Prof. Peter Tufano, Dean of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Prof. Peter Tufano, Dean of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford


Prisma Reports: How would you sum up the “essence” of Saïd and what makes it unique? What values and ethos does the business school stand for?

Prof. Peter Tufano: Business schools have to have a purpose, and for us, that purpose is to work with businesses and leaders to advance economic prosperity, economic and social justice, and planetary well-being.  We work with students and executives to take on these roles in business, and to lead these kinds of business organizations.  They not only have to be adept within their organizations, but also to work across boundaries as systems leaders.

As a school, we have consistently talked about our obligation to try to tackle world-scale problems by working across the boundaries of the university.  Of course, we do all the traditional things you’d expect from a business school – finance, accounting, marketing, and we do them all exceptionally well. What makes us different is the ambition that we’re not simply about training people or organizations to be successful. Rather, how do engage with our strong community to try to make societies, economies, and systems to work better, and to work for the benefit of all?


Prisma Reports: What is your pet project for this, your last year as dean of Saïd Business School?

Prof. Peter Tufano:  This year, my “pet” project is making sure that my senior team and I take care of the health, safety, and well-being of my entire community through COVID, while also delivering innovative education to our students and setting up the school for our second 25 years.  (2021 is the 25th anniversary of the School).

This longer run agenda, while will persist well after I step down, is to ensure greater embeddedness, making sure the business school is well integrated into the university.  For example, over the last few days, we’ve been working on various joint hires with other departments around the university.  Over the years, we’ve created several excellent joint programs including the Oxford 1+1 program where our MBAs can join up with other departments.  We have created the Oxford Foundry where student and alumni entrepreneurs from all across the University can come together.

This year, I am again a tutor for a course I championed, Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO).  GOTO is a required part of the core MBA curriculum, and in it students are required to confront and find strategic interventions to attack systemic problems.  This year they are working on really difficult problems in health systems, climate systems, economic systems, and social justice systems.  The goal is for them to first take a holistic approach to understanding these big problems, and then find a meaningful point to intervene. We also offer a version of this course called “Map the System” to students from over 60 different universities around the world, and I think around five to six thousand students are participating in that right now.

We’re interested in how businesses can be not just a positive force generally in the world, but a force for social, economic and climate justice. That will take place only if we transform existing organizations and create new organizations, and on both of those sides of the coin, we’re doing a lot of work.

Concerning existing organizations, we’ve just received a generous £5m donation from the Pershing Square Foundation led by Bill Ackman for the Global Leadership Centre, our new executive education facility that will power executive education for the next century here at Oxford. We already work with executives from businesses and governments all over the world, and we will continue to do so.

As for new businesses,  we have a very distinct flair for entrepreneurship at the school. That’s manifested the Oxford Foundry also supports incredible University-linked firms that are pushing forward on pandemic recovery and on climate.  In the Creative Destruction Lab, done in conjunction with eight or nine other universities around the world, we work with young firms from across the UK and Europe.  Our Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship runs the GOTO course as well as Map the System which I described before.  Beyond that, our our Entrepreneurship Center has taken the lead on supporting local firms through the Liber Program, and last summer, we set up the Dean’s Response Fund, and created the Oxford Saïd Service Corps.  On top of all of this, we partner with Goldman Sachs to run the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business programme.  We believe that not only do you have to run firms better, but you also have to do things differently. Entrepreneurs are particularly good at thinking about how to do things differently. So, we play both sides of that coin.

Sorry for the long answer!  I suppose that beyond making sure that everyone is healthy and safe, I don’t have just one pet project. It’s like a large family and I love them all, and I will continue to nurture them all until I hand the reins over to somebody else.


Prisma Reports: In this era where governments continue to grapple with inequality, some already launching programs like universal basic income, what are some of the latest findings your research has uncovered during these last 12 months?

Prof. Peter Tufano: A number of our colleagues have been doing different bits of research. I’ll try to do justice to them, recognizing that their work is wide-ranging.

At the highest level, we have a stream of work around corporate purpose, corporate governance and reporting that attempts to understand how business should and can be a greater force for justice.   This is manifested in a wide range of projects, including work on how corporate form can be changed to support stakeholder capitalism, how sustainability reporting can be improved, the links between ownership and ESG outcomes, how boards can enact purpose, and much more.

