Christopher Puto has no buyer’s remorse over his decision to leave the deanship of one of the nation’s top 25 business schools to take the helm of the University of St. Thomas College of Business. His first year as dean has him right on track toward fulfilling a bigger professional mission that transcends name and status. He has been given the latitude to craft a business school experience that can deliver on its promise of producing ethical business leaders who can think and thrive in an ever-changing, real-world environment. Simply said, Puto is determined to effectively deliver business education of the highest caliber in ways that can rival the outputs of the best schools.
Puto is quick to shake off the mantle of “turnaround dean” – though he feels that is what he accomplished at Georgetown, where he successfully catapulted that school into a national top 25 program, and similarly before that as MBA program director at the University of Arizona, which credits Puto with its brief status as a top 30 school. In fact, Puto has carried with him a treasure-trove of business education experience that he distills to its essence, tweaks and carries forward – from his doctoral program days at Duke University, as a marketing professor at the University of Michigan, as MBA program head at the University of Arizona, and then for four years as dean at the Robert Emmett McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
But the St. Thomas College of Business is different. Puto, who describes himself as an “Educational Entrepreneur,” views his newest role as the best opportunity yet to push the envelope of what a business school program can offer. What drives Puto is that despite the plethora of business programs nationwide, today’s business world requires skills that go essentially unaddressed by the Harvard-style, case-based “cohort” model of MBA education introduced 60 years ago.
In contrast, St. Thomas has a long history of providing values-based business education to undergraduates and graduate students alike. “We have an opportunity to build on St. Thomas’ reputation for combining strong grounding in the liberal arts, excellent professional business education, and what I call ‘relevance’ – the true blend of theory and practice – to educate women and men who are committed to making a difference in our world,” Puto said.
When asked what his goals are for the College of Business, Puto quickly offers two overarching objectives: help launch the school’s first truly full-time MBA program and use that program to become nationally ranked, and eventually leverage that ranking to gain recognition for St. Thomas as having the nation’s top Catholic business school.
Working with his full-time MBA task force, led by MBA Program Director Teresa Rothausen and Senior Associate Dean William Raffield, Puto helped to build consensus among the business school faculty this year as plans for the new program were developed. Puto also has led the effort to centralize the school’s nondegree professional development programs through The Management Center, and worked to coordinate all of St. Thomas’ business offerings – including the sizeable, well-respected undergraduate business programs – under one college for the first time.
UST MBA PROVIDES CORNERSTONEWith the new signature MBA program (known as the UST MBA) launched in September 2003, Puto is concentrating on four key benchmarks that are consistent with his business values and reflect a composite of the efforts he has experienced during the last 20 years:
The first benchmark is to instill a “sense of savvy” in students about what businesses need to do to be competitive. This is critical for business leaders to be successful. The challenge is to create an academic program that spawns it. Puto has spent the last year at St. Thomas developing curricula, building a cohesive faculty culture, and creating an environment that lends itself to developing savvy business leaders.
Next on Puto’s list is to incorporate values into the business curriculum. “Savvy” can quickly turn to “ugly” without the presence of a strong context of business ethics – an area of study in which St. Thomas excels, and that served as a major attraction for Puto to relocate to Minnesota. Critical to the process, Puto said, is for students to be pushed to have a much stronger grasp of their own values and proclivities. For students to really incorporate their values into their own work practice, business ethics must be delivered through a dialogue that is intertwined throughout the educational experience, not in the typical get-it-out-of-the-way, stand-alone-class fashion that is the norm at most business schools.
Third is to teach students more realistic and well-informed decision-making skills. Decision-making is key, said Puto, and is often the single most important “proof point” for business leaders. Yet relatively little time in traditional business programs is spent discussing, using and honing these skills. The key to creating better decision makers is teaching students how to gather information systematically, which by its definition improves analytical skills. Though there are as many ways of making a decision as there are people, Puto believes that by pushing emerging business leaders to stress the importance of analytical skills, those managers can better define the nature of the problem, determine what they don’t know, strategize and design, and gather and interpret data to make informed, sophisticated and more effective decisions.
Fourth among Puto’s best bets for creating an outstanding business program is a strong emphasis on delivering “superior customer value.” The realm of customer service goes to the heart of what motivates Puto and best describes his core philosophy of what constitutes a focused, astute – and yes, savvy – business practitioner. A seasoned marketing and sales executive before entering the world of academia, Puto had worked as a senior executive for Burger King Corp., where he was involved in developing the strategic foundations for the successful “Have it Your Way” campaign – the quintessential customer-focused consumer campaign of its day. Puto believes that effectively addressing and delivering customer value is the glue that serves to drive all business relationships and transactions.
