By Lacie Blankenship
On July 1, 2023, Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management welcomed its new dean, Tom Steenburgh, for his first official day. Steenburgh, who now holds the title Ralph Owen Dean and Professor of Marketing, came to Vanderbilt from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he served as a senior associate dean.
Steenburgh is an expert in business-to-business marketing and sales. Believing in the power of collaboration, he has worked with many business leaders to explore novel research ideas and solve real-world problems.
Steenburgh succeeds M. Eric Johnson, Dean Emeritus, who steadfastly led the school through a transformative 10 years. Johnson and Steenburgh recently sat down for a conversation about the future of business education, sharing insight into the industry (watch below).
Get to know Dean Steenburgh
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in academia?
A: My dad was a biology professor and academic dean, and all my uncles worked in big business, in executive roles at Xerox, Kodak, and ITT; my career is a way of combining those things. I started in engineering, did a master’s degree in statistics, and considered doing a PhD, but I was not ready to commit to it right out of graduate school. I went to Xerox and took a wide variety of roles. I started in operations, was in finance for a little bit, and then in sales incentive strategy. Once I got close to 30, I thought that if I didn’t leave and go back then and get my PhD, I’d never do it. I wanted to make a big difference in people’s lives and knew I would regret not giving higher education a chance. In your career, all you have is your time. You need to work on stuff that you deeply care about. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate. I’ve been part of great institutions. It’s worked out even better than I dreamed; I’ve got to do the work I like. I love to teach, and I love to play with ideas and work on research. A life in academics gives you the best of all worlds.
Q: What attracted you to Owen?
A: There are 2 key things; the first and primary is the people. I’ve only been part of elite institutions that attract amazingly bright people – faculty who are exceptional teachers and researchers and staff members who create unique and memorable student experiences. You can only create educational experiences with the help of others. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people, especially during the pandemic, to create educational experiences. And amazing students, students who will go out and change the world. I’ve been really lucky that way. We already have great people at Vanderbilt, and the possibility of continuing that and even expanding the types of people that come to Vanderbilt and creating new things with those people is thrilling. The opportunity here is unparalleled. There are business areas you can own in Nashville, like entertainment and healthcare, in which others cannot compete. Maybe 3 cities have a right to win in entertainment – New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Plus, it’s one of the best public healthcare markets in the country. So you have a right to win in those spaces. That’s exciting. Another exciting thing is that the business community is thriving. We have Amazon coming in, we have AllianceBernstein, Google, Bridgestone, Nissan, you go down the list, Ford has a battery plant within a 2-hour drive, so you have to access companies in a wide variety of industries. There are established Fortune 500 companies, some of the ones that I named, and you have an entrepreneurship culture here; that’s one of the things I’d really like us to focus on. It is one of the things that goes along with being part of Nashville as a community, and if it’s good for us, it’s good for the community.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in this new chapter?
A: Seeing what we can create together. I like working with other people and taking on new challenges. I usually think of my life in 5-year phases. I’m looking forward to meeting a new set of people, thinking about the world differently, and creating some things that I haven’t had the ability to do yet.
Q: Can you tell us a lesson you’ve learned that will help you lead at Vanderbilt Business?
A: One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten more experience is to be patient and ask lots of questions. There are many situations where it takes a while to get the whole story, so I remind myself to be patient when dealing with challenges and trying to create something new. People sometimes close down the opportunity set too quickly. They find something that feels good initially, and settle on that without exploring what else might be out there, what else might be greater, or what might go wrong. The patience to listen, ask questions, and consider things from multiple perspectives is essential, and that’s not to say that you don’t get things done, too. There’s a point in every project I’ve worked on where you keep everything open, and then there’s a time to execute, and your whole mindset shifts to we will get this done. I’m a huge believer in having both of those, having the skills and ability to expand possibilities and then an ability to execute in a way that will move the needle and make a difference at the institution.
Q: What do you want the Owen Community (students, alumni, faculty, and staff) to know about you?
A: I’m curious; I love ideas and people. I enjoy talking to students when they have a new idea for a business and just hearing how they’re thinking about things. I love learning from different areas. I’ve done some cross-disciplinary work, and when people think differently, it helps change your perspective and stimulate your ideas. Being curious and remaining curious throughout my career has been essential to me. People will find me approachable and easygoing. Down to earth is, I believe, a way to describe me. I’m a fairly direct person, but I respect how others work. Everyone’s a little different. I enjoy the differences in how people relate and work. I’m also very ambitious, and I like to do new things. We should explore new ideas because so many exciting things are happening in the world. I want Nashville and the world to remember us when looking for the best talent and ideas. We have a tremendous opportunity here. And really, you’re just limited by your imagination in terms of what you want to work on. We will have a portfolio of things we are working on. Some things will be clear, and we should just do them. And then other things are shooting for the moon. We should be working on all those levels and have high ambitions for the school.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I spend a lot of time with my family. My daughter’s at UCLA’s theater, film, and television school. She’s a rising junior. My son is a rising senior in high school, and he’s on the crew team. The most challenging thing for me is that we will live apart this year so he can finish up in Charlottesville. But I spend a lot of time with my kids, and I like hanging out with them and my wife. I love listening to music, so I’m looking forward to exploring things in Nashville around that. I also am a runner. I used to play hockey, but I don’t have the time for that, and I can’t actually handle the ice time, which is usually 11 at night (he said, laughing). But I love to run, so I’m looking forward to finding trails to run. I just did a half marathon last December. We’ll see if I can keep up the miles.
Q: What are you most excited about moving to Nashville?
Food and music.
Dean Tom Steenburgh answered our questions in a sit-down interview. We extracted responses from the interview transcript, condensed them, and clarified them for readership. Learn more about Steenburgh here.