Another of my colleagues studies the connection between well-being (or happiness), and both workplace and macro-economic structures. COVID has brought all this work to the fore and has raised questions about the nature of work now and going forward, and how to structure workplaces.

My own work is on household finance. We’ve been doing surveys in the field every four weeks in the US, and we can track how American families are faring through all of the lockdowns. What we’re seeing is a troubling increase in the level of financial fragility of most American families. We’re seeing inequalities widening along the lines of gender, education and employment. The implications for public policy are quite direct, and the Biden Administration is taking some of these steps. I also founded and chair an organization in the United States called—in the last few months  where we’ve been working with a number of workplaces and payroll systems to come up with emergency savings plans for workers.

Another one of my colleagues is research that’s still in early stages, but it’s provocative and if confirmed really quite frightening. He’s looking at care homes and how some are seeing higher levels of death which might be correlated with their financial structures.

Other colleagues are looking at how the pandemic is having different impacts on women and men.

Another one of my colleagues is looking at the optimal way to structure the distribution of vaccines. We are extremely proud that Oxford University has taken the lead with the AstraZeneca vaccine, but how these vaccines is distributed is a huge issue.

It quite a wide range of topics that the faculty has been working on that are COVID-related in the last six months or so.


Prisma Reports: What is Saïd’s strategy to produce the socially responsible leaders and managers of tomorrow, which global corporations need?

Prof. Peter Tufano: Let me answer this in two ways: first, what are we doing for our students, and second, what are we doing with corporations and businesses directly.

Business students—a bit like engineers or doctors–are fundamentally problem solvers.  I would contend that the best way encourage them to be socially responsible is to force them to confront huge systemic issues  so that they can appreciate how many different interests collide.

In most business schools, students experience either a self-contained case study that is discussed, usually from the perspective of corporate manager, and “solved” in a 60 or 80-minute class. Or maybe their professors lecture them and provide “answers.”  We think that business students need to work on problems which can’t be summarized in a short case, can’t be solved in 90 minutes, and that are beyond the capabilities of all of us. That’s where our GOTO course comes in.

In GOTO, Students have perhaps the most frustrating experience of any MBA program in the world because they are forced to deal with some of the most complicated problems of the world, and the more that they pull and pull on these strings, the string just keeps getting longer. Whether that’s a question about the delivery of medicines in Africa or trying to combat climate change, these are big systemic issues that involve politics, economies, civil society, and citizens. They often involve shadow parts of economies that are sometimes frightening. Thus, the first thing that we do is we compel students to confront these realities over an extended period in their program.   They may find some intervention points, but they will come away with an acute sense of responsibility and a humility that big problems will require long-term focus and cross-sectoral collaboration.

At the same time, you need to go high and go low: challenging the high intellect to solve big and complicated problems and also challenge them personally to think about the people they are and will be. Here, for example, we partner with the Aspen Institute to offer a version of the very personal Aspen Leadership Programme.

We also need to engage directly with corporate executives and leading organizations.  I’ll point to a few of these corporate interventions.  My colleague Colin Mayer has been leading a project with the British Academy on the future of the corporation. It looks at what kind of corporate governance structures are going to be most valuable to get firms to acknowledge the multiple stakeholders that they are obliged to serve. My colleagues, Richard Barker and Bob Eccles are pressing hard to reform accounting. How do we change accounting standards to bring to the surface and measure some of the things that we believe in a stakeholder world are really important?

Our Future of Marketing Initiative, run by Andrew Stephens, deeply engages with leading firms in the digital space, and has been pushing forward agendas around fair standards for data, the ethical use of AI, and how marketing can be used to combat racism and stereotypes.

Our Executive Education programmes directly work with leaders and organizations who are grappling with how to better align their activities with the lofty goals we aspire too.

To summarize, we work with both individuals and with organizations to try to help produce economic prosperity, social justice and environmental sustainability.


Prisma Reports: What are Saïd’s latest accomplishments in adaptive learning methods and how are you also equipping your students with the necessary skills to lead the ongoing technological transformation of corporations?

Prof. Peter Tufano: For us, the move to digitization happened long before the pandemic. Some years ago, we decided that, while we have about 1,000-degree students and we do a great job with them across everything from undergraduate to MBA to doctoral programmes, we could be reaching many more. Hence, we created a set of online non-degree courses. There are almost 20 of them now, and we have over 25,000 people that have gone through these courses in the last few years.   Our online courses cover various aspects of leadership and innovation; sustainability; technical courses like Fintech or Blockchain; to courses new developments like digital marketing; entrepreneurial finance, and everything in between. Before COVID hit, we were also adopting new learning methods in executive education because many of the corporate clients that we work with had preferences for blended forms of learning.

