Leading the Leaders

leaders1Professionals who hold a DBA are standing out in an MBA world. WilmU’s Doctor of Business Administration program is leading the pack, proving once again that Wilmington University creates trends rather than follows them.

Dr. Guillermina Gonzalez wanted the people of Delaware to know why the arts mattered. Drs. Mark D. Harris, Michael L. Schirmer and Fathony Rahman all wanted full-time jobs in academia. Healthcare administrator Dr. David Silverman longed to transform his 40 years of experience into a meaningful business. Dr. Kandie Dempsey, an R.N. who had already published in peer-reviewed journals and received several appointments to national oncology research organizations, lacked statistical knowledge needed for administrative posts. Were their missions accomplished?

After completing Wilmington University’s Doctor of Business program (DBA), each got what they wished for: Gonzalez is the executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance; Harris is a CFO for a junior college; Schirmer is an associate professor and business faculty chair at Peirce College in Philadelphia; Rahman is a tenure-track assistant professor at Prasetiya Mulya Business School in Indonesia; Silverman established a successful consulting firm; and while Dempsey retained her position as director of cancer research at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute, part of Christiana Care Health Services, she is now expert in statistical methodologies that will lead to advancement in healthcare administration.

In the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who advised us not to go where paths lead, but to create our own paths and leave trails, these individuals took on a program that may not yet be as recognized as the MBA, but is arguably the business degree of the future. WilmU’s part-time Doctor of Business Administration program caters to professionals who want to immediately apply their coursework to the workplace, but need flexible schedules that allow them to balance professional and personal demands. Designed for experienced managers, professionals and educators who are employed in the business sector, nonprofits, government, military, healthcare, higher education and other organizations, WilmU’s DBA curriculum develops practical skills and higher-order thinking, as opposed to a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, which places more emphasis on developing narrow, theoretical perspectives.

“There is a transition occurring in the field,” says Dr. Robert Rescigno, the director of Wilmington University’s DBA program. “One might say that the MBA is adequate to efficiently navigate through the world of business. But if we take a step back and examine the context of today’s business challenges, we gain a different perspective. Doctoral graduates have the depth and diversity to add to teams that are already largely composed of MBAs.”

In other words, the DBA trains leaders to lead other leaders. “Doctoral students review challenges from a research base, ask thought-provoking questions, dig down to the ‘why,’ delve into the context, and have the ability to synthesize many ideas into a workable solution,” says Rescigno. Students explore a particular problem in their organizations and work to solve it. And learning to solve problems rather than theorize about them is the crux of the program.

“Research makes sense when it’s connected to reality and improves current problems or opens up possibilities,” says Gonzalez. Dr. Audrey Parajon, another DBA alumna, agrees: “Conducting research using data and other evidence needed to express intelligent information, and the ability to effectively communicate information are just a few of the competencies that DBA graduates should be able to demonstrate.”

For these professionals, WilmU’s scheduling flexibility and affordability were paramount. Says Parajon: “With two children in college, I was concerned about taking on more debt. Wilmington University’s costs were so much more affordable than other institutions.” For Silverman, the hybrid environment (classroom combined with on-line courses) was perfect. “I needed to have that class structure and face time to get back into the school mode,” he says. “Having the online part of the program allowed me to do so much of my work wherever I was at the time, and I was traveling quite a bit for work.”

Managers may not all be leaders, but authentic leaders must be cognizant of procedures while understanding team dynamics and inspiring subordinates. After completing the program, Rahman saw leadership differently. “I used to base the success of a business on its products and market opportunities, and not so much on leadership,” he says. “The DBA curriculum changed my view on leadership. I believe it is the critical aspect of any organization. The ability to make good products and seize opportunities depends on the leader’s vision and mission. Leadership is not just about supervising and directing, it’s more about orchestrating different resources into a successful organization and business venture.”

Each graduate takes away something different from the program. But ask any of the aforementioned doctors how the DBA impacted their careers, and they all say the same thing: It was a game changer.

