says firmly, but she did learn a lot about leadership. 'I really came to admire political skill. People talked about Clinton changing positions all the time but I think they got that wrong. What I saw clearly - and I think it is true in leadership of all sorts - was that he was trying to figure a way to keep moving forward by moving from side to side, looking at the moment and seeing the opportunity to move, even though it's not in a straight line or moving as fast as possible.

'Now that's interesting,' she adds. 'Academics who think about policy often believe that there is a correct answer and the whole deal is just implementing it. The truth is: pure application is not always possible. Skilled leaders figure out how to move some way towards the direction they want to go in. I've really used that insight as a manager.'

Ah, but what about the sex scandal? Was she surprised at how that eventually enveloped the Clinton administration? 'Actually,' she says, rather shamefacedly, 'I believed him, and I thought it would all blow over.' Certainly she seemed more surprised than her husband, who wrote a novel, Face Time, about a philandering president, that seemed to have a resonance with contemporary events. No embarrassment? She grins. 'I think it might have been harder if I was still there, but I'd gone by then. Lots of people in the administration read it and liked it.'

Then she adds mischievously: 'Though I don't know if the First Lady read it ...'

You wonder what material Tarloff can get out of LBS. Maybe he'll be too busy at the theatre and in the concert hall. Tyson says he's got commissions to do some reviewing, and that's how they'll be spending their spare time. 'Our hobby will be the cultural life of London,' she says grandly. Actually, when I ask if she has any hobbies, she lets out a great gust of uncomprehending American laughter. Hobbies? What a quaint question. 'I'm a doer, I don't have time for hobbies. I don't know how people have time for them!'

Oops. Well, we'll soon find out just how busy she's being. One ex-LBS academic tells me that if Tyson is really going to alter things at the school, she has to do it within six months; after that, the opportunity for change will be gone. His tip: the appointments system where 'an unwieldy conclave of male professors' has the right to veto fresh talent, including that drawn in by the dean. It frightens the life out of female applicants and contributes to the school's gender problem. If she wants to make a mark, she'll dig into that.

Baloney, says another. All university-level institutions have a similar appointments system, and LBS just suffers from the same shortage of female academic talent that every other business school does. If she's smart, she'll leave well alone. Her own appointment is the best demonstration of LBS's good intentions. LBS doesn't need to change. It is already successful. It just needs to be even more successful, and for that, it needs money.

No doubt Tyson, with her political experience and her connections, can sort it all out. Great surname, of course. How easily the description 'hard-hitting' just seems to flow with it ... 'Hmm. Biting Tyson,' she laughs, getting into the spirit. The business world will be watching with interest. Ding ding.

< tyson="" in="" a="" minute="" 1947:="" born="" 28="" june="" in="" bayonne,="" new="" jersey,="" us="" educated="" smith="" college="" 1974:="" phd="" in="" economics,="" mit="" 1974:="" assistant="" professor,="" department="" of="" economics,="" princeton="" university="" 1977:="" professor,="" department="" of="" economics,="" uc="" berkeley="" 1990:="" professor,="" haas="" school="" of="" business,="" uc="" berkeley="" 1993:="" chair="" of="" the="" white="" house="" council="" of="" economic="" advisers="" 1995:="" national="" economic="" adviser="" 1997:="" professor="" of="" economics="" and="" business="" at="" haas="" business="" school,="" berkeley="" 1998:="" dean,="" haas="" business="" school,="" berkeley="" 2002:="" dean,="" london="" business="" school="">

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