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A Conversation with Dean Daphne Taras

June 19, 2018
Dr. Daphne Taras, Dean of Ted Rogers School of Management officially starting July 2018
TRSM Dean Daphne Taras

Recently, Dr. Daphne Taras was announced as the next dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management. Although she doesn’t officially start until July, she shared what drew her to TRSM and Ryerson, and her journey home to Toronto.

What drew you to this opportunity?

I’m from Toronto, so I’m especially alert to how Ryerson took off.  Having grown up here and having been in the business of education, I have been watching with awe how Ryerson has acquired incredible real estate in the epicentre of downtown. The pulse of change, the University’s innovation and the world-renowned DMZ; those have all been on my radar. I thought, “What a happening place.”

I didn’t get a doctorate to be a dean.  My heart beat strongest for research and teaching.  Then, after a dozen years of senior positions – as associate dean at University of Calgary and then dean at University of Saskatchewan – I was ready to go back to being a professor because I have respect for academics. There had been so much hard work involved in getting a business school accredited, in Saskatchewan, and putting the school on the national stage!  I wanted to go back in time to be a professor again.  But it is hard to pedal a bicycle backwards.  The more I tried, the less momentum I had.  Then I had an epiphany.  I really enjoy being a dean.  The sense of urgency, of breaking new ground, of getting deals done, of working with teams of people.  Of solving problems, of tending to issues, of mentoring.  Of waking up in the morning and facing unpredictable events that weren’t in my calendar. So when Ryerson called, I answered.  It is a perfect match for my own temperament.  I didn’t want to lead in a place that was without innovation.

I wanted to be in a place where, in partnership, we could do amazing things.  I’ve been watching Ryerson for a long time, the whole country has been watching Ryerson, and anyone in the education business has been watching Ryerson.

What are you most excited for in your new role as dean of TRSM?

I’m most excited about getting to know the place, because I’ve seen it from afar. I have such curiosity.  If it was a restaurant, the food is so delicious and I want to get into the kitchen. I also want to know what I can do to advance it, accelerate it, or just to keep the momentum. But in the first six months, I need to figure out what the secret sauce is.

I’m also excited about the different generation of students. When I was a young student, it was all about tearing down the establishment, code-named “the man.” My father had a business and I stupidly didn’t want to work in his business.  Now, to my surprise, 40 years later, I am “the man.”

For students today, instead of tearing down “the man,” they want to make society better, they really do.  The faculty members and staff also have so much energy.  These days, everyone is so constructive and engaged.  My generation of academics was quite cynical and introverted by comparison. Here at TRSM, there is impact and partnership with the community. 

Your academic focus is on industrial relations.  How do you feel that has helped shape your approach to leadership?

It’s a huge contribution. I would be known as tough but fair, and that word fair resonates in industrial relations.  In industrial relations fair means no special deals, no secrecy, total transparency, and the ability to document and defend all decisions.  I have a very casual style, but it is a very well-trained industrial relations style. I run a meritocracy, not a social club.

But industrial relations is about good management, and trust.  It says little about how to actually inspire people. To be an effective leader, I need to appreciate what makes people tick, be sympathetic, and I always need to be pulling the elastic, but not letting it snap on people. In academic settings, a leader needs to have an unusual combination of task-based skills and a talent for people.

Your post-secondary career started in arts (dance). How did you transition from that to business and are there any similarities?

My career was intermediated by many years in political science. It’s hard to describe the life of people in the performing arts or in sports.  When people develop their talent, and their fixation, as children and teenagers, it becomes their identity. It is all-consuming.  Quitting dance was very painful.  Then again, I was only 19 when I quit, so I did have a life ahead of me.  I was a better university student than I was a dancer, and ballet is especially cruel.  Looking back in time, I can see that despite all my training and love of ballet, compared to real talent, I was pretty mediocre. Maybe that’s too harsh, but I think it is the truth. But it is so hard to let go of an identity.  It took a while before I found that I could be happy as a student in the social sciences.  It was never as intense as being a dancer, but thank goodness, I was much more talented.

I found myself in political science. When a person is a dancer, other people are fascinated, but they don’t care much whether you are smart or not.  While I was dancing, I was a very good student. I was really an academic in my heart.  When I went into political science, it was really as an academic discipline and I wanted to do a PhD.  If I wasn’t going to be a dancer, I was going to be a professor. And then I discovered through an MBA and PhD that business was just as interesting as political science. Labour relations appeals to my practical side, and it also has academic oomph.   

There are some similarities between dance and what I do now.  There are performance aspects to being a professor and there’s the discipline of writing when you’re a scholar.  The toughest thing about being a professor is writing your research.  It’s not the discovery, because the discovery aspect of research is really exciting. To set it down for dissemination is agonizing. It’s a lot like the ballet barre – you just have to do it.  To succeed, you have to sweat. 

