Alison Davis-Blake isn’t one for convention. Her quiet demeanor, questioning mind, and drive to excel have always set her apart.
On her twelfth birthday, she asked, “Mom, when will I be like the other girls?”
“When you’re fourteen.”
Two years later, she asked again.
“When you’re sixteen,” her mother replied.
“After that I didn’t ask anymore,” Davis-Blake explains. “I realized I had to look for my own life.”
And that’s what she’s done. In 2006 she became the first woman to lead the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. She made history again in 2011, accepting the deanship at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
While her remarkable accomplishments landed her on the Wall Street Journal’s Women to Watch list, Davis-Blake insists she hasn’t gone it alone. She’s drawn inspiration from great leaders. Her favorites, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, and Southwest Airline’s founder Herb Kelleher—are an eclectic group with little in common, unless you count changing the world on their own terms. That’s something the BYU graduate knows a bit about.
For Davis-Blake and fellow female administrators, it’s been lonely at the top—until now. Women currently make up 17 percent of the deans at b-schools across the country, up from 11 percent in 2002. And that change isn’t just playing out in the dean’s office. More women are heading to business schools than ever before. It’s a far cry from Davis-Blake’s own experience when she was the only woman in her undergraduate economics courses.
“My classmates were polite, but they made it clear they didn’t understand why I was there,” Davis-Blake remembers.
That sentiment followed her to her first teaching position at Carnegie Mellon University, where at twenty-seven, she looked young enough to be sitting in the class.
“I was perpetually mistaken for a student,” Davis-Blake explains. “Even as I got older, it was difficult to see how women could receive tenure.”
Margaret Thatcher—a pioneer in her field—became an inspiration for the young professor. But while Davis-Blake believes women can make distinctive contributions in the workforce, she is quick to add that it’s an individual choice. “It’s a very personal decision—one you constantly have to evaluate,” she says.
Davis-Blake’s choice has been to pursue her passion—balancing business theory with actual practice. The deanship of a contemporary business school provides the perfect mix.
“If you think of a university as a multidivisional firm, I’m acting as the divisional CEO, responsible for all aspects of the unit,” Davis-Blake says. “Our business has a very specific mission—changing people through education.”
Davis-Blake grew up in the Twin Cities on the banks of the Mississippi. Her father was an information systems professor at the University of Minnesota—where she would later return as dean.
His work not only exposed Davis-Blake to the world of academia but also to one of her lifelong passions: travel. The family spent a year in Belgium, where it wasn’t uncommon for them to take quick trips to Paris—a city Davis-Blake still loves. Her favorite museum remains the Musée d’Orsay, a converted train station with a fine collection of impressionist masterpieces.
“Those paintings represent a break from tradition that, while unrecognized in its day, turned out to be important,” she says. “That’s something I can relate to.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree at BYU in 1979, Davis-Blake accepted an accounting position at Touche Ross in New York. She loved the city but found the work less than engaging. “I wanted to immerse myself more deeply in the why,” she explains. “The MOB program at BYU was a good next step.”
She spent the next two years in Provo, working as a research assistant and developing skills she would later draw upon. “BYU gave me a deep and subtle understanding of organizations,” she says. “It taught me how to influence people to create change.”
Earning a PhD was just one of the options Davis-Blake considered after graduation, and several professors encouraged her to apply. She conceded but thought they were overly optimistic. Soon she received acceptance letters from MIT, Yale, Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford—eventualities she hadn’t prepared for.
“You don’t need a master plan to be successful,” Davis-Blake says. “You find your career one opportunity at a time.”
After visiting each campus, she ultimately chose Stanford. There she worked with world-class mentors and even met her husband, Michael, who was a postdoctoral student. She knew he was unique when he explained why he had asked her out: “You’re going to Stanford too—that’s really cool!”
“He was the first man I’d met who would say something like that,” Davis-Blake says.
Smiling, she adds, “I decided I needed to get to know him better.”
Married for twenty-eight years, the couple’s success stems from an ability to adapt. Michael became an independent contractor so he could work from home and spend more time with the couple’s two sons. When Davis-Blake accepted the deanship, he cut back his hours substantially.
“When we were first thinking about having children, I was very worried about balance,” Davis-Blake confesses. “It’s wise to be concerned, but if your family is a priority, you’ll make it work.”
