DURHAM — It’s a question Deborah Merrill-Sands gets asked fairly frequently: How does someone who studied anthropology eventually become dean of the University of New Hampshire’s business school?
Merrill-Sands will offer the intriguing story – what she calls “a series of zigs and zags” – of how she got from one point to the other. The short answer is that anthropology, the study of human societies, offers tremendous insight to the business culture.
“It’s an excellent foundation for the role I have now,” said Merrill-Sands, who in 2015 came on board as dean of UNH’s Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics.
“What you learn in anthropology is to listen to diverse points of view, she added. “You learn to be a very skilled listener and synthesizer of those points of view. You learn about how organizations work and about organization behavior, and you learn about complexity and leading change. Whether you’re looking at a small social system or complex social system, or you’re looking at an organizational system, all those perspectives are cultivated through the discipline of anthropology, as well as sociology.”
Her leadership in the field of business to enhance the image of Paul College and empower women as business leaders earned her one of six 2019 Outstanding Women in Business Awards from NH Business Review magazine.
The magazine, in explaining the credentials it was looking for, stated: “The Outstanding Women in Business Awards celebrate women who have truly excelled, not only in their professional lives, but as leaders and role models. While many of these women come from different industries and walks of life, they share several traits – a strong sense of self, a success-driven work ethic and the extraordinary accomplishments to show for it. Their commitment, vision and talents make them true leaders in their chosen fields.”
Included among the recipients was Jeanine Sylvester, founder and general manager of Runner’s Alley in Portsmouth, Manchester and Concord.
Also receiving awards were: Patricia Carty, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester; Joanne Conroy, president and chief executive officer of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health in Lebanon; Margherita Verani, chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Verani Realty in Londonderry; and Sherilyn Burnett Young, shareholder and president of Rath, Young and Pignatelli, P.C. in Concord.
The awards to the six women were distributed during a reception Feb. 13.
Merrill-Sands has a unique, strategic role in the business world: As dean of the flagship university’s business school, she is responsible for shaping the next generation of business leaders. And she does it with the kinds of skills you’d find at the executive levels of a business, such as managing by walking around.
“I think I'm very good at creating a culture that is positive, aspirational that engages all of the employees, and I think that came out in the nomination for the Outstanding Women in Business Award,” she said. “I think I'm very good at strategies, positioning the school. We've had very significant growth in enrollment, we've grown our revenue, we've reduced our costs. Those are classic business skills.
“We’ve elevated our reputation, we’ve gotten more market share. The way I lead is by understanding that you can’t lead anywhere if people aren’t willing to go with you. I think I’ve got the organization mobilized, focused on success.”
The “series of zigs and zags” that brought Merrill-Sands to UNH and to this award started with college and anthropology, with a bachelor degree in that study in 1975 from Hampshire College and a masters and PhD from Cornell University in 1984.
She did post-doctorate work through the Ford Foundation for an international development research institute based in Holland. This was followed by work to lead an initiative to bring more women scientists into research organizations. Backed again by the Ford Foundation, she was part of a research team undertaking an organizational change effort with the Xerox Corporation.
“My post-doc took me to an institute that focused on strengthening public national research institutes in developing countries,” Merrill-Sands said. “Quite quickly, I changed from being a field social scientist to working with organizations, primarily in East Africa on organization and management issues. From there, I was later recruited to run an initiative on trying to strengthen the participation of women in science in this consortium of research institutes around the world.”
This led to a grant from Ford Foundation in the 1990s to form an academic center and research institute at the School of Management at Simmons College.
She took the UNH job soon after the business school had undergone a complete transformation from what was the Whittemore School of Business on Academic Way with the opening on Garrison Avenue of the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics in 2013-14.
“I was able to walk in to this incredible facility and say: How do we leverage this to have a really outstanding business school? My job was to build programs to build enrollment, focus on the quality of what we were doing at the graduate and undergraduate level, and elevate the reputation of the college that was worthy of the investments that have been made in the building,” Merrill-Sands said.
One of her goals upon arriving at Paul College was to increase the enrollment of women. Empowering women in business, she said, “is something I’ve worked on for 20 years. It’s an integral part of who I am and my professional life and aspirations.”
Most business schools of Paul College’s size, according to Merrill-Sands, have 42-43 percent enrollment of women. When she got there, it was 38 percent.
“I established that as a priority when I first came in,” she said. “I’ve done investments in key strategic areas. We have a women in business conference now, we have a women in business club that I supported.”
The efforts have increased the percentage of women to 41 percent.
One big initiative in this regard, according to Merrill-Sands is a $1.7 million gift from Morgan Rutman and Daniel Och that created the Rutman/Och Advancing Women’s Leadership Initiative.
Currently a pilot program with 12 sophomores, Merrill-Sands said it is recruiting its class for the fall of a four-year program that, in the words of the mission statement, will “educate high-performing young leaders who are committed to advancing women’s leadership in business and economics.”
“They gave us this large gift really targeted at developing programs that would attract more women to Paul College, and then support men and women to understand gender issues and organizations, and also to give young women the skills and the aspiration and the knowledge to want to go in and take up leadership roles as they develop their careers,” she said.
Women business leaders are important to business success, she added.
“If you look over the last 20 years as a percent of CEOs of Fortune 500s who are women, we've moved from 2 percent to 5 percent in 20 years,” Merrill-Sands said. “If you're someone in my position who has been tracking this issue that is very slow progress. We've seen an expansion of women in middle management role. We're starting to see some senior management roles. But that’s kind of the problem that we're still addressing. There's ample research, which shows that if you have gender diversity at the executive level and at the board level, it is correlated with stronger business performance.
“I also believe in this strongly from an equity point of view. I believe that women are often overlooked as leaders. Often people don't perceive women as leaders. So we're not taking full advantage, as Warren Buffet has often said, of a large share of the workforce.”
With about 2,800 undergrads and 300 graduate students, Paul College boasts job placement rates of 94 percent for undergraduates, 96 percent for masters of accounting, 94 percent for MBAs, and 93 percent for masters of economics.
“I am responsible for making sure that education prepares them in the best possible way to be ready to take up their careers, to be prepared to advance in their careers, and to be prepared to go on a trajectory for leadership, or at least senior management levels. So that's a huge responsibility,” she said.
When asked how she regards herself – as an academic, or as a college administrator, or as a businesswoman – Merrill-Sands answered, “I would say the intersection of those three.”
“I think the skill set I bring particularly to this job is I think I'm very effective leader, and I'm a very strong administrator,” she said. “I have a large, complex organization now that I'm responsible for in a challenging environment. And I don't think that's different than many other people who are running businesses in the private sector or not for profit.
“If you look at the array of individuals, for example, who got the Outstanding Women in Business Award I wasn't unusual in that category. The CEO of Dartmouth-Hitchcock is a much bigger organization, but it's a nonprofit in an academic institution. What I'm doing here is on a much smaller scale and requires all those skills that good business leaders use and need. You do a little bit marketing, you do hiring and recruiting you do development of people, you do partnerships. You do everything that somebody running a business would do.”