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September 2008
Power of Engagement
By Ellison Clary

     Belk’s Joe Mazzola finally has the position he’s sought for years. After all, as an undergraduate he decided on an academic career. As a graduate student, he fell in love with North Carolina. For a decade, he’s considered becoming dean of a business school.

     So here he is, Dr. Joseph B. Mazzola, newly minted dean of The Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (a position formerly held by Claude Lilly). He is also the Belk Distinguished Professor of Business.

     Of the position he assumed on July 1, 2008, Mazzola says, “As I interviewed for the position, the more I learned, the more interested I became. It just has gotten better since.”

     Mazzola, 56, was a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University where he served three years as executive dean of the faculty and senior associate dean.

     Mazzola joins a Belk College that has experienced significant growth during the past decade. Its M.B.A. program has held off stiff competition in the region and raised admissions standards while maintaining steady enrollment. A master’s program in mathematical finance enrolls nearly 100 students—more than double the university’s original projections. A new M.B.A. program focusing on sports marketing and management has attracted strong support from the local business community, as has The Center for Real Estate, which is completing a $4 million fundraising campaign this fall.

     UNC Charlotte’s enrollment is about 23,000 and is projected to top 35,000 by 2020. The business school has about 2,700 undergraduates and 500 more in the graduate school, including about a dozen in the doctoral program that began two years ago.

What hooked him? Mazzola lists the attractions succinctly.

     “The university is growing,” he says, “not only in size but in academic reputation as well. The size is not as important to me as the fact that it’s become a research university. The people here are genuine, as are the business community and its relationship to the college. Chancellor Phil Dubois and the city understand that both the university and the city of Charlotte need one another. Everything seems to be aligned here,” he concludes.

     Mazzola knows a thing or two about alignment, having built a career as a respected and published scholar with specialties in operations management and management science.

     Growing up in a Long Island town near New York City, Mazzola was the first in his family to earn a college degree, having set his career course on academics. While studying mathematics at State University of New York at Stony Brook, he married Peggy, his high school sweetheart. (She, too, is an educator and is the new principal at St. Ann’s Elementary School in Charlotte.)

     The next stop for the Mazzolas was Winston-Salem, where Mazzola earned a master’s in mathematics at Wake Forest University. While there, he and Peggy formed an affinity for North Carolina. Mazzola pursued his subsequent education—a master’s in operations research and a doctorate in industrial administration—outside the state to increase his chances of being hired by a Tar Heel State school.

     The business school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill obliged. Later he taught at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, earning tenure. He joined the Georgetown business faculty in 1999 and developed a desire to move into administration. He was appointed senior associate dean and then became executive dean of the faculty.

     “I found that I really enjoyed it,” Mazzola says of his work as an administrator. He started looking for the right opportunity to become a dean, but turned down more than a few feelers.

     Now that he’s on the job, Mazzola says he’s sure UNC Charlotte is the right place. He’s encountered high energy in the people he’s met. “It’s palpable,” he says. “One of my objectives will be to harness the energy to push forward and achieve goals.”

 

21st Century Business School

     As a scholar and teacher of operations management, Mazzola has spent his career immersed in publications and case studies debating best practices in business. Through his research and his practical experience at three of the top business schools in the country, he has developed a concept for the “21st century business school” which he hopes to bring to fruition at The Belk College.

     The cornerstone of this concept is people, Mazzola says. “In Western society, we tend to think of organizations in terms of mechanistic structures that need to be managed. The irony, though, is that the very word organization—has its roots in concepts of life and change. I prefer to focus on the living, people-centered aspect of organizations.”

     Citing work by MIT Professor Peter Senge on the “learning organization,” Mazzola is drawn to an inclusive management style, where the leader builds shared vision through a common purpose and core values.

     “The faculty, staff and students together breathe life into the bricks and mortar of The Belk College,” Mazzola says. “My role is to guide the process through which we determine the paths the college takes.

     “Top-down leadership is limiting to an organization,” he adds. “To engage the creativity and energy of a group of talented individuals who are all dedicated to the same end is infinitely more powerful.”

     To take the 21st century business school from concept to reality at The Belk College, Mazzola will embark on a comprehensive strategic planning process, which will gather feedback from all interested constituencies.

