12 Inspiring Female B-School Deans Share Leadership Lessons

Incoming Tepper School of Business Dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou

Carnegie Mellon, Tepper School of Business

“My advice: Dare. Nothing is impossible. Thanks to my generation, there is more and more awareness that females are instrumental in contributing to the economy. The future is yours.”

Previous Roles:

My journey to Carnegie Mellon University has been an American Dream that came true. Years ago, my husband Jacques and I who both grew up in Paris, met when we were in high school. From the beginning, we always intended to live and work in the U.S. because we believed in this country and its unique ability to foster freedom and innovation.

For me, mathematics was the path. I am an alumna from École Normale Supérieure in Mathematics with a doctorate in Mathematics Applied to Finance from Université Paris-Dauphine.

Soon after, I made my way to the U.S. to George Washington University as a Finance Professor, then the Chair of the Finance department before becoming Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs. I then joined McGill University as the Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management in 2015. 

In October 2020, I decided to make the transition to become dean of the Tepper School and to bring my experience as a professor and my passion for building a culture that is focused on students, research, and community here to Tepper.

I was very happy being a professor and teaching and researching for the longest time. It allowed me to find a good work/life balance to raise my three children while my husband was always on the road. 

It was only later that I started taking interest in the administration of a university. At George Washington, I became department chair — mainly because everybody had to take his/her turn — and I found out that I very much liked having a more direct impact on the strategic direction of the School, contributing to the conversation and implementing new projects. So, I became Associate Dean for UG programs, and I liked it even more. Then, when I was approached to take on the Dean’s position at McGill, I said why not. And the rest is history…

Bottom line, it was initially somewhat by chance, but became more and more intentional on my side.

How has your business school adapted to the Covid-19 crisis, and what initiatives and innovations have you implemented?

At Tepper, we were fortunate because we just opened our new building in 2018, with large, bright open spaces intended to encourage student collaboration and interaction.  The building was designed with the expectation of delivering new educational formats and to accommodate, and evolve, with new technology.

Long before COVID, we designed a robust Online MBA that is ranked #1 by US News & World Report and #2 by Poets&Quants. So we already worked throughout the kinks of how to deliver education in a remote setting. We understood the optimal model for delivery so the transformation to online teaching was not a new thing for us. It was just incredibly sudden for Tepper faculty and students to shift everything online all at once.

When COVID hit, safety was our top priority, which meant we had to pivot all classes to remote instruction. Tepper’s Learning Technology team worked closely with faculty to assist with the transition. We agreed that pedagogy should drive the conversion, not technology. Technology was simply the conduit. And we followed several principles throughout the process.

First, we made sure that all students had equal access to classes, regardless of geographic location or technological capability. 

We offered flexible formats and shorter lectures that allowed more class-time discussion. We also hosted many small breakout sessions, and discussion boards to help students deliberate course content with each other.

When classes started again in the fall, we strove to balance online class delivery with meaningful, socially distant, in-person activity.

Today, we are in an exciting position to assess the outcomes from the changes we made to our programs during the pandemic. Looking ahead, we can start to envision what the future of business education should look like:  What worked well? What do we want to keep? And what do we want to leave behind?

What do you feel are the most important skills needed for managing a business school through a crisis?

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that sometimes situations occur outside of any planned scenario. Success in these types of situations demands a variety of skills — agility, quick thinking, empathy for all stakeholders, communication — but most of all, an enormous amount of courage, optimism, and passion.

One thing I know is that innovation is borne of challenge, and uncertainty is a foundation from which we grow, thrive, and create monumental change that can impact the world. For the better. So to approach this situation with that mindset is helpful.

How has your career helped to shape your leadership capabilities, and your priorities for your role as Dean? Can you share an anecdote about a previous instance/moment in your career that you feel has left a lasting impact on you?

Being a female dean presents its challenges. Ten thousand years of men ruling western civilization is very difficult to overcome. But this is not only from men. I strongly believe that everyone is biased, including myself, so I constantly try to remind myself to work on it.

I will confess that I am an introvert, raised in a culture where asking a question means that you have the deepest understanding of the material that was just presented and that your question is supposed to be the smartest and most insightful remark. In other words, it has been a long struggle for me to overcome my gender and cultural biases in making myself more visible.

As dean of a top business school, regardless of gender, I’ve learned that the key is to build a good team. Surround yourself with complementary, smart people who you truly trust and empower them. I have never been afraid to surround myself with smarter people than me and try to learn and be challenged by them. In other words, a great leader is never alone.  A leader must understand his or her shortcomings and blind spots and know how to build an A team.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for business education in the coming years and what is your business school strategy to tackle this?

Today, we are in an exciting position to assess the outcomes from the changes we made to our programs during the pandemic. Looking ahead, we can start to envision what the future of business education should look like:  What worked well? What do we want to keep? And what do we want to leave behind?

Thankfully, our new building is in use once again! That said, we believe that hybrid formats are here to stay so we must remain flexible in our delivery. And frankly, if we are to properly prepare our students for employment, Tepper’s learning environment should mirror the new workplace. Our graduates may work remotely, in person, or more likely, a hybrid of both.

More than ever, we must ensure that our classes are accessible to all students. 

Also, while COVID brought about a very abrupt transition, our return to the “new normal” will be quite slow and intentional. We need to consider thoughtfully our students’ online and on-campus experience. We hear about the emotional toll that COVID has taken on our students. It is real. We figured out how to teach classes online – now, how do we deliver the whole college experience in order to provide meaningful student-to-student and student-to-faculty connection? That, I believe, is our next big delivery challenge.

What would you say is your biggest achievement in your career so far?

My biggest career achievement so far is launching the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill that focuses on the future of the retail industry. Our goal was to give students the tools to respond to, and predict, the rapidly changing and increasingly complex world of retail in order to create sustainable consumption and healthier societies.

This was a very innovative idea to work with a “vertical”– retail — and we wanted 

to address shifts in the retail landscape and consumer behavior, from digital disruption and the rise of e-commerce to the coming of age of the millennial generation.

We collaborated with industry and alumni as well with an anchor gift (from Aldo Bensadoun, founder and executive chairman of footwear giant Aldo Group). We developed an innovative curriculum that includes extensive opportunities for experiential learning for the students. There is also a live laboratory set up with Circle K on the first floor of the building. It is a touchless convenience store that doubles as an educational and research lab with co-directors from Operation Management and Computer Vision.

My hope was to create an interdisciplinary program to prepare the next generation of retail leaders to define the future of the industry.

If you could give one life lesson/piece of advice to your younger self/young female leaders, what would it be?

Now more than ever, it is important to support one another and ensure gender diversity in the workplace. It is already a proven fact that companies who do better in the marketplace tend to be the most diverse. Losing women in the workforce during the pandemic will have long lasting impacts on our society. We must work harder to overcome these challenges during this time and ensure that women will always have a space in our community and a voice as leaders.   

My advice: Dare. Nothing is impossible. Thanks to my generation, there is more and more awareness that females are instrumental in contributing to the economy. The future is yours.

I am not going to pretend that it is easy, especially as a woman if you want to have a family and raise children, to navigate a career. Unfortunately, the day-to-day burden is often still on women. The main problem is that very often, even the most supportive partner, talks about “helping” instead of “being in charge,” which seems subtle, but is actually quite a big difference. 

Given all of that, remember that you do not need to get everything done in the same year. Life is long and some things, both personal and professional, can wait. Life is not a race, it is a marathon, and the goal is to enjoy the journey, not to focus on the destination. 

And the secret is to have fun along the way.

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