The true bottom line

JMU dean says companies that care will prosper

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Mary Gowan says perks don’t make a business a good workplace.

“It’s not going to matter how many perks you have if you don’t have a management that appreciates and values people,” says Gowan, the new dean of the James Madison University College of  Business.  “At the end of the day, you can have an organization that doesn’t provide the perks and is a great place to work because the employees feel like they’re cared for, that their opinions matter and that people seek out opportunities for the employees.”

Gowan, a former business school dean at Elon University near Burlington, N.C., is a human resources expert who has served as a consultant for many companies, including Lockheed Martin, Marriott, Sears and Bank of America.

Her research includes examining how people cope with losing a job. Those who survive a job loss well are “very resilient,” she says. “They’re open to new experiences.  They don’t define their lives solely by the company they work for or the particular job they have.  They have a strong sense of career identity and understanding how they can manage their career themselves.”

Gowan has strived to be adaptable and flexible in her own career. Before coming to JMU, she spent six years in administration, two as an associate dean at George Washington University and four as dean at Elon. At the North Carolina business school, she spearheaded a strategic plan, doubled the business school endowment and hired many new faculty members. During her time there, the school’s part-time MBA program was named No. 1 in the country by Bloomberg Businessweek.

“My philosophy is you find the right people and you let them loose to do what they need to do, and good things will happen,” Gowan says.

In 2011, she stepped down as dean to return to teaching. “I had accomplished the main things I was brought in to do at Elon,” she says. “I just felt like it was a good time for me to take some time out and decide: Did I want to continue in leadership; if so, at what level?”

The answer to that question came when a headhunter called asking whether she would be interested in being dean at JMU.   “I loved being back in the classroom, but this was too good of an opportunity,” she says.

In taking the position, Gowan became one of the few female deans among the 15 top public undergraduate business schools ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek. She has high praise for the faculty and students in the College of Business. “Our students are smart, they’ve got great interpersonal skills, they’re ambitious, and they have a good work ethic,” Gowan says.

Her plans “other than not to mess up a good thing” include leading the school in developing a strategic plan that will guide it during the next five years. Gowan also is planning for the 50th anniversary of the College of Business in nine years, celebrating that milestone with a new building and sizeable endowment. Her goal is to increase the current $12 million endowment to $50 million.

A native of Western North Carolina, Gowan says JMU has been a great fit for her and is something of a homecoming for her husband, the Rev. Ed Moore.

Moore, who is from Martinsburg, W.Va., spent summers at Massaneta Springs. He currently is educational program director for the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

Gowan says JMU is a “very entrepreneurial university with a very entrepreneurial College of Business.  That’s what has made it so great.  And I get to be part of it.”


Virginia Business:   What sort of qualities does a good workplace need to have?

Gowan:   Let me just give you a couple of things.  One, I think the leadership has to understand that the talent in the organization is the most important resource that exists.  Without that fundamental understanding, policies, practices and activities will be very different.  So if I’m focused just on the bottom line, I’m going to approach my human-resource policies very differently than if I say I can’t have a bottom line without having the right employees in place.

In an Op-Ed piece I wrote before I left Elon, I talked about there being a sweet spot somewhere between what unions try to do for employees and what should be done for employees.  It was basically responding to the Twinkies fiasco …  All these employees had lost their jobs because a labor union wouldn’t negotiate with management.  And so I cited a lot of companies … [known for] taking care of their employees and recognizing that employees come first.  These have been very successful companies.  There’s a lot of research out there, academic research and others from consulting firms that shows if you pay attention to what’s most important, the rest will follow.  And people are the most important part. 


VB:   I’ve also noticed that you’ve done a number of studies about the effects of job loss.  What have you found in your research?

Gowan:   It’s something I’m very passionate about, about the evolution of job-loss research. The early job-loss research focused on understanding what happened to people when they lost a job.  Then it evolved to thinking about how people react.   What do they do in those circumstances?  It looked at problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping, and social support and things like that. 

