Judy Olian: Being global, I think, is very Australian

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance.

Melbourne native Judy Olian is the Dean of UCLA Anderson School of Management, one of the leading business schools in the world. Driving an institution that annually provides management education to almost 2,000 students enrolled in various MBA and Doctoral programs, and to over 2,500 professional managers through executive education programs, Judy knows first-hand what it takes to succeed in business. Under Judy’s leadership, UCLA Anderson has hired a record number of faculty and raised almost $400 million for innovative programming, and student and faculty support.

Describing the culture in Los Angeles as “similar to Australia’s,” Judy spoke to Advance about why Australians should consider studying an MBA (at UCLA no less), her favourite piece of advice to dispense, and what she perceives as the future of business schools.

How long did you live in Australia and where did you grow up?

I grew up in Melbourne and I was there on and off until I was 16. I then moved to Israel where I lived for a few years, earned a B.A there, before moving to the U.S. for graduate school, and then staying.

After being overseas for so long, what traits of yours do you still identify as being fundamentally Australian?

Definitely my broad interest in the world, not just in travel, but in other cultures and countries.  That's true for a lot of Australians. Because the country is so isolated, there’s an innate curiosity about the rest of planet Earth. Being global is very Australian. I also think that Australians, generally speaking, don't take themselves too seriously and are less “formal” than many other nationalities. We're also very active, outdoorsy people, and that’s something that I’ve carried with me.

What does your current position as Dean of UCLA Anderson School of Management involve?

It is an academic role, and it's also somewhat of a global role, being at one of the world’s leading universities. I'm involved in the business community here (we are a School of Business and Management after all!) And with students from 62 countries and about 25 chapters outside the U.S., I am often on the move to various countries around the world where I represent not just the Anderson School but UCLA at large.  I believe our mission is to prepare graduates for the dynamic global marketplace of the 21stcentury, and to lead lives of significance wherever they are in the world. I also sit on two corporate boards which keeps me involved in the world of governance, and on two non-profit boards, whose missions are particularly important to me.

Are there any definitive characteristics that make UCLA Anderson unique as a business school?

We’re flavoured by the entrepreneurial and innovation-oriented region in which we’re based. We are infused with entrepreneurial thinking at Anderson. We are fortunate to be able to attract among the very best faculty in the world and, as a result, much of the research that goes on here is groundbreaking. There are also so many different pathways to pursue at UCLA Anderson, there’s no simple track or direction. Beyond the traditional functions of business, students might choose to study the business of housing, of high-tech, of media and entertainment, of data analytics, business and public policy, or business and public health… If it’s a high-impact area of business, we study and teach it at Anderson..

What are some of the trends or changes in the types of candidates that have been applying for business school?

The Millennials who are applying for business school are quite purpose-driven. Our students not only want to be successful in business, they hunger to have a positive impact on society through business and leadership. Caring about purpose and social impact is very core to what our students are looking for in an MBA.

What is the gender balance of students applying for MBAs?

At the Bachelor level of the university, there are more women than men applying and attending. However, business schools are still more male-dominated. At Anderson, we're currently at 37% women in the MBA program. There are more women teaching at Anderson, and attending business schools. I'm confident that one day, we’ll hit the 50% mark, but we're not there yet.

Do you see many Australian applicants coming through UCLA?

Not enough! I'd love to see more. Part of the reason is that the MBA isn’t as well entrenched in the business world in Australia as it is in some other places, like the U.S.

If Australians did choose to do an MBA, I think they’d be really comfortable at a school like UCLA because it’s a very warm and welcoming place. It has some similarities to Australia; not just climate, but also the informality. It’s also about the closest jumping off point, other than Asia, from Australia. Having an MBA gives you such a broad view of opportunities and strategy for competitive advantage in the marketplace, it’s a foundational degree, a springboard for numerous leadership roles in organizations.

What's been a career highlight for you throughout the years? Is there any one thing that stands out?

There are so many wonderfully interesting opportunities that have come my way. The one-on-one relationships with students who come back and tell you that their experience at our school, changed them forever – that’s always a career highlight because you see how profoundly you’ve impacted a life’s journey. Another highlight has been meeting and interviewing fascinating people, which has happened to me time and time again. And I teach a leadership class and it’s been an amazing learning opportunity for me each year

What's the best piece of advice that you've ever received and your favourite piece of advice to dispense?

The best piece of advice I’ve received is that a lot of what happens to you in business (or in the world) isn't personal. Things happen because of circumstances, luck, or conditions that have nothing to do with what you’ve done or not done. We women, in particular, tend to attribute setbacks to something we did or said, but that’s often not the case. It’s important to just move on and learn from a stumble or setback.

My favorite piece of advice to share – and that I hope I live by -- is that if you don't suit up to play the game, you'll never be in the game. In other words, you have to be willing to take risks, to sometimes take a step back in order to go to the next play, in order to advance to the next stage of your life. So take a risk. Because if you don’t, you'll always be in the same corner of the field.

What do you think is the future of business schools?

The future of business schools moves with the future of business. Business schools, like any other institution, need to adapt in how they offer learning, how they deliver, and in the essence of what they teach. They have to continue to excel and to enable profound transformation among people who attend. I wouldn't say that just about business schools, though. I would say that about all of higher education. All of us are going to consume learning in lots of different ways, and on a continuing basis, especially in this digital world. Educational institutions, business schools, and others need to continue to adapt to the context of what they teach, how they teach it, and how they enable graduates to become life-long learners – that is to never truly ‘graduate’ from learning!