Dean Sarah Gardial set out to achieve many goals when she became the first female dean of the Tippie College of Business seven years ago. Two of her most notable achievements include creating a culture of “we” at the college and creating a dynamic, ever-changing environment at Tippie to keep up with business trends. Throughout her time at Tippie, Dean Gardial has been a source of positivity and inspiration for students, faculty, and staff alike. Her legacy at Tippie will live on long after her return to Tennessee in March 2020. We sat down with Dean Gardial in an exclusive Marketing interview to discuss the state of marketing today and her vision for the college after her departure.
Could you tell me how you initially become interested in studying marketing and what drove you to pursue a career in the field?
“Absolutely, what I really wanted to major in was Psychology. I really am fascinated about what goes on inside people’s heads and I think it’s getting even more fascinating now that we’re getting physiological stuff to go along with it. But it just didn’t seem practical in terms of a major and I had no plan at that point to get a PhD. That wasn’t even on my horizons, so I was trying to be, you know, a practical middle class student who needed to have a job the day after graduation.
So, I learned that marketing was a really great intersection between psychology and business and I thought, well there’s the ticket, because then I can study the thing that I love and there will still be a job at the end. As I eventually decided to not stop going to school, the whole way through I was doing a marketing degree but with a minor in psychology, which really kept my foot very much in that camp. To me, a lot of marketing is psychology in the context of commerce, and so it’s just allowed me to study what I loved but in a particular context that has some real relevance to it.”
Based on your experiences, what are some of the skills or temperaments you’ve observed of successful marketers, and how have you seen those change over the years?
“That’s a really great question. I’ve always looked at marketing as an interface role between the organization and their customer base out there. So, you’re a boundary spanner for starters, and that means you’ve gotta understand both sides really well to do your job. You’ve got to understand your organization and potential, what they can deliver on, and maybe change and innovate. As well, what trends are going on that are shaping the influences, the demands, and the marketplace, and then bringing those two together. So, I think there’s problem solving, I think there’s creativity there. I also think there’s always been the need to be diagnostic about what’s going on in both of those worlds and to have a really curious mind about what’s driving change, and then how to bring solutions together around that. I don’t see that ever changing, I think that will fundamentally always be a part of marketing.
However, it would be crazy not to say that in my time what I’ve seen is a shift to where the data that we have available to understand what is going on in both of those worlds is just explosive. I think originally in my early career, it would’ve been people who had really good intuition and instincts and could ‘read the tea leaves’ a little bit and make some brilliant decisions based off of that. Now with transactional data, you really understand people’s buying habits and what’s going to drive them to do the next thing in terms of their purchase. I would say the analytics piece was something that simply wasn’t so much a part of my training. We talked about market research, but it looked at giant blocks of people like 20-year-olds, or women, that said what’s going on with them. But literally having transaction data down to the individual level, I think is the game changer.
I will just say as someone who doesn’t live in that world, I won’t even teach that stuff. That’s a whole different context for how you build a relationship with a customer that was not a part of my training or even experience now. I’m not even on Facebook, I know you think that’s crazy!”
How would you explain your view on the importance of marketing in modern organizations today?
“First of all, almost every market you can name out there is fragmented and competitive. I think the ability to say who you are in the marketplace and own your niche is more important now than ever. The amount of competitors that you have in any marketplace has just exploded and the only way that you’re going to succeed in a marketplace like that is through having real sophistication around who your customers are, who your leads are, and how you’re going to target a particular need in that market.
There’s only so many Amazons in the world that sell all things to all people. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the businesses out there and most everyone else is going to come at it from the point of view of owning a much smaller space than that. So how do you define that space, how do you understand that space, how do you get the data, how do you respond to that data? I think the role of marketing is arguably more critical now than it even was before, because of the hyperness of the competition and the choices that people have. You can’t do it on size or luck any more, and it really is about the strategic thinking around marketing that is going to create success in marketplaces. It’s not always the best product that wins.”
What were some of the goals you initially set out to achieve as Dean, and how do you feel you’ve accomplished those goals?
“One of the things that I thought was most important was to build a culture of “we” that brought everyone in the college together. When I came here, I recognized that there were a lot of good things going on in the college, but they were all going on independently, siloed, and there wasn’t a lot of conversation going on across. There were no opportunities for synergy or collaboration, and I really wanted everyone to feel like they were an important part of a bigger whole and that we all were coming together around some goals. Creating a common vision was a part of that. Having meetings where we could share and talk about what was going on and work on problems together – that’s been something that from day one was important to me.
