A matter of principles 

Cultivating a strong sense of ethics and embracing diversity can help women in business change the definition of good leadership, says Deborah Merrill-Sands, the new dean of the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business.

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Strong values build effective leaders, says the new dean of the Lokey Graduate School of Business 

By Kate Rix

In the mid-1980s, Deborah Merrill-Sands was at work in Africa with a research organization focused on agricultural development. She was studying how resources were being invested to spur sustainable agricultural production in rural areas and whether those resources were being used most effectively and efficiently. 

“It became clear that the bulk of small-scale farming in many areas was being done by the women, yet most of the technical assistance was directed to the men. Women were simply invisible,” says Merrill-Sands. “There had been an important shift at that time to women as primary agricultural producers—many men had left their villages to pursue employment in the cities—yet the development world was blind to that situation.” Merrill-Sands concluded that one reason women were invisible in agricultural development was because so few women were in the technical assistance field. She began to redirect her career to focus on attracting more women into rural development policy and research and, for eight years, led a very successful program that more than tripled the number of women scientists and administrators working within a consortium of agricultural research organizations. 

Photo by Steve Babuljak

Merrill-Sands is the new dean of Mills’ Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business and an expert in women and leadership. Her graduate degree, from Cornell, is in economic anthropology, so she’s just as sharp an observer of cultural dynamics as she is savvy about quantitative return on equity. That moment in Africa struck her as part of a broader issue—that direct support of the women in that rural community had the power to result in long-term benefits that support for men would not.  

“Research shows that women, as a group, are more inclined to use their leadership not only to strengthen their own organizations, but also to improve the larger community,” she says. “They tend to use their power to enhance the world around them.” In the development field, many studies have indicated that women are more likely to direct available resources to providing for the family and tend to invest in improving their own capabilities through education for themselves or their children, thus feeding a cycle of raising the overall quality of life.  

In other words, an investment in women as leaders is an investment in an entire society. 

This understanding has guided Merrill-Sands in her ongoing study and promotion of women’s leadership. After years in the field of international development, she moved toward academia, joining the School of Management at Simmons College in Boston in 1998, where she was the co-founder and director of a research center on gender dynamics in work organizations and how these shape opportunities for women’s leadership. She was appointed dean in 2004 and, during six years in that role, realized that women’s perspectives have transformative potential. If, as she argues, most women embrace the idea that power holders should strive to benefit the whole group, then a business program that cultivates women leaders could redefine traditional male-centered notions of leadership in business. It was also at Simmons that she honed a concept she calls “principled leadership.” 

Principled leaders, Merrill-Sands says, are women or men who are direct, confident, clear about their own aspirations, and effective at integrating multiple perspectives into decision making. They hold themselves accountable for fostering ethical decision-making, for responding to the needs and interests of multiple stakeholders, for promoting inclusivity, and for ensuring that their organizations not only have strong financial performance but also make a positive contribution to society.  

Without these commitments and proficiencies, even the most intelligent and driven person may not reach their highest potential. Mills, she says, is an ideal environment in which to cultivate such skills. “Until we change the definition of good leadership, it will remain a very masculine concept, and we will confound the efforts of women in leadership roles.” 

In conversation, Merrill-Sands conveys both her passion for her work and her explicit attention to the notion of aspiration. The word comes up more than once, and it is clear that her commitment to women’s leadership stems from a belief that women who know what they aspire to, who know what they truly want to do—not just in business but in all fields—are not only likely to succeed but are often generous with their success. 

One of her own professional goals has been to bring innovative ideas into a setting where they can help women articulate and actualize their own aspirations. This process itself, one could say, is another aspect of principled leadership: enabling others to produce exceptional results. 

Merrill-Sands grew up and was educated in New England, while her professional life has taken her around the globe. After graduate school, she completed her post-doctoral work at the International Service for National Agricultural Research in The Hague. She stayed on to become a senior research fellow, conducting research on rural development and advising organizations in developing countries.  

She came to Mills on August 1 and is still settling into life on the West Coast, unpacking boxes in her sunny office overlooking Richards Road. But as we sit down to share her priorities for the Business School, she jumps nimbly into a discussion about the growing awareness of how incorporating diversity of all sorts is crucial to creating successful businesses.  

At a recent talk by Joe Keefe, president of the sustainable investment firm Pax World, Merrill-Sands was inspired by both of the evening’s messages: international investment focused on women and children yields the highest return, Keefe said. Further, companies in the developed world that invest in building diverse leadership within their own ranks have stronger financial performance over the long term. Keefe backed up his point by noting two recent studies that show a positive correlation between gender diversity at the top management level and a firm’s financial performance. 

“While the research demonstrates a correlation, not causation, a reasonable conclusion is that if you make diversity a priority then you’re likely to innovate more quickly as an organization, attract stronger talent, and be more responsive,” she says. 

These aren’t new concepts for Merrill-Sands. While at Simmons, she co-authored a paper called “Working with Diversity: A Framework for Action,” which encapsulates her observations about effective leveraging of diverse environments: 

“It is one thing to create diversity by recruiting people of different nationality, cultural background, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, discipline or work style,” she wrote. “It is quite another to develop a supportive work environment that enables people of diverse backgrounds to perform at their highest levels, contribute fully to the organization, and feel professionally satisfied…. The ultimate goal in working with diversity is to weave it into the fabric of the organization—into all the different dimensions of work, structures, and processes.” 

Women, as a group, are more inclined to use their leadership not only to strengthen their own organizations, but also to improve the larger community. 

What do these ideas about leadership and diversity look like in the classrooms of the Lokey Graduate School of Business? 

The faculty here is strong, she says, and students receive a rigorous education in economics and the quantitative and analytical skills necessary to move up in business. She points to the value of Mills’ women-focused program in providing strong training in leadership skills as well.  

“Often, as a woman moves up in business, a series of minor incidents of bias can accumulate and eventually undermine her self-confidence,” she says. “At Mills, by putting the focus explicitly on gender, we can help women anticipate these ‘small knocks’ and learn strategies to understand and manage these dynamics.” 

Merrill-Sands further believes that Mills’ unusually diverse student body adds an even greater benefit to students.  

“In today’s society, we have an incredible opportunity to learn to manage within a multicultural environment,” Merrill-Sands says. “The question we need to ask ourselves is: are we harnessing that opportunity as much as we can? Educating Mills students to come out of this MBA Program truly skilled at hearing multiple perspectives and negotiating among them—as principled leaders do—will put them at a huge advantage.”