We’re increasingly using AI in our executive education programmes. We have partnered with Esme Learning to introduce an AI coach which appears on screen during group sessions, and after meetings, tracking video and text chat interactions. Listeners receive data about their own participation in relation to others in their group —eg., are they interrupting others or dominating the session— which helps students adjust their interaction to become more effective collaborators. Given the increasing use of AI across all forms of business, it is important that our students become comfortable using it to enhance both their learning and their leadership experience.

We’ve been developing digital muscles for online delivery for some years before the pandemic. When COVID hit, it was clear that everything had to go online and, like everybody else, we moved our degree programmes online  rapidly. I think it’s probably fair to say, those first few weeks were rough.  However, our faculty did an outstanding job.   Even more amazingly, rather than just revert to a Zoom-version of status quo courses, my amazing faculty reimagined scratch the entire MBA Program over the summer to deliver a wholly new approach in September.

To put this in perspective: our pre-COVID MBA program was delivered in four cohorts of 80 students face to face.  For autumn 2020, we reconfigured the programme to deliver the course in groups of 20 students.  To do this, we moved a tremendous amount of the material online in the form of asynchronous or on demand materials. The synchronous elements were delivered face to face in small intensive discussion groups, getting back much closer to the fundamental ethos of Oxford. It was the ultimate in blending high tech and high touch. With the asynchronous parts of the program, students get literally hundreds of hours of content by our faculty on demand. But, the small group experiences with 20 other students is having an intense conversation about a topic where there’s nowhere to hide; everybody’s well prepared, and the conversations are deep, intense, and powerful. That, to my mind, is the best of both worlds.

This has been a costly adaptation not only in terms of money and even more so faculty time because they’ve invested so much into this.  But I think that we can be proud that we used the pandemic to reinvent ourselves.

What we’ve learned from all this is that we have a set of pedagogical muscles that we have been developing over the years and even more in the last nine months. Coming out of this we can deliver outstanding face-to-face formats, alongside of great digital assets.

We’ve all learned how to work in virtual teams to produce remarkably good outcomes. Workwise we can do most of the things we would do otherwise. Maybe it’s slightly less fun, but virtual is not a burden. What is a burden is lockdowns, the inability to see our friends, to shake hands or to hug our family members; the inability to travel to see relatives from other countries; the requirement to teach your children at home because their schools are closed.

The personal side of COVID is a train wreck, and there’s little we can do to solve the problem of a parent who is trying to home school hyperactive seven and nine-year-olds or somebody who is living alone in a flat and is longing for contact with another human being; or somebody whose elderly relatives are at a distance and are ill and you can’t go see them. Those are the problems that I think are much more pronounced than the problems of how to make virtual meetings work or how to get a team to function effectively.


Prisma Reports: In your opinion, what is the sweet-spot or “perfect equilibrium” between theory and real-life business?

Prof. Peter Tufano:   Attempting to divorce a business school from business will always lead to a bad outcome, but at the same time, losing the deep, critical and objective approach of academia is equally damaging.  One way we have been able to bridge the theory-practice divide is through our very practice-oriented research, which I have discussed earlier.  Another way is to ensure that your teaching programmes demand excellence on the theory and real-life fronts.  For example, we are proud to have that our undergraduate program is the most selective across all of Oxbridge and meets the high standards of Oxford.  At the same time in Executive Education, we stay connected with business is by working with businesses. To give you a sense of numbers, we have about 1,000 degree students from undergrad to MBA to doctoral students.  In a normal year, in Executive Education, about 1,000 people join us in person in our short courses; 4000-5,000 corporate and government executives who come into our custom programs; and 8000-10000 join us online each year.   Our degree students—from undergrads to doctoral students, challenge us to be excellent academically.  Our executives keep us grounded in business because they have little tolerance or patience for theory that is not applicable.

The international composition of the school means that we don’t just connect with a business community in one geography, say the United States or in the UK.   Without boasting, we are one of the most global business school in the world. One of the statistics that I’m extraordinarily proud of is our African population.  If you look at the fraction of Africans who are in business schools globally, it’s under 2%.  But we made a concerted effort and we have  12 to 13% of our class from Africa.   Why?  Because if you ask the question “What fraction of leaders 25 years from now are going to be in Africa?” the more likely answer is surely not 2%.

