A Delicate Operation for an Ex-Surgeon: Leading a Young Business School

Chris Hartlove

Bernard T. Ferrari
August 13, 2012

As it sought a leader for its five-year-old business school, the Johns Hopkins University hoped to find someone who understood the life sciences as well as business management, to reflect the school's new emphasis on training leaders for the health-care industry. They found that in Bernard T. Ferrari, a health-care consultant and corporate strategist.

As a surgeon in New Orleans three decades ago, he became intrigued by the legal issues facing his profession and the business end of running a practice. So he set aside his scalpel, and in 1985 earned a J.D. at Loyola University's law school, just across the street from his clinic, and the next year completed an M.B.A. at neighboring Tulane University.

For Dr. Ferrari, 64, leading the Carey Business School of Johns Hopkins is "a collaborator's dream." He started on July 1, succeeding the school's inaugural dean, Yash P. Gupta.

"Business leaders today have to be able to navigate government and the social sectors as well as the business sectors," he says.

The school's emphasis on the socially beneficial mission of business also drew him, he says, noting that industry leaders have more to worry about than optimizing profits.

Lloyd B. Minor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins, led the search committee that selected Dr. Ferrari.

The new dean understands, "operationally and strategically," the university's areas of strength, says Dr. Minor, who will become dean of medicine at Stanford University in December. At Carey, courses are team-taught by faculty members in different disciplines, and joint degrees combine business with fields such as public health, nursing, medical services, and biotechnology.

Dr. Ferrari was a colon and rectal surgeon at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans before becoming its chief operating officer. He went on to spend nearly 20 years at McKinsey & Company, the global management-consulting firm, and in 2008 he started his own consultancy, advising executives at Fortune 50 companies.

Although he has spent much of his career dispensing advice, Dr. Ferrari recently wrote a book called Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Portfolio/Penguin, 2012).

The skills he developed listening to surgery patients carried over into other phases of his career, he said. "Asking the right questions, and listening carefully to the answers, were the keys to not only making an accurate diagnosis, but also to managing treatment," he wrote.

In business, "I ask pesky questions, but if at the end of the day those managers with whom I work have had to challenge their assumptions and open their minds to new aspects of a business issue, then that's a win for everyone."

One of his main priorities at Carey, he says, will be beefing up the school's small faculty. The school's youth will give him and his team more flexibility in designing the curricula and hiring the right people, he says.

"The good news for this school is that it's not an aircraft carrier. It's more of a speed boat," he says.

"We want people who play well with others. It's really important that we have people who are excited about the collaborations, about the nexus of their discipline with others, and who find this place, like I do, a collaborator's dream."