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Dean’s Q&A: Peter Todd, HEC Paris

Peter TODD, Directeur General d'HEC Paris.

Peter TODD, Directeur General d’HEC Paris.

When Peter Todd joined the administration of HEC Paris last July, he made history as the first non-French dean of the top-ranked school. This past January, he helped the business school make history again when, as a result of a new French law, it became the first school in France to take on the new status of a consular higher education institution (or EESC) in the country, giving the school its first true whiff of independence in its more than 130-year history.

As a result of this change, the school will no longer be a department of the Paris Ile-de-France Chamber of Commerce, as it has been since its inception in 1881, but rather an affiliate entity with the freedom to seek funding from benefactors and publish its own accounts. It’s a paradigm shift in many ways that will take the school in new and exciting directions, says Todd, who came to HEC after a nine-year stint as dean of Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.

“We now have more managerial ability and flexibility and the opportunity to finance ourselves in different ways,” believes Todd. “It opens up some new horizons for us in terms of how we can invest in the future of the school.”

TURNING HEC INTO A ‘HOUSEHOLD NAME’

HEC’s MBA program is ranked 15th in the 2016 Financial Times’ Global MBA rankings and second in the Financial Times’ 2015 European Business School Ranking. The school has more than 4,000 students, about 3,000 whom are enrolled in the school’s pre-experience master of management programs, and 225 MBA students. HEC has a strong global footprint and one of the most international student bodies in the world, with 60% of students hailing from outside France. About 70% of the school’s instruction is done in English, Todd says.

The school’s future and how the rest of the world perceives it is a top priority for Todd, who seeks to turn HEC Paris, one of the oldest and most established schools in Europe, into a top ten business school globally and a household name, so to speak, at companies around the world.

FOCUSING ON THREE SPECIFIC STRENGTHS

Todd is no stranger when it comes to accomplishing bold and ambitious goals. He made headlines at McGill for his controversial and bold move of making Desautels’ MBA program self funded in order to better fund the program and reduce the size of the MBA class.

In his current role, he is seeking to make good on his promise of enhancing HEC’s stature in global rankings by focusing attention and resources on what he believes are the school’s strengths: entrepreneurship, digital technology and social responsibility. In the coming few years, he hopes to strengthen partnerships the school has with engineering schools in France, start seed venture capital funds for businesses coming out of the school and continue to make headway in designing MOOCs and other online course offerings. An experienced fundraiser — he helped secure a $32 million naming gift while at Desautels — he’s already starting to think about the school’s upcoming capital campaign, which in “classic campaign mode” will need at least double the 115 million euros the school raised during its last campaign in 2008, he says.

Todd was in New York this past March, as part of his first North American tour for the school. He spent his time in New York meeting one-on-one with alums and hosting a reception for alums who are entrepreneurs. He took time out of his schedule to meet with Poets&Quants at Le Pain Quotidien in midtown. In an in-depth interview, Todd shared his vision for the school, what attracted him to the job and how he’s enhancing the school’s MBA curriculum to help the school align with his goals. See the interview below.

What do you think it means to be the first non-French dean of HEC?

Some people say that my coming means something about the future, and I think it means something about the past of the school. It means something about the voyage HEC is on to become a truly international school. Over the last decade or more, we’ve gone from having a very small percentage of international students to having 50% of students coming from outside of France. We’ve gone from having a faculty of professors that was mostly French to having two-thirds of the professors come from outside France. So I think in some ways I’m just a natural consequence of the evolution of the school to being a truly global international business school, and when you get to that point you start to look around the world for talent. I was lucky enough that my number came up.

Was it a hard decision to leave McGill, where you’d been for more than 25 years?

Before I went to HEC I had already stepped down as dean at McGill. I’d been dean for nine years. I just sort of believe every personal leadership role has a “best before” date. You think about what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done and what is needed for the future and pick a moment when it’s right for you personally — and right for the institution — to step down. We were at a nice high level, we’d developed many things and most of the big projects I’d been behind were done. It was just a good moment to say let me change direction and let some fresh leadership come to McGill to take it to a higher level.

I had a sabbatical for a year after I stepped down from McGill, and I spent that time with my wife to think about what the future held. We set ourselves a trajectory of either the West Coast of North America or something in Europe. I’d never thought about HEC, because I never thought they’d hire someone from outside of France into what is a sacred French institution. I’d heard about a couple of schools in Europe that were more UK-based when someone from HEC called me literally out of the blue one day and said would you have any interest in doing this. It just went from there.