When you’ve lived as long and had as many disciplines as I’ve had, there’s a miracle that happens when you’re about 50 years old when they all come together. When I became a dean it was clear that everything in my past has relevance. So, all of a sudden I had donors who had major art collections and I was able to talk to them knowledgeably about art, and I had donors who were interested in sports, and my husband is a major-league baseball labour arbitrator. Add politics and business and creativity to the mix.  It just all re-integrates.

All the disparate pieces of a person’s different identities can actually come together at some point. So I feel actually the job of dean is really perfect for me.  I get to be everything I ever was, plus look to the future.

In my own life and career progress, I wasn’t much of a planner.  Life allows you to have opportunities and it’s just a question of following Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it!”  So in my whole career, whenever I see a fork in the road, I take it.

What are your keys to success? How will you evaluate success in this role and success for TRSM?

There’s a great quote, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Behind every success is a lot of hard work. What I know from dealing with leaders is when people reach my stage, I ask them, “What are you most proud of?” The answer is never something that happened with a week’s work. It’s usually something that’s happened with five to ten years of unrelenting work. So, I’ve learned that whatever’s worth doing is going to take a long time and a lot of thought and planning, otherwise it’s not sustainable

Who is the most important mentor you’ve had and why?

When I was young, I didn’t think I had any mentors.  As a lot of young people do, I used to think that a mentorship structure is formal.  But when I became more reflective, I discovered I had many mentors at different stages.

My first for role model mentor was a woman in political science named Naomi Black. It was a male-dominated field at that time and suddenly there was a female professor and we talked about going into academic life in a nearly all-male field. I had many male political science professors who guided me, and I am grateful.  In labour relations I had two mentors: Harry Arthurs – President of York University and before that dean of Osgoode Hall – I learned a lot from watching Harry, and a top labour arbitrator, Andy Sims, a former labour board chair in Alberta, and a great arbitrator and mediator gave me such insights into the practice of labour relations.  My husband Allen Ponak has spent thirty years mentoring me!  In Saskatchewan, Marvin Romanow was my mentor while I was dean.  And the other deans.  And the provosts.  And students gave me advice on their world.  A junior colleague admitted to me that I was mispronouncing Saskatchewan. Mentorship is all around. 

People have been very generous with their time and advice to me.  It took me a lot of years to actually realize that they were mentors.  I thought it was friendship, but within the friendship was learning.  So I think a lot of kids don’t realize when they’re being mentored.  The best mentorship is casual, and life-affirming.

What's a good habit you think students should start practicing right now?

They should stop saying things such as “umm,” “like,” “you know,” and “you guys.”  It reflects the inability to complete a sentence.

Business students should start practicing this the minute they arrive and it takes three or four months to stop saying these things or even recognize that you’re saying them. They should practice together and there should be awards.  When I was at the University of Saskatchewan, I set up a dean’s Golden Tongue Award.  Any student who could speak for six minutes without reading notes who didn’t use those words would get a $50 prize and the ability to write dean’s Golden Tongue Award Winner on their resume.

Another good habit is not using any jargon.  If you can’t say it in simple words, then you don’t understand it well enough to do it.

What do you like to do with your free time?

When I’m very stressed, I will watch YouTube of some of the dancers that I admired.  When I was younger, I wasn’t able to see some of these dancers perform because I couldn’t get tickets, but now I can see them years later and oohh and aahh. YouTube has opened up all new possibilities of catching up with years of dance.  When I’m stressed, I go to it and will watch these videos over and over again.

I also like to micro-garden.  I started doing it as a dean to calm down.  It allows you to go into a little world and it’s very fussy.  I like collecting unusual plants that have interesting structures.  I look forward to installing grow-lights in my office – I’m going to have a dean’s grow-op!  Get ready, TRSM, you’ll see lithops seedlings grow in my office. Not edible, not smokable.  Just enjoyable.

Favourite place to visit?

Southeast Asia – especially Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.  They’re very lush and very different than us.   They’re a little bit more serene.  It isn’t that they are a peaceable kingdom; there are a lot of hostilities and border skirmishes.  But I feel oddly at home in that region, even taking the Skytrain in Bangkok and knowing all the stations.  I don’t do anything like the retreats and the yoga/ashram stuff. For many years, my husband and I have been helping the Cambodian Arbitration Council in its efforts to raise the quality of justice in employment.  That is meaningful work, but also I just like walking around.   

What's a motto you live by?

Tough, but fair.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Sometimes Plan B is better than Plan A.  In fact, sometimes Plan B suits you more.  Plan A is I’m a dancer, and Plan B is I’m a dean.  Being a dean is a way better plan for me and for society and this is where my talents really lie.  So, keep yourself open to a Plan B.