I can’t claim that I’m 100% there, but we just had a review from AACSB and this was one of the things that outside people coming in definitely cited as a best practice for our college. Everyone seemed to be on board with the same vision. It didn’t matter who you talked about, from top to bottom, everyone was on the same page and all moving in the same direction, and that was a really proud moment for me.
The second thing I would say is I came in with a really strong sense that every business school in this country has to change what it’s doing because business is changing too much. We can’t stand still when everything outside of our walls is changing. So I look back now at the decisions that we’ve made to improve existing programs, start new programs that didn’t exist, to close programs that weren’t what the market wanted, and I see an organization that is nimble and is able to change and react to the new realities of what people want from business schools.
I think that’s a really important thing for this college for the future because we’ll never be able to take our foot off that accelerator. We’re always going to be chasing a dynamic marketplace. If you talk to employers, the non-profits and the for-profits that are hiring our students, they will all say we’re changing as fast as we can. Well, it would just be crazy for us to say we’re not. We’ve got to run with them, we’ve got to change with them, we’ve got to understand what their challenges are and send them students and graduates that can meet those challenges. So, the bar for us is changing all the time.”
What have been some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had as Dean?
“By far, two things. One, any time I get to meet with students. I don’t get to have my own classes anymore because this job keeps me really busy and on the road, so anything that allows me to interact with the students is just gold for me because that really is where my heart is.
The second thing I would say is our alumni. I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes, in cars, going across the ocean, literally coast to coast in this country, to meet with our alumni and I will tell you that they are the best people in the world. Their love and loyalty to this campus is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and when we ask them for time, talent, treasure, they say yes. I have been so honored to meet alums who have been out 2, 5, 10, 15, 40 years, they are wonderful. They are in some ways the biggest asset that we have as a college because there are now something like 60,000 living alumni out there and they all want to help us. It’s just amazing.”
For the 2017 homecoming, your “Dear World” story reflected on your experiences with sexism growing up and why you now push for women empowerment. As the first female dean of Tippie, how have you observed support for women in business grow and how would you like to see that continue?
“Now you’re hitting my passion here. One of the things that we know because there’s ample research out there, is that although women have continued to enter the workforce for decades at the same rate as men, they are not moving into leadership roles at the same rate. This is as true now as it was when I graduated from my undergraduate institution in 1980. It’s a long time for no change. So you’ve got to stop and think – what’s going on here, why isn’t that changing? If women are entering the workforce in the same way, why aren’t they getting where they need to be? Ultimately, the answer is there’s a lot of things going on there, there isn’t any one thing that makes it simple.
So, what I like to focus on, and what I’ve tried to focus on here, are what are the pieces of that puzzle that women actually control? Not the pieces that we can’t control, like the wage gap or those kinds of things. What are the things that hold women back, ourselves? That’s where I’ve put a lot of emphasis on leadership development programs for women, bringing our successful female alumni back to tell their stories, to be a role model, to be an inspiration to women. Because I know that the challenges in the bigger world out there around women moving into leadership are still very much there and are changing at glacial speed, it’s very incumbent on anyone in a business school, but especially women, to say let’s make sure that the women are getting what they need to help create a nudge for them.”
How would you like to see the progress that’s been made during your time as Dean continue in the coming years?
“That’s a really great question. You know, because when you walk away from something, you really have to let go. Let me say, you don’t have any influence and so you have to in some ways detach and let things flow the way they need to. So when I think about looking back, I don’t see particular programs or types of students. What I hope I see is a college where faculty and students want to come because both of those groups are thriving and being nourished here. A business school that still has very strong partnerships with industries because that’s probably the best barometer of whether we’re doing the right stuff. If we’re not, they’ll walk away.
So if I walk back and see that employers want to come here and hire our students, that students want to come here because they know what a special experience it is, and that faculty want to come here because they know that their careers are going to be supported, that’s really success. Then everything else is going to evolve and change, so I really am talking about a culture of excellence.”
Final question courtesy of Marketing DEO, Dhananjay Nayakankuppam: In your opinion, why and when did rock and roll die?
“You know, I would say probably some of the culprits, disco for sure. Alright, disco was just the death of really good rock and roll and it just became kind of poppy and kitchy and you know strings and violins. And when was that, late 70’s, early 80’s? Disco did not help at all. And then I would say rap is kind of when it went in the coffin. We don’t have a lot of music per say, the emphasis is more on the lyric then on the melody. A lot of what I loved about the early rock and roll is the melody and we’ve lost some of that as well. But you know, classic rock and roll is alive and well in my house and on the radio stations out there. And by the way, those artists are still out touring, so tell DJ (Dhananjay Nayakankuppam) maybe it’s not dead yet!”