Similarly, if you look at the data, with 47% of our MBA class made up of remarkable women, we have a larger fraction of women in our class than almost any other leading business school in the world.

We don’t just worry about the balance between theory and practice, we also are very aware of the gaps between different countries and cultures, and between gender.  While trying to balance these forces is sometimes more challenging, it produces a better result.   With balance, no ones can proclaim, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” without getting a lively debate.


Prisma Reports: Tell us a bit about how executive education has evolved at Saïd in recent years and what exciting, new programs are now on offer or to be launched soon?   

Prof. Peter Tufano: Sometimes I say that executive education is to business schools as labs are to scientists. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do. As I mentioned in the earlier question, Exec Ed keeps us grounded, but more importantly is part of our “theory of change.”  I see Oxford and other elite schools as having an important role in society.  One theory of change is that your amazing students go onto change the world–in time.  A complementary theory of change is that you can have impact through the organizations you work, which can immediately effect positive change.  We do both.

Organizations are also asking harder questions around impact, not just how much does a programme cost, but what impact is it having on their organization. They’ve been asking the obvious questions like, “what’s the right format? Should we do things face-to-face and live? What are the skills and capabilities that we really need?”  Forward looking organizations are also asking “How do we get outside of our own organizations and think about the bigger issues in the world? “what’s going on in politics, in science, in the cultural realm?  How do we deal with a climate emergency?”  Increasingly, businesses are asking bigger questions.

These concerns about effectiveness, impact and the role of business in the broader world infuse our Exec Ed.  For example, for many years we’ve been running a program for the UK Government called the Major Program Leadership Academy (MPLA) where we train the people who run the biggest infrastructure projects of the UK Government. When they started, they were about 30% of the time on budget. They’ve been part of a change initiative that has doubled that figure. The UK government has made it a requirement now that everybody who runs big projects goes through the MPLA. We now work with two other governments on the same project because, clearly, impact is important.

Regarding new skills and capabilities, we’ve created and are creating an entire suite of activities around ESG. So, what is it that companies need to understand about environmental, social, and governance topics that are going to be increasingly important to them?

In terms of diversity, years ago we recognized that we needed to do a much better job preparing women to succeed in the workplace. So, we created an Executive Education program called Women Transforming Leaders and we have both an online and a face-to-face version that is for women only. It’s had incredible impacts on women. In fact, I believe there’s a book that’s just come out by one of our Associate Fellows, Kathryn Bishop, that is drawn from the learnings of that program.

So, the theme throughout all this is that we’ve tried to stay close to business, but not be afraid to get slightly in front of the market so that we can help and work alongside corporations and governments to drive impact.  That impact is reflected in greater organizational effectiveness (such as in the MPLA: having more diverse workplaces, as in our Women Transforming Leadership program, and really getting ahead of social agendas, all part of our ESG suite.


Prisma Reports: If you could choose anyone from history as your mentor who would you choose and why.

Prof. Peter Tufano:  Like most Deans, I spent most of my academic life doing research and teaching, rather than managing.  This has given me a profound sense of humility about my leadership gaps.  I’ve always been intrigued by US President Abraham Lincoln, who wrestled with deep personal issues, somehow managed to bring together a team of rivals, and was a great listener while also an understated but powerful inspiration to others.   And he somehow pulled my country through a very dark period.   I think we oversell the idea of perfect leaders—Lincoln inspires me as a deeply imperfect leader from whom I could learn a great deal.


Prisma Reports: Final message to the readers of Foreign Policy magazine?

Prof. Peter Tufano: The pandemic has uncovered not only a public health crisis but also shone a light on and deepened economic, social, national, and climate crises. These are far too big to be solved by any one individual, organization or even sector. Government, business, and civil society all have an important parts to play.   Our only hope of addressing these systemic issues  is by working collaboratively.  Sometimes, there has been a “them and us” approach, pitting business and government against one another. There are times when that is completely appropriate, such as in anti-trust or competition law.   But as we do battle with issues as existential as the extinction of our planet we will need to work across divides.  I hope in a small way, Saïd Business School is showing a model for how we can work constructively across civil society, business, and government to produce economic, social and climate justice.

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