PEOPLE: Catherine Quinn

A student’s return

Catherine Quinn, Chief Operating Officer, Associate Dean and former Executive MBA student on instilling rigour, purposeful leadership, and what drew her back to Saïd Business School.

‘We listen constantly to our students to find out what they want, and we have taken time to tune into our faculty’s needs.’

Words: Christian Doherty
Portraits: Greg Funnell

They say never go back, but for Catherine Quinn, Dean Peter Tufano’s new vision for Saïd Business School proved too much to resist. She was a student on its Executive MBA programme between 2005 and 2006 and returned seven years later to take up the role of COO and Associate Dean, administration and operations. 

After completing her EMBA, Quinn left the higher education sector, having first set up a consultancy company for the University of Oxford, to lead the Wellcome Trust’s grant-giving operations. She then took over as CEO of The Middle Temple in London. But three years into running one of the oldest and most venerable legal institutions, Quinn was approached about returning to the School as the operational partner of the Dean, Peter Tufano.

‘I found myself pulled back to the place that had made such a difference to me’

‘He was putting together a new team and he asked to meet with me to outline his forward vision for the School,’ Quinn recalls. ‘I had no intention of leaving where I was, but Peter is a very persuasive person and he has a very compelling and exciting vision for the School. So I found myself pulled back to the place that had made such a difference to me.’

Quinn’s own experience of an Oxford Saïd EMBA had, she says, been instrumental in helping her take the leap from developing operations and services in an academic setting to apply this experience to other types of organisations in different sectors. Having managed significant transformations at a global foundation and a heritage institution, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to return and drive a similar change programme at the School. 

Tufano’s vision of improving and developing the School was especially compelling: ‘His new thinking about where we could take the School together was exciting,’ she says.

‘The idea was to take a University department – which is what we are, structurally speaking – and create high-quality, professionally run services befitting a top-ranked international school to complement its academic excellence. That was the key for me: taking a rather unwieldy, old-school model of academic administration and making it run to new standards, while retaining our core academic values.’

Fit for purpose

The School’s unique appeal, Quinn believes, lies in its intrinsic link with the University of Oxford – while the rounded nature of its curriculum is especially important in these uncertain times.

‘The focus is on preparing students for the unscripted challenges that they may face’

‘Since the financial crisis of 2008, there’s been a lot of reflection on what business schools should be providing, in terms of education of business leaders for the future,’ she says.

Oxford Saïd has marked itself out on the issue through its focus on responsible leadership. ‘We teach business ethics, not just from a corporate perspective but through the lens of the humanities, for example, which provides a different perspective. This exposure to other types of thinking helps prepare our students for the unscripted challenges that they may face in their executive careers.’ 

It was that breadth of education that allowed Quinn to branch out in her own career. ‘The business training that we provide here at Oxford Saïd prompts new thinking, of course, but in the last decade, business has had to change and schools have to adapt too. In this context, our role is ever more clear: helping to prepare business leaders with purpose, who are able not only to position their organisations for a successful future but, in doing so, contemplate their responsibility to society too.’

Customer-focused approach

Since returning, the focus of Quinn and her senior managers – a superb new team for whom Quinn has great praise – has been on restructuring and refreshing the School’s services, operations, systems and processes in order to serve their prime purpose: underpinning the excellence of the School and looking after students and faculty. And so far, it’s been a rewarding journey.

‘I’ve enjoyed seeing the fruits of the last three years here,’ she says, ‘both in terms of the projects I’ve been working on and also the bigger picture: fulfilling the vision for the School and taking it to the next stage of its life. A critical part of this has been the fresh approach we’ve taken to our provision of professional services, the success of which is all down to huge effort and great commitment on the part of all our staff.’ 

‘We listen constantly to our students to find out what they want, and we have taken time to tune into our faculty’s needs’

Quinn cannot compliment the staff of the School enough. She says they have worked incredibly hard to achieve cultural and operational change, and that the key shift has

been to take a much more customer-focused approach. ‘We listen constantly to our students to find out what they want, and we have taken time to tune into our faculty’s needs,’ she says.

And this approach certainly seems to be working: although the School has been through a rapid period of growth, by adding a fourth stream of the MBA class and a second stream of EMBA, together with expansion in Executive Education and greater international diversification, student satisfaction appears to be holding and improving steadily. Indeed, one MBA student, Stephen Morse, recently used his blog on FT.com to commend the work of the School’s staff and services: ‘Accommodating staff: From IT enquiries to student welfare officers to project coordinators, every member of staff at this business school acts as if they are working at the Ritz Carlton. They work to solve problems daily, and they do this in the most professional ways possible – responding to emails both quickly and thoughtfully, and always having their doors open.’

All very promising, but what of the coming year? What does Quinn feel are the big challenges facing Oxford Saïd?

‘The uncertainty about the UK’s position in the world following Brexit is an issue, without doubt,’ she explains. The School will need to look at its positioning in the face of that, as well as staying focused on the competition and on what makes Oxford Saïd special, she says. ‘It’s pretty fierce out there. We want to do well in the rankings, of course, but at the same time we need to maintain the integrity of the School, making sure we uphold standards and remain committed to diversity.’

‘We can and will set the bar for operational excellence in international business schools’

In practice, that also means making Oxford Saïd more female and family-friendly, as well as offering scholarships to attract applicants from all kinds of different backgrounds and nationalities. The School’s diversity mission is supported by the Women Transforming Leadership programme, offered to women applicants only through the School’s Executive Education portfolio of courses. The programme began two years ago, when Quinn was fortunate to be able to enrol in the one-week course. She says the experience was transformational for those who attended.

‘It’s a really important programme,’ she says. ‘And I think we have hit on something very special here. Having been through the course myself, I can vouch for the fact that when women come together, they can create incredibly powerful networks and start conversations that lead to positive change. The atmosphere and tone are different, as are the discussions.’

So for now, looking back on three successful years, with more to come, Quinn is clear that the future is bright: ‘There are some big challenges for the School, for sure – not just in terms of maintaining the high standards that we’ve worked so hard to set, but in making sure that we innovate to keep pace with new demands.

But in my area, the achievements of our staff in a relatively short time give us confidence that we can and will set the bar for operational excellence in international business schools, as long as we continue to focus on the essentials: providing the best possible service to our students and faculty.’

Find out more about Oxford Saïd’s Women Transforming Leadership programme here.