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Transformative Leadership 101: An Interview with Susan Christoffersen

Interview by Karen Christensen

The Dean of the Rotman School of Management shares insights on how to lead and innovate within a large enterprise.

Image of Susan Christoffersen smiling


You joined the Rotman School as a Professor of Finance in 2010 and went on to serve in senior leadership positions — most recently Vice Dean, Undergraduate and Specialized Programs. What drew you to the role of Dean?

Lots of things. It’s very exciting to be at the helm of Canada’s leading business school and to be part of the ecosystem of an incredibly innovative and exciting city. Thanks to our exceptional students and faculty, the Rotman School is on an impressive trajectory. When I stepped down from my position as Vice Dean and into the role of Dean, it was rewarding to look back at the achievements of the previous five years; but it was far more exciting to think about the possibilities that lie ahead for the School.

I view this as a huge opportunity for us to make a significant impact on the business community, on society and on our country. The fact is, going forward, business schools — and business leaders — are going to have an increasing role to play within society. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that business can play an important role in helping governments respond to complex global challenges. We are at a very interesting inflection point in history, and this is a chance for us to lead the way.


On that note, how does Rotman define its purpose at this point in the School’s history?

There are three main dimensions to our purpose — key areas where the School and the leaders we educate can have a transformative impact on the world. The first is designing more responsive and resilient organizations. In a world of relentless change, agility and creativity are more critical than ever. Our teaching and research will continue to weave together the various dimensions of management that foster effectiveness and resilience, including good governance, solid ethics, strong leadership, smart risk management, transparent financial disclosure and insights from the realms of behavioural economics and business design.


Going forward, business schools — and business leaders —

are going to have an increasing role to play within society.


Our second focus area is driving innovation and analytic insights. At a time when digital transformation is reshaping every area of life, our aim is to enable innovation through deep engagement with the business, entrepreneurial and public policy communities, in sectors from high tech to finance, healthcare and beyond. On the analytic insights front, there is a very strong and growing demand for professionals with the skills to interpret data and apply those insights to solve business problems. These are precisely the skills we teach in our Master of Management Analytics (MMA) program — but there will be increased coverage of AI, machine learning, data analytics, blockchain and simulation-based analysis in all of our programs.

The third dimension we are focusing on is building healthy, equitable and sustainable societies. We face an urgent need for leadership action on climate change, on racial injustice and inequality — on the entire spectrum of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. Business leaders need to work alongside governments, NGOs and other stakeholders in the quest for creative solutions. Our programs will increasingly incorporate ESG-related topics including analytic approaches to the mitigation of environmental impact; advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations; investing for sustainable prosperity; and expanding access to healthcare and other social infrastructure.


As part of the third area of focus, the School is committed to addressing issues of discrimination in its various forms. Describe progress to date and what lies ahead on this front.

I believe we’re making some good progress — and I take my hat off to Interim Dean Ken Corts, who initiated these efforts after the senseless murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that ensued in the spring of 2020. But even before that, our previous Dean, Tiff Macklem, had established Rotman’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (REDI). Reporting to the Dean, it monitors cultural attitudes, behaviours and policies across the School, with the goal of sustaining an inclusive, collaborative and collegial environment that embraces all aspects of human diversity. This committee — which consists of faculty, staff, students and alumni — recommends changes to the School’s programs, policies and practices and provides oversight and metrics to measure success.

My goal is to build upon the strengths that the School already has in this area, and we will be taking a multifaceted approach. First, how can we strengthen pathways for under-represented groups — particularly Black and Indigenous students? We’ve undertaken some important steps by introducing new post-doc positions and research opportunities for under-represented minorities and by creating several new outreach efforts to diverse communities. We are now turning our attention and efforts to creating greater access for under-represented high school students.

The second thing is, we need to focus on our hiring practices for staff and our recruiting practices for students. Are we ensuring that we offer enough scholarships to encourage diverse applicants, and are we hiring diverse people to work here? Are we increasing representation everywhere from our student groups to our faculty and staff? We’ve worked very hard over the past several years to increase the representation of women in our student bodies, and I am pleased to say that we are currently at 45 per cent women in the Full-Time MBA program, so our efforts are starting to have an impact.

