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Real Humans of MBA Admissions: Haas Dean Rich Lyons

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Though we usually feature admissions officers in this space, we recently had a chance to sit down with Dean Richard Lyons of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and couldn’t resist learning a little bit more about who he is as a person and how that influences the school he leads.

Lyons took over as dean of Haas in July 2008 after taking a leave between 2006 and 2008 to serve as chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs in New York, overseeing leadership development for the firm’s managing directors. He originally joined the Haas faculty in 1993 and served as acting dean from 2004 to 2006. Before his time at Haas, he also spent six years on the faculty at Columbia Business School.

Our conversation ranged from his love of the guitar to his disdain of clutter around the house, but it also touched on weightier topics, like the role of graduate management education amid the current rise of nationalism here and abroad and an accompanying backlash against globalization. He also touched on plans to increase the school’s class size gradually over the next few years—in tandem with moving into a brand-new building—and hinted at the possibility of a joint degree program with the Berkeley College of Engineering somewhere on the horizon.

As you’ll see, Lyons’ roots as an international economist shine through—he holds a Ph.D. in economics from MIT (as well as a B.S. in finance with highest honors from Berkeley) and has written extensively about exchange rates. So, too, does his deep pride for Haas, from the intimacy of its small class to its four defining principles, which he was instrumental in formulating. Our thanks to Lyons for sharing more of who he is and how he leads with the Clear Admit audience.

Real Humans of MBA Admissions: Haas Dean Rich Lyons

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Beach or mountains? Mountains

Morning person or night owl? Morning

Pet peeve? Clutter around the house

Guilty pleasure? I love playing my guitar even when I should be doing other things.

Favorite virtue in others? I’m going to say authenticity—when people are real. That’s way up there, which I think comes from my dad. Even when we were very young he would use the word “phony” to describe people who weren’t authentic—that was one of his themes—and I guess it helped develop my radar for that.

Worst habit? I am pretty task-oriented—sometimes so much so that I’m driven to get to the end of to-do lists even when there is big stuff on my desk. Which might bring up the question of prioritizing, but I think it’s a trap that a lot of doers get caught in.

Happy place? Playing my guitar and singing a song—I’ve been playing for 20 years.

Comfort food? So many wonderful foods—I think hamburgers on the barbeque.

Go-to cocktail? Either Scotch or a margarita. I prefer Scotch but my wife loves margaritas and we tend to drink margaritas together.

Proudest moment? There is a point in the career of a researcher where you feel like you have actually broken some ground. “Wait a minute, this is different, this has not been seen before.” There is one paper that I wrote—I studied international finance and foreign exchange markets—and a lot of the trading was moving onto electronic platforms. It’s kind of like you are a biologist in a world with no microscopes and someone hands you a microscope and says check this out. It was that kind of moment where you feel like you’re really revealing something pretty interesting.

Biggest regret? I tend not to be a very regretful person, for better or for worse. I think my biggest regret would be not having changed up my life even more than I have. When you change up your life, your development accelerates so much. My daughter was born in France—we were living there on a sabbatical—and that was just such an unforgettable year. I haven’t taken a sabbatical since. My kids are 14 and 17, so if you look at the last 14 years of my life you’d say it’s been pretty similar. It would have been hard to change it up fundamentally in this role, but I am one of these people who likes to repot and try very different things.

One thing you would change about how you were raised? My wife’s parents were quite discipline-oriented; they were both school teachers. My parents were the other end of the spectrum. I had incredible freedom that helped me experiment a lot in ways that were really valuable to me. This also had to do with the fact that I was the third of three kids and have brothers who are seven and eight years older than I am.

There is a parenting element—there is a great book out there called How to Raise an Adult­—and I think a little bit more of the structure presented in that book might have served me. But thanks to our different upbringings, my wife and I complement each other. Just this morning we had a fascinating conversation about our daughter. She loves to sing, and she just got promoted to the next level of the chorus­—but her best friends didn’t. It’s a very trying experience. I focused more on the celebration, and her mom focused more on the relationships that were going to get very complicated. That was a week ago, and just this morning we sat down and reflected over coffee about how we each reacted. It was a wonderful conversation, but our initial reactions were very different.

Superpower you wish you had? One of the things that makes me most proud to be doing what all of us do in management education is that I think of education as identity change. You can’t be what you can’t see. My superpower? If I could show people what they could be so that they could become it faster, that would be amazing.

Favorite fictional hero/heroine? I’m going to say Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead—although I’m not sure I would interpret him in the same way anymore. But at the time I read it—I think I was in high school—that book just blew me away. This notion of a self-sufficient ego­—that someone didn’t need to be flattered by other people because they were so anchored in their own confidence of who they were­—made a real impression.

What schools, if any, rejected you? In graduate school I applied to three schools and got into all three. I ended up going to MIT. But one of the other schools I applied to called me and said, “We didn’t intend to admit you but because you got a National Science Foundation fellowship, basically because you come with funding, we are going to admit you.” It was pretty close to that message, which absolutely astonished me. Why would I want to go to a school that thought that was a good message? So I was going to be rejected by that school. As an undergrad I went to Berkeley. I applied to Stanford and did not get in.

Which part of the Haas admissions process would you most like to skip if you were applying today? I wouldn’t want to skip the interview because that’s what I want them to be basing this stuff on—what kind of story can I can convey and what does it look like live? Maybe an essay question—I don’t know which one.

Some schools have moved more toward asking applicants to send a video that helps us know who you are, and I think that’s a pretty clever way to go. There is a lot of research now on interviews showing that there are all kinds of biases that enter into any kind of an interview. With essay questions that can be so heavily coached, you just can’t ever know how much of a signal is coming in or how true a signal it is. Whereas if you are watching someone on video you are able to pick up cues that a written piece may not communicate as fully.

Do you see the Haas admissions process moving in that direction? I think we are constantly evolving—and I think as an industry we will continue to move toward more and better ways to get a true signal of who you are letting in. It’s only natural that the advisory part of the industry—admissions consulting—would exist. I have a 17-year-old, so I’m on the buy side of higher education for the first time in my life, and I am seeing this. It’s very natural that those services would be there and that they would be used.

So what’s the next iteration from the schools’ perspective? I’m an economist, and we talk about signal value. How clear is the signal? Is it mostly signal or is it mostly noise? Some of these things, when you first introduce them, have a lot of signal, and then over time they get noisier and noisier. At some point you have to refresh just to get that signal value back up to where you want it. Experimenting with ways to do that is a good opportunity for all of us.