     “Our students have an interest in shaping the future of the college, certainly, as do our faculty and staff,” Mazzola says. “But we also need to talk to our alumni, corporate executives and regional leaders so we get a clear and comprehensive picture of where The Belk College fits, both on the academic landscape and in the future of our region overall.”

     Mazzola’s approach is all-encompassing, but he promises that the strategic plan will be a focused initiative. “We have so many opportunities and so many ways to grow,” Mazzola says, “that we run the risk of stretching ourselves too thin. The last thing we want to be is ‘pretty good’ in a large number of things, but not excellent in any.”

     Mazzola spent his first few weeks on the job meeting faculty and students. He’s starting a series of one-on-one sessions with business leaders as well. He’ll have a full agenda throughout the first year of his appointment, meeting with the college’s advisory boards and alumni groups, and navigating through Charlotte’s calendar of civic and charitable events.

     “There is enough going on here that I want the people to know who I am, how I think, how I feel. They need to trust me and I need to trust them,” he explains of his busy schedule.

 

Finding Balance

     In addition to growing its graduate programs, The Belk College has become a school of choice for undergraduate students across the state. This popularity comes at a price, as the college balances enrollment surges with constraints in physical and faculty resources. However, Mazzola stresses that the college’s growth can be a win-win, not a sacrifice of one level in favor of the other.

     “I refuse to accept the trade-off argument, that you have to choose A or B rather than having A and B,” he says. “There’s no reason that we can’t progress towards the goal that the university has set for itself—to become a major research institution—and remain equally committed to undergraduate education.

     “We just need to know where we want to be growing and how we want to grow,” he continues. “Size is not as important as excellence.”

     The new dean is looking forward to working under the leadership of UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois. He says he indentifies strongly with Dubois’ commitments to excellence, to research, to teaching, and to partnering with the Charlotte community.

     Dubois says Mazzola is well-rounded, with “an outstanding scholarly background in business, knowledge of North Carolina and a solid administrative experience in first-rate graduate business programs. He will bring great energy to The Belk College as we expand our presence in Charlotte’s Center City and throughout the region.”

     Coming from the business school at Georgetown—one that appears on many top 25 lists, sometimes top 10—Mazzola describes the advantages of being a top 25 school as immense, but he adds that he     doesn’t want rankings to drive what The Belk College becomes.

     “We will target at a level that’s competitive, that’s doable and that would make people take note and say, ‘The Belk College is moving quickly,’” he says.

 

An Optimistic Future

     “I was uptown this morning,” Mazzola says in an on-campus interview. “I am really, really impressed with Charlotte as a city. It’s already meeting my high expectations.”

He’s well aware of the many challenges facing the U.S. economy, but overall is optimistic about the future. “Our problems are serious, but we’re going to pull through. It has a lot to do with the intrinsic nature of the American people: we are creative, caring, remarkably resilient—and very, very strong.”

     Looking at Charlotte’s concentration of financial and related businesses, he sees it as a tremendous strength for the city but also sees room for improvement.

     “It would be beneficial for the city to continue to think about how it could diversify the portfolio of businesses that are headquartered here,” he says, noting that The Belk College can be a helpful resource and strategic partner in developing and managing this portfolio.

     “The role of the 21st century business school,” Mazzola says, “is to partner with the business community and civic leaders to understand what the trends are and to seek opportunities. Not to be reactive, but to delve deeply into understanding the principal drivers and come up with ways to find lasting and enduring growth.”

     Mazzola’s inclusive approach is what Bob Wilhelm mentions first. Wilhelm, the executive director of the Charlotte Research Institute at UNC Charlotte, led the business dean search committee.

     “I think we’ll see some significant new efforts in terms of getting the business school integrated across the university,” Wilhelm says. “And also we’ll see some new ways of the business school being integrated within the business community. I expect we’ll see a broader connection into the business community.”

     Each morning on the way to his office, Mazzola passes a particular sculpture in one of the campus quads. Created by artist Bobbie Carlyle, Self-Made Man depicts a man carving himself from the raw stone from which he emerges.

     “I loved that piece from the moment I saw it,” says Mazzola, who developed an appreciation for art while he and Peggy were living in Paris in the mid 1990s.

     “It’s the perfect sculpture to have on a university campus. The concept of being self-made is not only relevant to individuals, but to all organizations; it epitomizes the learning organization. UNC Charlotte and The Belk College are crafting their own futures as well. And I’m both honored and excited to be able to be part of it.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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