Debbie Brown (BSc Business Administration 2005) is based in Switzerland but has stayed connected to Bath through volunteering at online careers events and supporting students through the Gold Scholarship Programme. Debbie studied here back when Professor Steve Brammer taught at the School of Management earlier on his career. Now he’s returned as Dean, Debbie caught up with him over webcam and a coffee.
DB: You taught at Bath from 1998 to 2009. What’s been the biggest change from then to now?
SB: There’s a reassuring familiarity to it all. We always had high-quality students and staff, and we still do. Some of the campus is very different – we’ve got new residences now and facilities like the Chancellor’s Building and The Edge – but 8 West is the same as it’s always been. I’m excited to see the new School of Management building go up, which was a hole when I came for interview at the start of the 2020 and now is topped out! It will be a genuinely massive asset to us.
What are some of your memories of teaching at Bath all those years ago?
My first job was running undergraduate admissions and I remember one final-year project team on the BBA [Business Administration] made a video about student experience that I used to play at Open Days. It was a ‘work hard, play hard’ message to the music of Dressed for Success by Roxette!
There were shots of students suited and booted, going on placement and having meetings with clients, and then partying equally hard. Every time we played it at Open Days, it got the same reaction: the students were like, ‘Fantastic, that’s exactly what I want!’ and their eyes lit up, and then you’d see the parents getting anxious. That was a fantastic memory.
I used to teach undergraduate, master’s and MBA. I ended up running the postgraduate programmes and established a research centre. There really was no aspect of the School that I wasn’t involved in some way or other. Now, once again, I have a crop of undergrad first-year tutees because I think it’s important to understand the student experience, particularly in times like we’re in now.
One of your latest research projects examined the organisational responsibilities and good practices in supporting employees with long-term health issues, such as cancer and mental health. What can leaders take away from this in a post-Covid world?
One of the big takeaways is that organisations tend to assume what stakeholders want, rather than ask. One of the things we see in mental health research is that one can make sweeping paternalistic assumptions about what’s good for employees, but actually engaging deeply with them in a sincere dialogue is mutually beneficial.
The other key observation is why that dialogue doesn’t happen as often as it should – which is the enormous variation in experience, training, and degree of empathy across leaders and managers in organisations.
I speak as someone who has led large collectives of people, who has encountered these kinds of issues among my staff and tried my best to navigate that – let’s acknowledge these are uncomfortable conversations on both sides. There’s no substitute for experience.
You were previously Dean of Macquarie Business School in Australia and moved to Bath during the first UK lockdown. What has it been like since starting the role in June 2020 and meeting colleagues under such unusual circumstances?
It has been genuinely unusual, but I’ve been blown away by the welcome and the engagement. In January 2020 I was an old-time Skype user and my technological capabilities were very limited, but now I’m an evangelist of Zoom and Teams.
Human engagement is a fundamental part of successful leadership – particularly in a context like Bath where that human element of the School has always been such a strong part of the culture. I’m amazed at how successfully technology has enabled that.
I’m looking forward to meeting people face to face, but in imperfect circumstances the adjustment and engagement we’ve had has really helped my transition.
On the other side, how are students finding online learning?
I think students by and large are happy, but the transition has not been easy for everyone. Part of it is the way technology enables and encourages over-work. For example, if you’re in a classroom you have no option to re-watch the lecture to make detailed notes on every part of it.
Also, students can’t do many of the extracurricular activities they normally would, which has probably contributed to them spending more time on their academic pursuits. I think that’s led to some concern over workload, but they are very resilient.
It’s an unusual year, there’s no getting away from that, but I feel very proud of what staff have done, and the level of support and sense of collaboration we have among our students.
What are your ambitions for the School of Management?
We are better than many schools that are better known and, in some ways, we’re better connected and better engaged with and understood by our communities around the world. However, if you were in Australia or China, or New York or Buenos Aires and you said, ‘Tell me about British business schools’, Bath wouldn’t be on many people’s radar.
I think we’ve got a real job to do to tell our story. I think we’ve got to be more outward-looking and engage much more deeply and consistently with our stakeholders – local, regional, national and international. That is something we’re in a great position to do, and we will have a great facility to do it.
Events, like the Dean’s Series, that we can host globally using fabulous technologies give us an opportunity to do more of that. I’m hopeful that I’ll play a big role, not just in hosting the odd event, but in more systematically leading that project of taking our message to the world more broadly and consistently than in the past.
There’s a lot of truth in telling the story more broadly. Back when I was looking at universities, I visited the top five UK business schools and was very firm that if I didn’t get into Bath, I wasn’t applying to any others.
It’s true, when people come to campus and experience the city and the University, they do generally want to come.
Finally, what are you most proud of?
I feel extremely fortunate to have found a career and a set of opportunities in life where people have seen in me something they have wanted to support and enable, by allowing me to be their Dean or their PhD supervisor, research collaborator or lecturer.
For people to see that you’re trying to do the right things for broadly the right reasons is extremely humbling, so if I’m proud of one thing, it’s that. But day to day I just try to play the balls as they come, to use a cricketing analogy.