Excellence by example
“I think these experiences have really helped me become a person who’s easy to engage with and who’s developed empathy for people different from me.”
Speaking with her it’s apparent how very real she is. Accomplished and approachable. Polished and personable. Intelligent and enthusiastic. Perhaps James’ dynamic character stems from her rich, unique past.
A forward-looking background
“My parents divorced when I was young,” says James. “Both of them remarried someone who was of another race. No matter which parent I was living with at the time, I was part of a biracial family.” That by itself is a unique enough family dynamic, but it’s compounded by her growing up in the 1980s in the south. And in her mother’s second marriage, James’ stepfather was Jewish. Compared to the typical family of the times, “it was really a bit strange.”
“Growing from early childhood into the teenage years, I didn’t fully appreciate that my experience was atypical,” says James. “And then there were moments when it was very apparent that my experience was atypical.”
Her circumstances didn’t only influence the kind of friends that she was able to make, but also kept her from developing a clear sense of identity. What was clear, however, was that she wanted to get out of that environment. Graduating high school, she went west, enrolling in a largely white liberal arts college.
Developing selflessness by developing herself
The relocation provided her the backdrop of a more diverse environment, yet she was one of only five black students in her freshman cohort. “That really didn’t help enforce any sense of identity,” says James. What it did enable was “for me to understand how to create relationships across differences.”
That understanding bolstered her own approachability, and James found herself capable of building friendships and developing relationships despite any difference or demographic — gender, race, religion — it didn’t matter.
Yet it wasn’t until she attended graduate school in Michigan that she began to understand what it meant to be black in America. At an institution that, at the time, graduated more black Ph.D.s than any other university, including Howard, James “was surrounded by and found a community of people who looked like me.”
“The more time I spent around them,” she says, “the more I understood things about my own background that I couldn’t have understood before in other contexts.” It was an important moment in her history. “I think these experiences have really helped me become a person who’s easy to engage with and who’s developed empathy for people different from me.”
But being herself wasn’t always who she tried to be.
During James’ first years of teaching, she donned the mask of what she thought a professor should be and how a professor should act. She mimicked what she saw her senior male colleagues do in the classroom, and she tried to be just like them.
“It took me probably a few years too long to realize that, that was not an effective strategy,” she says. That realization came about in a rather spectacular and unequivocally clear fashion.
“I didn’t have to pretend to be what I saw other colleagues being. I could just be myself.”
The truth of being true to yourself
While she was teaching at Harvard (and still wearing the mask), James found the impetus for her realization. It was 2008, during the economic crisis. Her class was “nothing like the image of Harvard students that I had created in my head. They were really insecure and very fearful, wondering if they had made a mistake by leaving their jobs to come back to the business school.”
Seeing their trepidation and doubt, her relationship with them completely changed as did her concept of her role as a faculty member. “They were so vulnerable that I couldn’t act like I had it all together in front of people who were melting down in front of me.” She had to find ways to be more genuine to who she was. This helped her help them, and it also addressed some of her own struggles. The classroom conversations changed, and connections were made.
What’s more, students’ evaluations of her at semester’s end were glowing — so much more favorable than in years past when the results made her “feel like a colossal failure.” It was as if that HBS class’s assessments were encouragement — an edict of sorts: “I didn’t have to pretend to be what I saw other colleagues being. I could just be myself.”
And so she did.
Seeing her record of success, it’s easy to assume that every step forward since then abounded in self-confidence. Yet surprisingly, James has always been very self-critical. “All along the trajectory, up until the point that I was appointed dean, I lacked the confidence that I would be successful.”
“Despite being a risk-taker, I always went into new experiences uncertain that it would pan out.” Her husband, Jimmie James, was the one who pointed the pattern out to her, from entering a doctoral program to finishing her dissertation.
“But I never let that lack of confidence stop me from trying,” says James.
The road thus far
Goizueta has made much progress under James’ stewardship. “The things that actually make me the proudest are those that have to do with people.” It’s one area she draws inspiration from — seeing others’ success, she’s motivated to improve herself. It’s only logical that one area of focus (and success) was a focus on people, specifically Goizueta faculty.
“When I arrived,” she says, “there were very clear messages that something was amiss with the faculty … a lack of engagement with the school.” James recognized the faculty’s strong commitment to their work and students, but not to Goizueta as an entity nor to each other.
Today’s Goizueta reflects a very different culture. One way she facilitated that change was to grow the faculty. After some past periods of no growth and insufficient staffing, James grew the faculty by 30% over the course of five years. “Having that new blood come in, young people with fresh ideas, that new energy reinvigorated us.”