Of course, you can’t have diversity without inclusion, so that is the third area of focus. For me, inclusion is about creating a particular kind of environment and culture, so going forward, one of the strategic pillars for the School will be answering this question: How can we create a welcoming, diverse and inclusive community where we educate people about the critical importance of being inclusive? We need to help people across the School — students, faculty, staff — be more empathetic, recognizing that different people have had different pathways in getting here.

The fourth aspect is that as educators, we need to make sure that all of this is represented in our various programs and curricula. It’s not just about what happens while students are here with us — it’s also about what people do when they leave. How are we changing our curricula and reinforcing this focus with new research initiatives?

In the near term, we will be adding more resources to our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office. I’ve also just established an Indigenous Task Force for the School, which I hope will provide strategic guidance for the School’s response to the University of Toronto’s 34 Calls to Action for Truth and Reconciliation. I will be working on all of this throughout my term. Our work is far from done.


As Dean, you have been helping faculty, students and staff navigate the choppy waters of a seemingly endless pandemic. What have been some of your best leadership lessons during this crisis?

First and foremost, leaders must always expect the unexpected. For me, a critical lesson has been figuring out how to prioritize what is most important for the School — and not to sweat the small stuff as much. At a time like this, the most important priorities quickly become apparent, and we need to react very quickly. That ability to adapt has been incredibly important for me personally — and for the School.

Another lesson is the perennial importance of clear communication, which increases exponentially when people are working in a virtual environment. We sometimes assume everyone knows where the organization is heading, but it is crucial to reassure people and let them know exactly what you are focusing on. In a time of crisis, assuring people that ‘we’ve got this’ is very important; and it is equally crucial to empathize with them and recognize that everyone is facing difficult challenges. As leaders, we need to look at all the different ways we can provide support.

Another key lesson has been the power of collaboration. This pandemic was a huge shock to everything we do at the Rotman School, but most importantly, program delivery had to be adjusted virtually overnight. If we hadn’t been able to work together, we would have been in very big trouble, because that is not something one individual could ever solve. The truth is, we needed to learn to rely on each other — and that is a strength, not a weakness. Quite honestly, going through this pandemic, I think we learned that as a society, too. We are all interconnected, and as a leader it’s important to know how to draw from that collective strength and bring its power to bear.


In your time as Vice Dean, you were instrumental in creating three new programs, including the MMA. What are some of the growth areas for the School going forward?

I definitely see growth opportunities in our Executive Programs portfolio. Also, given the demand for expertise in data analytics, some of our newer programs — including the M MA — have seen exceptional growth already, and we expect that to continue. Other opportunities for growth include piloting new hybrid learning opportunities globally and expanding career opportunities for our students. For example, I would love to see us diversify the types of companies we attract and where they are located around the world.


If you can put your finance professor hat on for a moment, I’m curious about your views on the transformative potential of decentralized finance (DeFi).

I don’t know that Bitcoin is here to stay, but what is here to stay is the technology behind it, which is incredibly powerful and is poised to completely disrupt our payment systems. If you think about the difficulties and costs of moving money around, they are significant. I have a son at school in the U.S., and getting money to him is very costly and difficult. I think there’s a lot of room for our banking systems to benefit from an ability to move money around more freely and across borders.

Former Rotman Dean Tiff Macklem and his colleagues at the Bank of Canada have helped maintain a very stable banking system in our country — but many countries don’t benefit from that. As a result, there is certainly room within the global payment system for something like a decentralized currency to play an important role. Do I think it’s going to displace the big banks completely? No, because there will always be a need for many of the centralized services they provide. For example, the trusted role they play with credit assessments. But digital currencies are certainly going to disrupt many of their offerings.

Not surprisingly, the Bank of Canada is now looking at its own digital currency. The fact is, most of us rarely use cash anymore. We’re constantly moving money between accounts, and all that activity is controlled and verified by our banking system. I could imagine new networks emerging that can verify these day-to-day transactions, but whether they will be completely or partially decentralized remains a big question. Whether the transaction you need to carry out is transferring share ownership or making a loan payment, any transaction you can think of could be moved to a decentralized platform. That is going to be very powerful for consumers, because a lot of inefficiencies have built up over the years.


