Q&A: New Rady Dean Ordóñez on School’s Growth, Startups, Ethics & More

Under Bob Sullivan, the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego matured into its teenage years. Sullivan became Rady’s founding dean in 2003, ahead of the fall 2004 enrollment of the school’s charter MBA class.

Rady School is marking its sweet sixteen under a new leader, Lisa Ordóñez. Most recently vice dean of academic programs at the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Management, Ordóñez started as the Rady School’s new dean this month.

Ordóñez, a California native, says she took a 25 year “hiatus” in Arizona before returning this summer to the state in which she grew up. Her academic history is rooted in the UC system; she earned three degrees from UC Berkeley: a bachelor’s in psychology, an MBA in marketing, and a PhD in quantitative psychology.

Recently her research has focused on judgment and decision-making in management and in consumer behavior, including ethical decision-making, the negative impact of goal setting systems, and the role of emotions in decision-making.

In its relatively short existence, Rady School has formed ties with the local innovation community and infused its curriculum with opportunities for students to get involved with startups and even evaluate potential investments in actual companies. The school operates three accelerator programs, a student-run venture fund, and an annual business plan competition, the Triton Innovation Challenge. Its alumni have launched more than 180 companies, according to the school.

In an interview with Xconomy, Ordóñez shares her impetus for taking the position, how her research into ethics in business will help shape the school’s strategic plan, and her thoughts on diversity in business education. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Xconomy: What interested you in the role of dean at the Rady School?

Lisa Ordóñez: I kind of rose through the ranks at Arizona. In the last four and half years, I got into administration and found out that I really loved it; I really felt that this was a place that I could add value, and the only option for me was to move. I wasn’t going to be dean there, because we had a dean that just got started and is doing a great job, and I’ve always wanted to come back home. It feels like home. Knowing so many of the faculty … was a huge draw for me, and knowing the quality of UC San Diego and the quality of Rady. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility, and I am excited for the opportunities here, excited to help take the school to the next level.

X: What are your immediate priorities for Rady?

LO: Rady is in startup mode, and has been for 16 years. Bob Sullivan has done a tremendous job getting us to this point—and now it’s time to grow. We have 40-ish research faculty, and it limits how much impact we can have. I’d like us to have to more students, and more faculty, and a bigger impact on the San Diego/La Jolla area. My overall plan is to grow, but grow in a smart way. … This year will be a time to really take a step back and say we’re going to grow, but where should we grow? … How we can help our students be prepared more for the changing economy? … As we grow and pick new faculty and new programs, what makes sense for us, and our environment?

At NYU and Columbia, they’re big on finance: Why? Because they’re right there. It makes sense that here we’re going to be big on startups and innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ll be talking with community members and students and alums and faculty to find out where are our opportunities and where we should grow next. … I’m trying to stay open and listening and getting input from people before we start honing in on what that looks like.

X: Your academic background, which has focused on research into ethics and decision-making in business, seems relevant in light of the many recent corporate scandals. How has that shaped your perspective on leadership?

LO: The idea is if we understand the contextual situations in which people are more likely to cheat and not, then we can create organizations that minimize that (behavior). … People are people, and the thesis of my research is that if you pressure people and have them push for certain metrics or goals, and that’s important in most businesses, then you create a situation in which people might be unethical—I never say people will be.

Our research shows that there are the two extremes: people who have no moral compass and are going to do whatever they’re going to do, and people who are never going to lie or cheat no matter what. The vast majority of us are in the middle, and we are nudged one way or another by the context. As a leader here, I have to say, this is what we will and will not stand for. And that’s a huge thing—the leader’s behavior at the top informs the organization.

X: Will these discoveries affect how you plan to lead at Rady, and if so, how?

LO: I’m really careful when start any new kind of motivation system. In fact I get very nervous when we start talking about changing we allocate various resources. We have to be very careful and have a lot of conversations, and, frankly, think about the ways in which there could be problems. My research on goal-setting isn’t always about ethical behavior; it can change how you do things in ways you hadn’t expected, not necessarily cheating or not.

If I say, OK, your pay is going to be related to your end of the year ratings, and ratings are heavily influenced on research, which is true in a lot of places, guess what’s going to happen: People are going to pour more energy into research and less into teaching. … Here (at Rady), research is hugely important, but so is our teaching quality and our programs, so we have to find a way to reward people for doing multiple things. … How we measure things changes people’s behavior, what we measure changes people’s behavior.

X: At Arizona, you were part of a number of efforts to improve diversity among both students and faculty. What are your thoughts on similar efforts at UCSD?

LO: I’ve been very active in a national organization called the PhD Project, an initiative set up by the KPMG Foundation to increase the diversity of faculty in business education. Typically no more than 5 percent of business school faculty are unrepresented minorities. I’m one of the few. This organization has really pushed to change those numbers.

In terms of gender (at Rady), we’re doing great. On average we have more than half women in our master’s programs; and we’re getting very close to parity in our MBA programs. In terms of ethnic diversity, the campus is working really hard to get what’s called Hispanic-Serving Institution status. The percentage of Hispanic students (at UCSD) has gone up from about 12 to 15 percent to 20 or 21 percent. The magic number of the federal government in 25 percent … Now, at the business school, we don’t see quite that percentage, but it doesn’t mean we can’t support that goal. Often, in our weekend and evening programs, we see a much more diverse set of MBA students, so that’s an area in which we can make inroads.

Sarah de Crescenzo is an Xconomy editor based in San Diego. You can reach her at sdecrescenzo@xconomy.com. Follow @sarahdc

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