Engaging the boys in her career has proven helpful. Since elementary school they’ve been in Davis-Blake’s office, learning about her work, meeting academics, and filing papers—something she admits she’s always behind on. Her youngest son, now a high school junior, even pitched in during her most recent move, shelving books in her new space.
In addition to working together, the family schedules vacations. Their first trip abroad was to London, where they created a tradition: climbing to the top of every monument they visit, beginning with St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The family has since reached dizzying heights all over the world, and Davis-Blake believes it’s those moments that have bound them together.
“If you’re going to have children and a demanding job, there are certain things you won’t do,” she explains. “Most of my leisure time is family-focused. That’s the choice I’ve made, and I’ve gotten immense value out of it.”
Despite her busy schedule, Davis-Blake makes time for books. One of her recent reads, Team Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, gave her new insight into getting people to focus on the common good—a critical skill for administrators.
Shortly after stepping into a leadership role at the University of Texas at Austin, Davis-Blake learned a staff member had been posting confidential information online. While the university was not interested in pressing charges, things quickly changed when the young woman hired an aggressive attorney. A courtroom showdown seemed imminent.
The university’s lawyers instructed Davis-Blake to have no contact with the young woman, but her supervisors sought a different approach. They wanted Davis-Blake to help her.
“They could see this was going to ruin her life,” Davis-Blake explains.
Davis-Blake weighed the risks and picked up the phone. When the young woman answered, she stated her objective: come clean and leave without a criminal record. The young woman agreed but said the lawyers frightened her.
“I heard myself saying, ‘I will go with you and sit next to you the entire time,’” Davis-Blake recalls. “I didn’t know what side I was on at that point. It was clear I was going to help the university, but I was also going to get this girl what she needed—a second chance.”
The next day the young woman came in and gave a full confession. She walked out with a clear conscience and went on to attend graduate school and find employment.
“That was one of the best day’s work I’ve ever done,” Davis-Blake says.
Despite her innate leadership skills, Davis-Blake believes her foray into administration was happenstance.
She was working as an associate professor at the McCombs School of Business when the department chair took a medical leave. To make matters worse, no other full professors were available for the position. Though the dean approached Davis-Blake, she held her ground—no promotion, no chair. Eventually, a sociology professor with a dual appointment was contacted. He accepted the job but only on the condition that Davis-Blake eventually take over.
She spent the next three years assisting the temporary chair until she became a full professor. But after just one year of service, the dean had a new offer for her: help run the school as senior associate dean.
It was a huge step for Davis-Blake. She went from managing twenty-five people to being responsible for nearly 200 faculty and 350 staff. The decision paid off. Headhunters noticed her work, and offers to interview for deanships came pouring in.
“There were doors opening nearly every day,” Davis-Blake says. “I had to decide which one I was going to walk through. I ultimately chose the University of Minnesota.”
For the naturally introverted Davis-Blake, it might seem that the public role of dean isn’t a good fit. But instead of working the crowd, she is focused on individuals—something she picked up from Herb Kelleher.
“He proved you could build a successful business based on treating people well,” she says. “It’s a different industry than mine, but mine is also a people business.”
According to Davis-Blake, you can lead effectively only when you care about the people you work with, the cause you’re working for, and the organization you’re in. It’s a philosophy she puts into practice daily at Ross.
Moving to Michigan after five years in Minnesota didn’t come without careful consideration. The selection process took more than nine months and provided plenty of time for Davis-Blake to debate the choice.
“I wondered if I’d be able to make a contribution,” she says.
Seven months into her new role, Davis-Blake is already positioning the school at the forefront of business education with action-based learning initiatives.
“We’re asking, how do we learn from experience, how do we make it last longer, and how do we embed it into the curriculum?” Davis-Blake says. “Michigan is really poised to make its mark there.”
While charting a course for the school, she is loath to think or talk about what’s next.
“The immediate future is that I’m going to be here at Ross,” she says. “I don’t know after that. A door will open, and I’ll know that door when it comes.”
Article written by Megan Bingham
Photographed by Bradley Slade
About the Author
Based in New York City, Megan Bingham is a writer and editor at Family Circle magazine. She graduated from BYU in 2010 with a degree in communications.