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Alumni

Embracing Change

  • Thomas Watson
  • |
  • Sep 3, 2019

Dean Sharon Hodgson believes in transparency and collaboration when faced with disruption in the world of academia.

Embracing Change

With expertise ranging from leading global businesses and running technology-enabled process transformations, to artificial intelligence and advanced analytics, Dean Sharon Hodgson was unanimously selected by Ivey’s decanal committee to lead our School in the Age of Disruption. Following a 30-year career delivering results at IBM, PwC, and Andersen Consulting, she officially joined our community in May. Hodgson, who holds a Wharton MBA and an undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba, recently sat down with Thomas Watson, Editor of the Ivey Business Journal, to discuss her career and vision.

Sharon, welcome to Ivey. How have you spent your first months as Dean?

The first few months for me have been about listening and learning from the Ivey community, and meeting our stakeholders. I attended various faculty functions and have spent time learning about our centres and institutes. I’ve also met with alumni, advisers, staff, and students. In fact, I’ve already taught a class on artificial intelligence. I have also been trying to set the right tone. Disruption is coming to academia and Ivey needs to be prepared to change in order to lead the way forward. So I want to foster a sense of urgency. But equally, I want people to feel that how we respond to the disruption will be through an open and transparent process.

Describe your upbringing and how it influenced your life.

My father served in the Air Force so my family moved a lot. It taught me to be comfortable with change and how to adapt to new situations. Since I continued to move around as an adult, my mother once called me “a global nomad.” At first, I was a bit offended. Then I realized I didn’t feel like a nomad because family support has enabled me to feel at home anywhere. In other words, moving taught me to see family as my anchor.

“Academia, like many industries, is under great disruption. Government, regulatory and market forces are changing the value and demand for a degree. My background is leading change and helping companies navigate disruptions for better outcomes. I want to do the same for Ivey – take a great brand and make it shine even brighter on the world stage.” —Sharon Hodgson

How did your MBA impact your management style?

It really reinforced my belief in an open and collaborative leadership style. I still get goosebumps thinking about a case that drove home the importance of including all relevant stakeholders in decision making. It involved deciding whether to let a race car compete, but you could fall into a trap of not consulting the actual driver – the one who had the most to win, or lose. Another case drove home the power of trust, and the importance of earning it before making big changes. It was about firefighters facing death by a fast-approaching wall of fire, and whether to trust a new and unknown leader. Those core messages have stuck with me, and trust in leaders has never been more important.

You have had an impressive global career as a consultant, partner, and executive. What has been your toughest role?

The most challenging assignment so far was taking over the Canadian consulting business at IBM. The business was declining in both revenue and profit. Worse yet, our people were not engaged in the business or its success. Canada had the worst engagement scores of all of IBM’s consulting businesses globally. Since consulting is a people business, I had to get these people back. Engagement is a really challenging thing to turn around, so I launched an effort to get people feeling good again about what they do. We also brought focus to an unwieldy strategy. Our portfolio of offerings emulated the United States, in terms of the industries we covered and the solutions we delivered. But Canada has different needs, so we looked at the solutions we were offering and then only focused on areas that made sense and were actually deliverable in a Canadian context. I am proud to say that when I left, both profit and revenue were growing again, almost at double-digit rates, doing better than other business units. Our engagement scores also increased by the largest factors in IBM consulting businesses globally.

You are one of the relatively few leaders with deep understanding of AI. What is the most misunderstood issue?

When we talk about AI, there is a lot of focus on high-profile failures. That’s not surprising because it’s emerging tech and there are more failures than successes in early deployments. But the focus on failure is misleading because in my experience pretty much every project I’ve seen or been involved with, whether it’s been successful or not, has taught us something. These pilot programs are not typically black-or-white experiments. They might be designed to solve a problem, but in the process of trying to achieve your goal, there are learning gateways you go through, and with each gate passed, intellectual value gets created. So every project out there, whether it is deemed a success or not, moves us forward. I think that process of learning through pilots is massively misunderstood.

“Leaders need to be agile and curious, and they need to understand the importance of continuous education, because as technology changes our world, our jobs will continue to change as well.”—Sharon Hodgson

What attracted you to Ivey, and what excites you most about your new role?

Academia, like many industries, is under great disruption. Government, regulatory and market forces are changing the value and demand for a degree. You only have to look at the reduction in tuition, which was announced a few weeks before I started, and options such as mini-certifications and non-degree forms of management education. Plus, the expectations of our students and alumni are changing. They are seeking more personalized teaching, courses available anytime and anywhere, and more content focused on disruption. And technology disruption is opening up incumbency to nontraditional competition such as Google, Amazon, and Apple. My background is leading change and helping companies navigate disruptions for better outcomes. I want to do the same for Ivey – take a great brand and make it shine even brighter on the world stage. At the core, it is the ability to positively impact our current and future leaders, and improve business education for all Canadians, that excites me most.

Dean Sharon Hodgson catching up with colleagues Mark Zbaracki, Associate Dean of Research (left), Terri Garton, Director of Alumni Relations (front right), and Larry Menor, MBA Program Director (back right)

Given Ivey’s core competencies, where do you see big opportunities?

There is an opportunity to help strong leaders leverage disruption for good. Today, leaders need to understand and appreciate the potential of technology. By preparing them to capitalize on the power of humans and machines, we have the opportunity to raise outcomes in all industries. Leaders need to be agile and curious, and they need to understand the importance of continuous education, because as technology changes our world, our jobs will continue to change as well.

Ivey uses Case-Method Learning, which dates back to Socratic debate. Do you see it as an advantage or disadvantage in the digital age?

When talking to alumni, most describe a transformational experience, crediting the Case Method with teaching them to think analytically and seek input and debate, while giving them the confidence to face complex challenges. So, the Case Method is obviously a key ingredient in Ivey’s secret sauce. The trick for us will be maintaining our secret sauce in the digital age. We’ll have to experiment to get it right.

Photos: Nation Wong
Art Direction: Greg Salmela, Aegis