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Special Session Recap: 6 Top Insights for Managing Centers

T.J. Anderson

Seven directors of leading centers in the U.S. gathered at the 2019 AMA Winter Academic Conference to discuss building, maintaining, and promoting centers. The panelists included Charlotte Mason (Chair; UGA Coca-Cola Center for Marketing Studies), Andrea Dixon (Baylor Center for Professional Selling), Peter Fader (Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative), Thomas Hollmann (ASU Center for Services Leadership), Venkatesh Shankar (Texas A&M Center for Retailing Studies), Stacy Wood (NC State Consumer Innovation Collaborative), and Debra Zahay (NIU Interactive Marketing Area of Study).

Together, these presenters shared insights from their experiences, including some of the most important things to focus on when managing a center and some of the biggest challenges centers often face. They include:

1. Funding Models Vary – Find What Works for You

Centers can’t exist without funding. However, funding models (and amounts) vary greatly across different centers depending on a wide variety of factors. While most centers receive funding from corporate sponsorships/partnerships and alumni donations, funding can also come from pay-to-play advisory boards. In some cases, advisory board members all provide the same level of funding, while other centers have a sliding funding scale depending on one’s position on the board.

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One of the bigger funding challenges discussed involved center location. Dr. Zahay noted that universities in more rural areas may often have a harder time finding corporate partnerships. In her case, she was able to raise funds at Northern Illinois University (located in DeKalb, over 60 miles from Chicago) by holding digital marketing conferences.

These slides show more information about each center’s funding:

2. Create Value for Industries

Of course, corporate funding isn’t likely if a center can’t provide value for the corporations. The panelists urged the audience to consider what industries are looking for and how their centers could help. It’s important to signal to corporations exactly what your center is doing and why you’re doing it. One of Dr. Wood’s slides included promises that the NC State Consumer Innovation Collaborative makes to its corporate partners:

Dr. Dixon showed that the Baylor Center for Professional Selling documents everything their students do and maps these tasks to real-world competencies:

3. Educate Board Members and Company Execs About Your Goals

Managing a center involves managing the expectations of the many involved parties. As Professor Shankar pointed out, centers often must educate companies about what centers really do and how to approach the research that centers perform. Too often, companies will consider a center at a university to be nothing more than a student group to recruit from or to conduct experiments with. Industries also often expect centers to provide just one specific type of research that may or may not align with the center’s goals.

But it’s not just companies – marketing departments, business schools, deans, and other university entities will also have opinions about how a center should function, what its goals should be, and how it should be funded. Center managers must be prepared to navigate all these players and demonstrate the value that their center brings to the university.

4. Determine the Best Level of Student Involvement

The level of student involvement in a center can vary depending on the center’s goals. Often, centers and institutes are setup for rigorous student involvement, keeping experiences student-focused and providing real industry training. Such programs aim to prepare innovative business analytical professionals who are ready for job placement. Dr. Wood stated that treating students as apprentices has been key for her center’s success:

On the other hand, Dr. Fader was careful to point out that not all initiatives can or should operate in this way. He discussed one initiative he headed that had far less student involvement than is typical, instead opting to work mainly with already-established top academics to provide the partner companies with the best academic assistance possible.

5. Prepare for Bandwidth Issues

Several panelists mentioned burnout as one of the biggest challenges they face in managing their center. Such environments are often very demanding, many positions are unpaid, and staff turnover is an ever-present issue. Center managers must be prepared for these types of issues if they’re going to be successful.

When asked by an audience member whether any of the panelists were able to negotiate a reduction in their teaching load as a result of managing a center, most of the panelists indicated that teaching load reductions aren’t typical. Professor Shankar receives no break in his teaching, and in one of the most lighthearted moments of the session, Dr. Fader simply said, “don’t even ask.”

Professor Hollmann, however, noted that he received a 50% reduction in his teaching load. He indicated that he was able to negotiate this because the center he manages is very large and provides a significant amount of money to the university. These slides show some of the details of the ASU Center for Services Leadership:

6. Stay Positive and Play the Long Game

Anyone who inherits a center can end up facing challenges that seem insurmountable. However, the panelists were very optimistic about being successful as a center manager by knowing your next move, being persistent, and focusing on long-term goals. Dr. Zahay mentioned that curriculums can be revamped even if they’re extremely outdated, and Dr. Dixon stated that it could take five to ten years before a manager’s strategies and goals can start to take hold. However, she concluded, “Don’t be afraid if you inherit a lemon. You can make lemonade.”

T.J. Anderson