Where it has evolved now is at a place where we understand more about the people who survive a job loss well, and those are people who are very resilient.  They’re open to new experiences.  They don’t define their lives solely by the company they work for or the particular job they have.  They have a strong sense of career identity and understanding how they can manage their career themselves.  They also have good social capital and good human capital. 

So it’s not just that you survive a job loss if you have the right technical skills or you’re in the right profession.  You could be the best accountant in the world … and not get employed if you don’t approach it from the right perspective and the right understanding about yourself. 

A lot of it is about self-management and recognizing that you’re the one who is in control of the situation.   But it’s also understanding that you have to be flexible.  You can’t expect things to stay the way they were.  That’s just not life.


VB:   One of the things we’re hearing about … is not necessarily training people to have the skills for a particular job but training people to be able to learn …

Gowan:  Yes, lifelong learning.  Very important.


VB: Does that fit into this whole thing?

Gowan:   It absolutely does.  The people who are constantly reinventing themselves are … showing they are more resilient and are managing their career identities …  One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was as a young professor in my first teaching job.  My dean said, “Keep yourself marketable.”  I’ve just been able to do so many different things as a result of staying focused on that …

I did an alumni event in Dallas this week, and we were talking about lifelong learning and just always wanting to do new things and have new experiences.  What we’re trying to do with students is really help them start as freshmen thinking about what their future is going to be so that when you’re a senior you’re not scrambling around to find a job.  But it’s also not about putting people in a box and saying, “OK, you’re going to be an accountant,” or, “You’re going to be a finance major and go into finance,” because that may evolve. 

If you learn to be curious, and if you learn to think critically, and if you learn good interpersonal skills, you’re going to be able to position yourself well throughout life … I came out of a student personnel background, and my master’s is in counseling.  That, I think, has been the part I was most interested in, people’s career progression, which is part of my job-loss research as well.  It’s something I think I bring to a business school, and why JMU is a good fit for me because I think the faculty here has that same focus.


VB:   Employers offer various types of perks.  Are these things really important to being a good workplace, or is this kind of a war game between companies?

Gowan: It’s not going to matter how many perks you have if you don’t have a management that appreciates and values people.  At the end of the day, you can have an organization that doesn’t provide the perks and is a great place to work because the employees feel like they’re cared for, and that their opinions matter, that people seek out opportunities for the employees … The culture is huge, and it has to start at the top.  It has to come from leadership that highly reveres employees.


VB:   [Tell me about your research on corporate reputation and corporate social responsibility].

Gowan: The most recent research looked at how individuals respond in terms of applying for jobs, depending upon the organizations’ perceptions of corporate social responsibility … And we found that people who tend to be more focused on legalistic perception of corporate social responsibility aren’t as interested as are people who are more into the environment and people management. It’s pretty much what you would expect.

Some of the earlier research looked at corporate image and reputation and found that different audiences have different perceptions of organizations.  So what executives might perceive as being a good organization, employees might not perceive as being a good organization.


VB:   One of the things we keep hearing is that environmental responsibility has become a big issue in hiring young employees. Is that what you’re finding?

Gowan: Yes.  I think it’s because this generation has been so enmeshed in school and other places with issues about the environment.  They’ve been taught to recycle, and they’ve been taught to think about turning out the lights.  As a result, they’re much more expecting of that in organizations they go to work for.  I don’t know to what extent they’re really thinking about the long-term implications on their future if they don’t take care of the environment, but for whatever reason, it is an important issue for them when they look at organizations.


VB:  What do employers tell you they’re looking for from business school graduates?

Gowan:   They’re looking for critical thinking skills.  They’re looking for really strong interpersonal skills.  They’re looking for good writing skills.  It’s pretty much the same list they’ve been looking for a long time.  And then they’re looking for students who will come in and understand you start at the bottom and work your way up.  You don’t start as the CEO of the company.  So the work ethic is important. 

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