She also invested in and recognized people who had been here for a while, through awarding faculty chair positions to those whose research certainly warranted it. She was able to put processes in place to identify and recognize people, providing opportunities for faculty and others to showcase that talent.
“What I look for is excellence, wherever it exists.”
Arete, all around and ahead
“What I look for is excellence, wherever it exists,” says James. “People who are committed, who are passionate, who are excellent.” But it’s not simply a matter of rewarding and recognizing them. “I need them to be in a position to demonstrate those things, because that’s what’s going to propel the school forward.
There’s an interesting corollary to arete, the Greek word for excellence, in that the word conveys the fulfillment of one’s potential. By seeking and recognizing others’ excellence, “I think it’s also helped advance people’s careers.”
This individual success and collective growth translates into Goizueta’s success, and it registers on and beyond campus. “The reputation of the school, its scholarship, and what it produces has received new energy and new recognition.”
Because business education is changing, however, Goizueta must as well. “We can’t rest on our laurels, satisfied with being a top 25 business school,” she says. “We can’t become complacent.”
Taking the initiative
“What can we do to further differentiate ourselves? What can we do to attract the kinds of students that will benefit from being at Goizueta? What can we continue to do to attract and retain the faculty who feel Goizueta is where they can do their best work?”
Finding the answers to those questions is quite a challenge. But she’s up for it. That’s why she’s here.
“I said yes to this role because I had experienced Emory before,” says James. “I started my career here earlier on, and it was really at that point when I knew that I was going to commit to a career in academia.”
At Emory, she realized the significance of the impact she could have. “Being at the front of a classroom of young college-aged students every day and influencing how they think about the world — that meant something to me.”
The personal transformation that she had as a faculty member was pivotal for James. “I want faculty to have that same kind of experience,” she says, “to understand how powerful this place is in terms of the impact they can have whether through scholarship or the classroom.”
Thinking into the future
“The thing that’s really exciting is being at this crossroads — this point where we are in our history,” says James. There’s a certain gravity to her role, which isn’t lost on her. Yet, she’s invigorated by “being able to share in the history of this place, [and leading] Goizueta into its next centennial, determining what we do now, which will set the course for what happens 10, 20 … 50 years from now.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what the future holds,” says James. “Most business schools are, at the end of the day, teaching the fundamentals of business — accounting, finance, leadership, marketing, operations. But where I see a significant opportunity is to fundamentally think differently about how we deliver education.”
Goizueta students, particularly at the graduate level, are coming to campus with a set of experiences that is far more sophisticated than what most academic institution can offer. “And for them, it’s almost like going back in time to get an MBA,” she says. “We don’t want to hold them back; we want to take them forward … to leapfrog where we are and what most schools are doing.”
“Offering standalone online classes like other institutions, for example, wouldn’t distinguish us.” Instead, James is much more interested in discerning “what’s next in how people learn, how they engage with content, and how people experience learning that enhances their development or helps shape the next product or innovation.”
“Within the context of Emory, Goizueta is perfectly positioned for this,” she says. “And given our location in Atlanta, I think we are perfectly positioned to dive deep in leveraging technology in new and innovative ways to broaden the reach of the content beyond just 60 students in a classroom.”
While many institutions are trying to distinguish themselves through content, not many are looking at the pedagogical side. “That’s where I think we can be a differentiator,” says James. “We’ll continue to deliver quality content, but I want to explore new ways of how it’s delivered.”
“Like Roberto Goizueta said, we are educating for tomorrow. And tomorrow’s happening faster and faster.”
In response to tomorrow
The school’s namesake said, “Business schools today cannot just reflect business the way it is. They must teach business the way it will be.”
The “today” of his time, however, is so vastly different from ours in 2019. And that’s only compounded by the diminishing lifespan of “the way it is” before passing into “the way it was.” So how does Goizueta prepare its students — and itself — for a future reality that’s approaching faster than ever?
“Like Roberto Goizueta said, we are educating for tomorrow. And tomorrow’s happening faster and faster,” says James. Because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, the skills that we need are those that increase our capacity to operate in uncertainty, “being able to anticipate, being able to recognize patterns, being creative.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate the role that empathy plays in all of this,” she says. “So many of the challenges that we face either in business and society is a lack of understanding and a lack of willingness to understand.
“It may seem like a departure in business education, but I say, as an organizational psychologist, business is literally all about people.” You need to understand what motivates people to buy, to sell, to work and to create. “Without that fundamental empathy and willingness to understand people at a truly interpersonal level, we’ll never be successful in business.”
If James is any example, that’s an understanding that begins with an understanding of yourself.