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Valérie Gauthier is a visiting professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, which she joined last year. Before this appointment she worked for 22 years at HEC Paris where her most recent roles were associate professor and visions of leadership chair professor.
Prof Gauthier has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Paris III, Sorbonne and she has also completed an executive education programme in strategy and organisation at Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 2010 she was selected as one of the visionaries for education by Forbes.
In her spare time, Prof Gauthier enjoys poetry, painting, skiing and playing tennis.
1. What does it mean to be a professor?
For me it means that I am at the crossroads of different populations and that I have a responsibility to bridge the gaps of knowledge, be it academic or simply that of the human self.
2. What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy the fact that it is never the same because each group of students or participants is different, with its own alchemy. The more I know, the more I know that I don’t know… The beauty of teaching or training lies in the word “educate” from Latin educare - “lead out”. It should be noted that the word ‘education’ is a recent use: in old times the word nourriture – “food” was used.
3. Do you have a teaching routine?
No, on the contrary, teaching involves improvisation because class dynamics depend on the atmosphere created by the group of people in front of you; this includes a very sensitive dimension with an emphasis on how each and every member of the class feels, hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes at that very moment; how tired, hungry, happy, angry they may be will have as much of an impact on what happens, as what they know and how motivated they are. It is my role to be receptive to this atmosphere and to adapt to it as much as possible, while remaining in control of the subject I am teaching.
4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I am most proud of having designed a new curriculum for the HEC MBA programme, with an emphasis on interpersonal and leadership development under the “Visions of Leadership” initiative. The result of this work over eight years has helped the HEC MBA leap from an unknown position to one of international stature, attracting talent from around the world to study and develop their potential as future leaders.
5. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
My dissertation director from the Sorbonne told me that I would have to wait 10 to 15 years before I could teach my favourite American poetry course at the university. He advised me to go ahead and take the job that I was offered at HEC Paris, although a business school had little to do with my background in poetry and translation. I followed his advice and taught my first American poetry course as an elective at HEC the following year: 23 students enrolled and numbers only went up over the following years.
6. What advice would you give to women in business?
My advice to women in business is two-fold: 1. Believe in yourself and dare to draw on your capacity to bring value to your leadership. 2. Build confidence (that is the key). To build and grow self-confidence requires tenacity and hard work in areas such as communication and self-awareness. Of course, knowledge and competence are critical to inspire respect and allow a woman to find her place in the company. Speaking up and making your ideas and voices heard when relevant and appropriate is certainly a step towards gaining such respect. One last point: being a woman is a strength, if only in the power to give birth, whether it is actually exerted or not.
7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
I’ve always felt comfortable around men. I grew up practising intensive sports, which placed me in a world of boys sharing the same challenge. Looking back, I believe this learning helped me cope with leading the HEC MBA programme for eight years. In 2002, I was the only woman on the board of HEC Paris and it was a challenge to be heard. However, by being very professional, a hard worker, good listener, totally engaged and bringing good results, I gained the trust and respect of those around me.
8. What is the last book you read?
Still Surprised, by Warren Bennis. This book is a great autobiography of a man who experienced and studied leadership from an extraordinary wide range of perspectives. Bennis brings to light a vision of leadership that is filled with humility, dedication and intensity.
9. What inspires you?
The poets are my greatest source of inspiration. Poets breathe life into words and are the most receptive and sensitive to the world’s graces and disgraces. They are capable of intensity, vision and insights like no other. Poems are like miracles for those who don’t believe in miracles.
10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I probably would have spent more time with my kids when they were young teenagers. I feel I did sacrifice them for my work at HEC over those critical eight years in their lives. At the same time, they are doing really well and perhaps I would not have brought them anything more by being more present at home. But I don’t want to fall into the trap of the guilty woman because things worked out quite well in the end. My children are now young adults, leading lives that sound very promising; and above all, they seem happy.
Compiled by Charlotte Clarke