LEARNING LABS AND BUSINESS SIMULATORS DRIVE INTENSE LEARNINGA signature of Puto’s educational approach is creating and offering students an intense, team-based environment within which to grapple with important business issues. The new UST MBA is replete with two new and dynamic curricular innovations that are rare in format and unique among business schools in their delivery.
Two learning laboratories – one for leadership and the other for ethics – are incorporated as key elements of the MBA program’s first-year experience. The laboratory model, first developed by University of Arizona faculty under Puto, mixes both the content and delivery of business issues, such as business communications and leadership, into a primordial soup that offers learning within a context. The labs’ peer feedback loop helps students truly excel.
But arguably the most powerful and extensive innovation in the new UST MBA program is a business simulator that plays an important role throughout the business student’s entire time in the full-time program. Though computer software business simulations have been around business schools since the 1960s, according to Puto this is the most extensive integration of this valuable tool into a business curriculum to date.
Students are given a comprehensive experience – the equivalent of up to four or five years of experience in a corporation – by the time graduation arrives. The business simulation exercise presents itself as somewhat of a rude awakening during the first month of school. Students can struggle as their teams go through a rigorous decision-making process on matters ranging from whether to diversify their company’s product line, to invest in new plant capacity or to purchase expensive new market research that can either help clarify the choices – or muddy the water. The stakes are quite high as grades are based in part on success indicators such as the company’s market share, their quarterly net income and how they stack up against their competition.
“It’s not what Puto does, but rather how he does it,” remarked Julie Klewer, one of the dean’s former students who went through the business simulation exercises offered at the University of Arizona. Klewer was so inspired by her MBA experience that she changed professional directions and started a successful marketing intelligence firm. Klewer says that Puto’s approach “instills ownership in people. … And because of the kind of person that he is, you rise to new levels.”
LIFE EXPERIENCES SHAPED HIS VALUESLehman Benson, an associate professor of management who worked with Puto at both Arizona and Georgetown, credits Puto’s many successes with his attitude toward people. “He leads by example,” Benson said. “For example, a lot of faculty (at Arizona) voiced concern over the minority student recruitment program, but he was the one who showed up at important meetings. … Then when the minority enrollment rate was phenomenal and students got in, he made sure the mentoring was there, the retention and the job placement support was there. It’s not just a numbers game with him. It’s not just for some report.”
“Walking the talk” has been a constant theme in Puto’s life. Born in Detroit and raised in a town of 2,000 people on the Florida Keys, Puto emerged from a family steeped in the practice of building, growing and rebuilding businesses. Two weeks before Puto left for college in 1960, Hurricane Donna leveled the small Florida town where Puto’s family lived. One of the most transformative experiences of his early life was witnessing his grandfather rebuild the family’s real estate and land development business after bankruptcy. Another transforming experience was his active duty service in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
His tenure with Burger King was his first real introduction to the world of marketing, and what sticks with him were his observations of corporate decision making and the need to improve that most important of business practices. An early conclusion was that reflection was a key element in the process of making good decisions. Puto later adopted this approach to help discipline himself toward becoming a more effective scholar.
Puto’s inquiry into the decision-making process intensified while he became Duke University’s first Ph.D. in business administration. After joining the University of Michigan as a professor of marketing, he was delighted to learn that a marketing colleague, Susan Heckler, had chosen Michigan as the one of 10 faculty offers presented to her that year. Heckler, an Anoka, Minn., native who specializes in researching the impact that images play in advertising, married Puto three years later. Due to her exceptional credentials, Heckler was able to establish professorships at Arizona, Georgetown and now at the University of St. Thomas College of Business, where she has quickly made a mark as a talented teacher and world-class scholar.
When asked about some of his business heroes, Puto names corporate leaders – such as Joseph Grano of UBS Wealth Managment USA – who have maintained their values under enormous pressure, who have reached great heights only to remain grounded, or who have embraced humanity through the process of building a company.
Puto is very much of that same values-driven school, classifying his view of business by stating, “profit is not a goal, but rather a reward for good business practices.” The same sense of priority drives Puto to go to extensive measures to put the needs of the business students first.
“He’s a builder,” former student Klewer said. “He always has a strategic vision for how to make a program better. … When other deans are concerned about the politics of their university, Puto’s primary interest is for the students.”
To Puto, the only road toward establishing a nationally recognized college of business at St. Thomas starts and ends with the prospect of creating “superior customer value.” The enhanced student experience that has been Puto’s professional passion appears well on its way toward meeting its lofty aspirations. And in the end, the school’s heightened national rankings will serve as its own reward.