Darren Dahl of UBC Sauder School of Business on Chasing Balance and Backing into Fulfillment


Darren Dahl is the Senior Associate Dean of the UBC Sauder School of Business, a top Canadian business school located in Vancouver, British Columbia. Darren is a highly respected and accomplished research professor in the areas of Marketing and Consumer Behavior and is a recognized leader in the practice of teaching creativity. When not leading the business school, Darren can be found with his family and exploring the latest and greatest small cocktail bars around the world.

Did You Set Out Wanting To Be The Senior Associate Dean Of A Business School?

I never had the aspiration to be the Senior Associate Dean of a business school when I started out because my focus at the beginning of my career journey was in accounting. I didn't even have the aspiration to be a professor, let alone the Associate Dean! Getting where I am now has been a bit of a winding path. When it comes to becoming the Senior Associate Dean at Sauder, the opportunity came about after being a professor for a number of years. I was approached by a few members of the school who thought I had the potential to do the job. I have always been someone who has enjoyed a challenge so the role seemed like an exciting way to do something new and interesting while taking on a role that was outside what I had ever done before.

What Does It Mean To Be A Leader in Education Today? How is It Different From Being A Corporate Leader?

There are a lot more parallels and similarities between the two than one would think. A big part of leadership is about understanding people and how to get them excited about a vision of where things are going moving forward. Things like that apply whether you are in education or in the corporate world. The biggest differences come in terms of the types of people that you work with. In education, you tend to be working with a lot more free agents and there is much less of a formal hierarchy compared to corporate. Because of that, one has to adjust the way they go about getting things done and getting folks on side to move matters forward. The goals of a corporation are also much different than that of an educational institution and as a result, you need to take a broader set of considerations into account when making decisions.

What Is Your Definition of Business Transformation? How Are Schools Being Impacted By What Is Going On In The Market?

To me, business transformation is a perpetual term and realization that one has to be dynamic in order to change and adapt to what is going on out there. I wouldn’t say that is a new concept but it is certainly getting more attention these days as technology is rapidly changing every industry. The world moves faster today than it did 10 years ago. It ultimately comes down to leaders taking a critical look at their companies and asking themselves "what do we need to be focused on changing or improving to continue being relevant?" There is a strategic side of that discussion, but also an operational side, which is where most companies have big challenges. Leaders often have good ideas on how their industries and contexts are changing, but it is much more challenging to make the shifts that are needed to get things done well.

In education, you'll find there is a push and pull between the need to continuously change and the value of entrenched tradition in terms of what it means to be a University. There is a lot of change happening around the democratization of information and learning, which is pushing universities to take a hard look at what they are doing to improve student experience. That push and pull will always be there and often makes it challenging to move quickly. Educational institutions are by nature highly conservative.

What Are Some Of The Ways People Need to Rethink The Way They Go About Developing Their Careers Today?

I'd say there are three main pieces. When it comes to technical capability, it is critical to be constantly refreshing your understanding of the new technical skills that are driving your industry and if you don't have those skills, make a point of going out to get them. The need for constant learning has never been more important than it is now.

The second is about keeping an eye out for important macro trends and paying lots of attention to where the world is going in general. True leaders have a strong balance between technical tools and big picture strategic thinking, so those are very important.

The last is that one needs to be very careful about not falling in love with one specific tool, approach or idea. It is easy today to get myopically focused on a trendy idea like Agile and Lean, thinking that it will solve all of your problems. That is just not true. We always need to be pushing for a broader perspective in the way we think and approach problems. Fall in love with a lot of different kinds of thinking.

Tell Me About An Important Lesson That You Had To Learn The Hard Way. How Did It Make You Better?

A big learning for me as I've taken on more of a leadership role is getting to be ok with the fact that not everyone is going to like you. When you are a leader, especially when you are trying to evoke change, the reality is that not everyone is going to like you and learning how to internally manage that was important for me. I've learned that there is a difference between having people like you and having people respect you. Effective leaders need to be able to win others over regardless of if they like you or not. What’s worked for me is whenever I exit a situation where maybe I haven't won the day, I take a step back and speak with my mentors to dissect where I could have done better and what I need to do moving forward. Having someone to talk to and practice your approach with are the ways I've gotten better at this.

What Is The One Piece Of Advice You Would Give To Someone In The Workforce Today To Get Ahead and Find Work That is Fulfilling?

Find something that you are good at that makes you grow. In my view, fulfillment comes from finding something you can do well that pushes you to get better as opposed to starting with the search for fulfillment first. Fulfillment also means different things to different people so there is no real one size fits all approach to finding it, but focusing on the stuff that you are good at can often blossom into a sense of fulfillment.

Aubrey Chapnick