By Nathaniel Luce
The global disruption of the past 3 years has nearly every business grappling with workplace culture. It was no different for business schools. As the Vanderbilt Owen Community began to emerge from the day-to-day, and later month-to-month focus of the pandemic in 2021, it became clear that, in order to continue delivering on the mission of world class education on a personal scale, a more intentional focus was needed to foster Owen’s unique culture. The disruption also allowed organizations like Owen to rethink how they wanted to work and interact.
“The historical knowledge of Owen was interrupted for all of us,” said M. Eric Johnson, Ralph Owen Dean and Bruce D. Henderson Professor of Strategy. “We could either go back or go forward. By looking forward, we can be intentional about what we want and need Owen’s culture to be to compete and thrive in this evolving environment.”
The pandemic wasn’t the only contributing factor to the school’s evolution – Owen was embarking on the largest building expansion project in school history, while record numbers of students were enrolling in the one-year daytime specialized masters programs.
“It was time to take a step back and get a firm grasp on what is really constitutes Owen’s culture – the personality of the school and dynamics that are driving it and will continue to,” said Melinda Allen, Executive Director of the Leadership Development Program and member of the Culture Team overseeing this project.
To address these changes, the school launched the Reimagining Culture project in the Summer of 2021. Through focus groups. surveys, and one-on-one faculty conversations, hundreds of responses were collected across Owen’s students, faculty, and staff. The community inputs were distilled into central themes and organizational behaviors. From there, the entire community codified on what would become the “Owen Essentials” – the principles that represent the best of Owen’s culture and that will guide and define the Owen culture for years to come.
“We took this opportunity as a school to identify the collective aspirations of the staff, faculty, and students from all programs to help shape our ideals, our norms, and our operating principles,” said Allen.
The 6 Owen Essentials – Trust, Accountability, Transparency, Inclusiveness, Collaborative Community, and Innovation & Learning – come with definitions and everyday behaviors that community members can practice to deliver on the school’s mission and strategy.
”Owen alumni will recognize these principles as the best part of School’s tight knit culture,” said Dean Johnson. “Our goal in codifying them is to ensure we move forward building those ideals into each incoming class of students.”
Over the summer and the fall semester, the culture team will continue to lay the groundwork for communication and provide community members the tools and resources to successful live out the Owen Essentials. Later in the year, a resource hub will be established for the community, and a strategy to sustain a focus on culture.
Initial actions, along with associated collateral, are well underway, but there’s an understanding that cultural projects are an ongoing endeavor. Allen noted that organizations must maintain a long-term focus on fostering and propagating culture.
“It will take each of us to shift habits, behaviors, perceptions,” she said. “The prolonged effort to do so ensures that our environment is different, both subtly and overtly, which eventually will line up with the culture we aspire to and expect at Owen.”