The pandemic has laid bare some weaknesses in the global economic environment. How is the School addressing this?

The fact is, all successful business strategies start with the same core premise: think global. Whether it be effectively managing supply chains, exploring new markets, seeking out investors or reducing carbon emissions, we are operating in a world where traditional boundaries have been erased.

Leaders must apply the same lens to their own career paths. At Rotman, we’ve long been committed to fostering a global mindset, bringing international perspectives to our programs, along with opportunities to study and work abroad. Our School, like the university we are part of, is recognized as a leading hub of learning and scholarship precisely because we are connected to a dynamic worldwide network of researchers, thinkers and business leaders — including our talented alumni in 98 countries.


Tell us a bit more about the School’s commitment to sustainability.

As indicated, there are a few things we’ll be very engaged in going forward, and one is figuring out how to train leaders to build healthy and sustainable societies. This ties in with what I said at the outset about how the role of business within society is changing so dramatically. Increasingly, there will be an onus on leaders to participate in addressing the challenges we face — whether it be social challenges like equity across disparate groups or issues around climate change.

Leaders have no choice but to adapt and innovate, and we have an important role to play in shaping our students’ education in this regard. In the near future we will be creating new emphases within our MBA in the area of sustainability and within the Rotman Commerce Program, in conjunction with the Faculty of Arts and Science. All of this aligns with my own strongly held view of what leaders need to focus on going forward: To build healthy and sustainable societies, we must create healthy and sustainable organizations.


What in your background has prepared you for this monumental challenge?

I believe the number one thing is being a tenured professor, because with that comes a deep respect for academic institutions and a recognition of the value of being part of a research-intensive organization like Rotman. That respect is incredibly important because quite frankly, we’re not going to get anywhere unless I understand and can motivate people to move in a common direction.

A second thing is my strong appreciation for our country. Canada has so much to offer the world. The Rotman School is a real jewel in the Canadian landscape, and I feel honoured to be able to help it make its optimal contribution. A third element is my ability to empathize with our students — our most important stakeholders. I’ve been teaching and connecting with young people for over 20 years now, and in addition, I’ve got two university-age sons. This enables me to understand what is important to our students as well as their fears and anxieties about the future.

Fourth, as Vice Dean of Undergraduate and Specialized Programs, I was able to work very closely on curricular innovation at Rotman Commerce and on the creation of new programs at the Rotman School. This really helped me understand the inner workings of the University and how to effect positive change within a large academic enterprise. Last but not least, I must mention my late husband, Peter Christoffersen, who held the TMX Chair in Capital Markets at the Rotman School and was globally renowned for his research and expertise until his untimely passing from cancer in 2018. His dedication to excellence in his own work — and his unwavering support of mine — are huge reasons why I am the person I am today.


Working with multiple stakeholders can be very challenging. What lessons have you learned on this front?

Over the years I’ve held some challenging administrative roles in academia. Before Rotman, I worked at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, where I was the MBA program director at the time they decided to redesign the curriculum and raise tuition fees from $2,000 per year to $30,000 per year. It was a very tense time, but difficult transitions like that teach you valuable leadership lessons: how to set peoples’ expectations; the value of communicating with transparency; and how to have difficult conversations. Together, these are some of the key elements that build trust, which is critical for every leader.


10 Little-Known Facts About the Dean


Years from now, what will a successful tenure as Dean look like for you?

When I think about our three overarching themes, they take me back full circle to Rotman’s core purpose: To create value for business and society. How will we do that? By pushing forward on curriculum innovation and research aligned with the three themes I described as well as focusing on the quality and excellence of our faculty, students and programs. If I can see significant progress in each of these areas at the end of my tenure, I will feel like my work has been done

Susan Christoffersen is the Dean and William A. Downe BMO Chair, Professor of Finance at the Rotman School of Management. From 2015 to 2020, she served as the Vice Dean, Undergraduate and Specialized Programs.

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