Business schools often have a long search for the right person to be their figurehead. So what makes a decent dean?

Manchester Business School, expanded last year when Manchester University merged with its neighbour, UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology), is about to embark on its second attempt to find a new director, after an initial search two years ago proved fruitless. Professor John Arnold, who agreed to extend his term as director until a successor could be found, believes the business school has to do more than simply sign up headhunters and draw up a shortlist.

"When we started looking first time round we didn't get things quite right. We were still developing our strategy for the newly merged school, and we lacked a clear proposition to sell to candidates."

This time around, he says, the school will be doing research on potential candidates before any advert is placed in the press. "This is a courtship process. It's about offering something for the candidate and his or her family. A bright star in his or her mid-forties is likely to have a spouse who may work, children and a set of criteria for their personal lifestyle. It's not all about the biggest salary."

But money does matter. Business schools are the big earners for many universities, with lucrative MBA programmes bringing in much needed income. The people who lead them increasingly compare themselves with the chief executives of private companies and expect to be rewarded accordingly.

Laura Tyson, the American dean of the London Business School (LBS), commands a salary package of over £300,000. Ashridge is thought to have wooed its current dean, Professor Kai Peters, from Rotterdam to the UK with a salary of about £150,000 and a bonus package based on raising the school's profile.

"When we started looking for my replacement at Manchester we were willing to go over £200,000 to get the right person. Unfortunately we didn't find that person," says John Arnold. "This time we may go higher. We'll pay what it takes."

In the meantime, Cambridge University has already placed an advert in the Economist magazine for someone to replace Professor Sandra Dawson at the Judge Institute of Management. The successful candidate will, according to the ad, need to combine management experience with academic credibility and an international reputation.

The university is also on the lookout for someone who can prove they are a successful fundraiser. It's a tall order, according to Professor David Norburn, former principal at the Tanaka business school at Imperial College in London. "You need to have a split personality to do the job. It's important to be acceptable to academia, but also to the external business community." Business schools which can't find the perfect candidate should, he argues, consider splitting the role between two people. "Doing this would allow you to hire a respected academic and a well-known, well networked retiree from a large corporation who could sell the institution externally."

Henley Management College recently opted for a figurehead from the commercial world when it appointed Chris Bones, a former senior executive with Cadbury Schweppes as its principal. Leo Murray, former dean of Cranfield Management College worked as a tobacco industry executive before being lured to academia. But for business schools attached to a big university, this may be a step too far. "Leo Murray was just right for Cranfield," says John Arnold, "but it's important for us to have someone who is respected within the ranks of academia. Someone from business might find coping with the Byzantine ways of university life just too difficult."

That is exactly what happened nine years ago when the economist John Kay was appointed as the first director of the Said Business School at Oxford University. His sojourn among the dreaming spires lasted less than three years. His successor, Anthony Hopwood, proved more adept at negotiating a path through university bureaucracy.

When he retires next year he will be followed by another established Oxford academic, Professor Colin Mayer, who was chosen after a selection process lasting almost a year.

"We asked the headhunters to scour the world and produce a shortlist," says Professor Roy Westbrook, who sat on the selection panel along with the university vice chancellor. "Most of the world's top business schools are research-led institutions and we are part of a great university. So, we felt we needed someone with the right academic background."

Colin Mayer, he points out, has run his own economics consultancy - and can thus lay claim to understanding commercial life, as well as the academic world.

Oxford is unashamed about its desire to rank alongside the US top names. So, was it tempted to look across the Atlantic, as London Business School has done, and hire an academic from a well-known US university? "We told the headhunters we wanted them to look widely and asked them to approach the top 10 US schools to find out who they'd like on their list if they were choosing a dean," says Roy Westbrook. "We had an impressive shortlist, including names from North America, but everyone had to present their vision for the school to the university electoral board, and Colin Mayer proved the best candidate."

When he moves his books into the dean's office next autumn, Professor Meyer will be expected to start raising the school's research profile and boosting Oxford's executive education courses.

"The issue for any dean is whether or not they are able to galvanise the internal resources to encourage talent and enhance the reputation of the business school," says Roy Westbrook. "We're confident that Colin Mayer can do all these things. Otherwise we'd still be looking for someone."