Past and Future

The MBA has long been the advanced business degree of choice, particularly for recruiters. According to a recent article that appeared in The Economist, the MBA developed at the start of the 20th century, when accounting and bookkeeping courses were introduced “as the country lost its frontier image and began to industrialize.” MBA programs were criticized initially for their lack of academic rigor, and even as late as the 1990s, were focused primarily on theory rather than practical application. Professors had little actual business experience. Their MBA students boasted analytical skills, but they lacked leadership training.

Then came globalization, which is believed to have started with the Ancient Greeks, but in modern times, accelerated in the 20th century with expanded air travel, free trade and the Information Age. American MBA programs grew insular, out of touch with global business needs. This is a problem Wilmington University never had, particularly in terms of its business curriculum. Real-world application and leadership skills have been hallmarks of its MBA program since it premiered in 1977. And since that date, 4,908 MBA degrees have been awarded at Wilmington University.

Building on the success of both WilmU’s MBA and Doctor of Education programs, administrators created the DBA program in 2007. There was a perceived need for developing higher-level management skills for business leaders in the area, says Dr. Donald Durandetta, the dean of WilmU’s College of Business. “The University of Delaware offered only a Ph.D. in economics and no doctorate in more general management. There also was a need for more doctoral-qualified business faculty for the regional non-research oriented colleges and universities.”

Most DBA students, whose average age is 40, have careers they’d like to expand or change. “So their goals are very practical,” says Durandetta. “The faculty mostly has professional and academic backgrounds. They understand the practical needs of our graduates, and they incorporate those learning experiences into our courses.”

Dissertation topics are related directly to students’ current careers or future career interests, and few dissertations present purely theoretical topics that don’t have practical applications. The business environment is growing increasingly complex, and the DBA fulfills the need that senior managers now have to attain more expert leadership and decision-making skills. The higher-level thinking goes well beyond that of the traditional MBA.

Dr. Ken Morlino was already teaching in WilmU’s College of Business, but was promoted to the chair post of its MBA program after earning his DBA. “I started investigating local doctoral programs in 2008,” he says. “I was in my early 50s, so I needed a program that was cost effective, local and flexible. I pursued my DBA to leverage my career opportunities within higher education and thought that would give me more flexibility teaching-wise, given my MBA. It couldn’t have worked out better for me.”

Morlino describes the difference between the Ph.D. and the DBA: “It’s the theoretical research focus (Ph.D.) versus the practitioner-based research focus (DBA).  DBA research ideally has a direct application to work processes and/or adds to fields of study that are more germane to the practice of business versus academic theory. Faculty at upper-tier, research-based institutions require the Ph.D. (in almost all cases), while the DBA is an appropriate terminal degree for faculty at teaching-based institutions.”

Leading Leaders

leading3Dr. Gabrielle McClure-Nelson, another DBA alumna, has received two promotions since starting her DBA program. She now manages three audit offices of a major Department of  Defense contractor. WilmU’s DBA curriculum directly influenced her beliefs “in the value of teaming, recognizing the value of differing opinions, and the need for a healthy organizational climate to accommodate divergent viewpoints,” she says.

Gonzalez quotes management guru Peter Drucker, who, in his book, “The Essential Drucker,” wrote that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” The DBA program helped her detect and pursue the right things. In fact, Delaware Arts Alliance’s first strategic plan was crafted with the help of doctoral students as part of a class she was taking. “DAA can credit the DBA program for its initial strategic approach,” says Gonzalez.

Visionary leadership is needed in the business world, and its relevance is the fulcrum of WilmU’s DBA program. “In today’s world,” says Rescigno, “we are moving from the efficient (tactical) frame to the effective (strategic) frame. We stay ahead of our competition once we have established effective practice by examining our teams to be sure that we have the talent and skills to stay competitive in an ever-changing world.

“This acceleration leads to conversations about leadership. Doctoral candidates are developing higher-level leadership skills. Certainly, managers are critical to the delivery of efficient, daily processes, and the business climate is dependent on the work of productive managers. But at some point, the climate of an organization and the daily efficiency will yield to its culture. This takes us to organizational strategic thinking and strong belief systems. The leaders of an organization must be the keepers of the belief system, their core values. They set the direction. They have the vision.” WU 

To learn more, visit wilmu.edu/dba, or call (302) 356-2460.