12 Inspiring Female B-School Deans Share Leadership Lessons

Dean Marion Debruyne

Vlerick Business School

“Combining work and family is an eternal balancing act in juggling demands on many fronts. Six years later, I feel my biggest achievement has been to find a way to be happy on all those fronts, and see my kids thrive as well, even though their mom is far from perfect!”

Where you’re from/place of origin:


Where you previously studied:

Master in Chemical Engineering from University of Ghent, Belgium

Master in Marketing Management from Vlerick Business School, Belgium

PhD from University of Ghent, Belgium

Visiting Scholar at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Visiting Fellow at Kellogg Graduate School of Management

Previous roles:

Assistant Professor at Goizueta Business School, Emory University

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

Obviously, the biggest adaptation has been in a massive adoption of online learning. Even though we were well-prepared, having invested significantly in online learning in the past years, the speed and scale of the shift to online learning was unprecedented and went remarkably well. 

We used the opportunity to expand our portfolio of online self-paced programmes. We also made our online course on “Managing virtual teams” freely available to all, as so many managers were facing this challenge. 

What do you feel are the most important skills needed for managing a business school through a crisis (couple of bullet points and why is fine)?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, especially in times of crisis. At Vlerick, we can benefit from strong engagement, a collaborative spirit and an entrepreneurial attitude. This has been of tremendous value in the past year, as we had to shift from plan A, to plan B to plan C and back again. 

Through all of it, it’s been an exercise in (remote) empathic leadership. The role of a dean contains a lot of stakeholder communication at any given time, but this period it takes up the majority of my time. I have experienced that frequent and honest communication is absolutely crucial, as well as active listening. Even when the answer to many questions is “we don’t know yet, but rest assured we’ll figure it out”. Being able to acknowledge the unknowns, gives more credibility to the things you can say with certitude. 

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?

Probably the most influential in my current leadership of Vlerick, is the fact that I have been a student at the school myself. Having experienced the transformational impact of the school myself, has enabled me to connect deeply to our purpose. Being an advocate for our “Live Learn Leap” credo feels entirely authentic, as I have felt it myself. I entered Vlerick as a shy and cautious engineer, uncertain about my path. And I left as a person fully willing and able to embrace change, with a strong passion and sense of direction. 

Next to that, marketing and innovation being my areas of expertise, influences my thinking tremendously. I wrote a  book titled “Customer Innovation” in pre-dean times. The real challenge then obviously comes from applying your own thinking in practise (it sure is easier to teach it than to do it)! 

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?

I believe this is such an exciting time to be in education, as we will see a tremendous amount of change. The post-pandemic world will not look like the pre-pandemic world. It is our global challenge to use this opportunity to change the world for the better, taking the learning lessons we gained and using them to advance on the issues we face. This will require transformation in multiple areas. 

That applies to business schools as well. We have learned so much about how to leverage online learning, it would be a pity to forget about these lessons and go back to the old normal. We need to find the right balance between online and offline, lectures and experiential learning. This includes forgetting about old dogma’s about when online or on-campus are best suited. At Vlerick, we aim to be learner-centric in this discovery process, and remain as agile as we have been in the past year.

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

When I became dean of the school, my kids were 5 and 8. Combining work and family is an eternal balancing act in juggling demands on many fronts. Six years later, I feel my biggest achievement has been to find a way to be happy on all those fronts, and see my kids thrive as well, even though their mom is far from perfect!

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

To enter the arena, even when you are not fearless. And to read my book Making your Way, which I wrote for my younger self.

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