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How Ryerson’s business school brought diversity to its advisory board

Steven Murphy began looking at his advisory council’s demographics after joining the Ted Rogers School of Management in August of 2013.

Clifton Li

Like other Canadian business school deans, Steven Murphy at Ryerson University seeks high-level strategic advice from an advisory council of business and community leaders.

But last year, he led an effort by the Ted Rogers School of Management to rethink the selection of outside advisers for the dean. For the new 23-member advisory council, top corporate and non-profit leaders interested in serving as volunteers had to explain how their experience and values meshed with the ambitions of the fast-growing business school in downtown Toronto.

The new approach, a break from past practice at Rogers and other business schools, puts a premium on what-you-know instead of the who-you-know focus of traditional informal networks.

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"If we know who we are and what makes up our values, who can we find that fits with our values?" asks Dr. Murphy.

His desire to do things differently dates to August of 2013 when he arrived as dean at the Toronto campus, where many of the business school's 9,500-plus students are children of immigrants and the first in their family to attend university.

"One of the first things that struck me was just how diverse the student body is in an urban setting like Ryerson," he says. "From day one I was thinking about how much of our outreach and much of my strategic plans had to be about how do we reflect that sense of diversity outward to what I want to accomplish strategically."

Putting a focus on diversity, he adds, "isn't just good for diversity's sake but because of all the studies we know around productivity and the value of having different ideas. …It [diversity] becomes such a passionate differentiator for me when talking to students. Whatever we do, it has to carry that DNA forward."

After a formal ceremony of thanks in early 2014, Dr. Murphy disbanded the school's existing advisory council. "It didn't reflect to me the diversity of thought, opinion or industry or diversity in age bracket that I was trying to establish," he says.

In another break from past practice, the school hired an executive search firm, Bedford Consulting Group, to assist in mapping out the ideal competencies of potential candidates for the advisory council, with representation from business, the non-profit sector, professional organizations and academia.

The idea was to recruit applicants whose own work and life experiences resonated with the school's mission to graduate "socially-conscious leaders with an entrepreneurial orientation," expand its international footprint and conduct research with local, national and global relevance.

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The recruitment of a new council came as Dr. Murphy and his faculty hammered out a new academic plan that proposed expanded opportunities for experiential learning, graduate programs and research, and an enhanced commitment to Ryerson's city-building reputation.

"If we know who we are and what makes up our values, who can we find that fits with our values," says Dr. Murphy, of the rationale for a new advisory body.

After several months of intensive analysis, the school and Bedford drafted a nine-page document for potential candidates that spelled out the responsibilities of council members to provide high-level advice on such issues as building the school's brand, expanding relations with the corporate sector and recruiting donors. A series of "position profiles" identified the desired background of council members in such areas as innovation, entrepreneurship, multigenerational insight, culture change and corporate strategy.

The search drew on established networks of the school and its key stakeholders as well as contacts provided by officials at Bedford, culminating in an ad in The Globe and Mail last June.

More than 200 candidates applied for 23 positions, with all of them expected to write a personal letter about their desire to join the council. After screening of applicants by Bedford, the dean and his team made the final selection last August.

In the end, every candidate chosen accepted the invitation to serve for a two-year term, though some initially will serve longer so that no more than one-third of the board changes over time.

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"This is 10 years ahead of where board search should be in Canada, not only in the corporate sector but also private corporations and Crown corporations," says Bedford senior client partner Lisa Heidman, who advised the dean and his senior management on a new council.

She says identifying the competencies needed to help an organization reach its goals is, in part, an exercise in transparency.

"It is really about opening the doors to innovative, thoughtful processes that, from the get-go, start with 'What is our organization's strategic plan? What do we need to move forward?'" says Ms. Heidman.

MasterCard Canada president Betty DeVita, who serves on several corporate and non-profit boards, praised the process for selecting the council, which meets four times a year.

"There are many searches that are done on the board level that happen based on people's informal networks," says Ms. DeVita, chair of the dean's council. "This felt more transparent and clear."

With no previous connection to the school, she says she hopes to offer an outside perspective on the school's stated ambitions.

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"There is the opportunity to provide some of my resources and thinking to help shape Ryerson and bring it to a broader stage globally and locally," she says. "To connect private and public partnerships and to provide some of the insights I have in my day job to something that will shape the future is, in quintessential MasterCard-speak, priceless."

Advisory council vice-chair Andrea Cohen Barrack, chief executive officer of Ontario Trillium Foundation, does much of her volunteer work in the international arena. She was keen to work with a local institution that receives no money from her foundation.

One of 10 women on the council, she says she was impressed by the "clear and purposeful application process" and the breadth of outreach conducted by Bedford and the school.

"What attracted me is how can we leverage the work that Ryerson is doing in the innovation space and how is that applicable to business," she says.

At 32, Andrew Mullin is one of the youngest members of the council.

"He [the dean] has available to him a diverse group of individuals from whom he can solicit ideas and get feedback," says Mr. Mullin, a partner with management consultancy McKinsey & Co. "Hopefully it will serve him well over the next several years."

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