Taking care of business: Interview with George Yip, the new dean of the Rotterdam School of Management

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The Independent Online

Chinese by birth, George Yip combines the elegant vowels of an English public school and Cambridge education with the easy fluency of someone who has spent decades teaching and working in the States. An expert in global strategy and marketing, he holds dual British and American citizenship, lectures and consults around the world, and often stacks up more air miles in a month than most people do in a lifetime. So what made the new dean of Rotterdam School of Management choose to put down anchor in a city better known for its barges than its MBAs?

It was, says Yip, the right school at the right time. He had been keen to run his own show and had been looking at schools in Asia and the USA. “But I wanted to stay in Europe, and Rotterdam had the huge plus of being the leading school in its country.” In turn, RSM, anxious to boost its world standing, wanted him for his deep cultural familiarity with Asia, America and Europe. “And because they could see that I could connect to the business world while also being strong in academic research and knowledge.”

Yip, 60, was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Burma and England, before living for many years in the USA. He took his MBA at Harvard and has worked at numerous business schools including those at Harvard, UCLA and Cambridge, as well as working as author, consultant and manager. Most recently he was professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School. He left to become vice president and director of research and innovation at Capgemini Consulting, a consulting, technology and outsourcing services company, in London. His multi-page CV speaks of a constant quest for new challenges, but he says he is happy to be based now in The Netherlands, where, he points out, international companies form a significant part of the economy – a major plus for a business school leader who wants to manoeuvre his school closer to the world of business, and to build up a substantial endowment for it from local companies, among others.

“The Netherlands is also easy place to work. Everyone speaks English – although I am having Dutch lessons. At my welcome reception I spoke my first three sentences in Dutch. Then I said that was all I could manage, but that, anyway, before I left we’d all be speaking in Chinese. It was meant to be a joke, but everyone took it quite seriously, so I ended up getting over quite a big message of change!” And change there will be. The school recently slipped from 30th to 34th in the Financial Times ranking. Yip aims to make it “a top tier school in the top 20 in all the global rankings.” It is already the leading business school in The Netherlands. He has started by tweaking the school’s name from RSM Erasmus University to Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, “so that now the label on the tin says exactly what’s in it”, and moving to bring the school’s two parts – the university faculty and the privately-funded management school -- closer together. “Previously it was two separate organisations and the head of the private part has moved on.”

Now he plans to build on the school’s traditional strengths and extend their reach. “We have a very strong research base, but I want to see staff publishing more in management journals, which businesses take seriously. We need to have a much stronger footprint in the business world.” Yip practices what he preaches, retaining an advisory role with Capgemini. He also intends to make the school a centre of excellence in innovation, by developing the DSM-sponsored Innovation-Cocreation Lab, run by Harry Barkema, an expert in innovation management. The centre will collaborate with other universities and with businesses to examine how companies can develop new products and business models.

He is a big fan of MBA programmes, seeing them as fundamentally different from the pre-experience business Masters courses that are popular in Europe. “The MBA is a more intense, practically-based qualification.” He intends to double the number of the school’s MBA students – at present it takes just over 100 full-time and 100 parttime students a year – and has recently been talking to potential students in New York about the delights of studying in Rotterdam. “It’s a world city, so there’s plenty going on, but it’s not too big, so you can live right close to the centre.” Other advantages of a Rotterdam MBA, he says, are small cohorts, an intensely international mix of students and a close focus on individual development. The 15-month full-time MBA course will cost €36,000 (£30,000). Living expenses are estimated at €1,200 (£1,000) a month. “Having been at so many different business schools I’ve seen more than one model and I know what works from each. The US is very good at the case study method of teaching. European schools are strong in research and tend to be rather more realistic.”

So how well-equipped does he feel to lead a major institution through a period of intense change? “Well, I’ve had two years as head of the MBA programme at LBS, but generally I think people use the wrong analogy for leadership. They talk about juggling balls, but when you are juggling you have to touch all the balls. I think about it as plate-spinning, and how you watch which plate needs attention and leave the others alone.” Meanwhile Yip keeps his personal plates spinning by finishing up his own research on innovation even as he powers ahead with reshaping RSM. Out-of-hours he rotates between houses in London, Gloucestershire and the US, and makes time for tennis, opera and the theatre. Perhaps not surprisingly, his family is spread out around the world. His daughter is a postgraduate psychology student at Yale, his son is a software engineer in Oregon, and his wife is a professor of linguistics at University College, London. His four-year contract with Rotterdam, he says, will take him up to retirement, so this should be his last job. But even as he says it, he looks doubtful. “I suppose we will see,” he says.