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Heather Dix studied for an MBA and PhD in leadership behaviour at the University of Glamorgan. She is now director of European human resources at audio equipment company Harman.

Dr Dix grew up in a mining community in South Wales. She began her professional and academic pursuits concurrently when she joined the civil service in 1984 and was encouraged to work and pursue her undergraduate degree. After earning a degree in literature from the Open University, the civil service sponsored Heather to pursue an MBA. When she left the civil service, she negotiated continued sponsorship of her education with her next employer. She followed the MBA with masters degrees in human resources and organisational behaviour and a PhD.

In her spare time, Dr Dix is writing an academic book on anxiety in senior management teams and researching another on the psychology behind getting tattoos.

1. Who inspires you?

Inspiration comes from so many sources and I can honestly start with Elizabeth I. As a woman in charge of an enormous commercial and political machine, she managed to restore order to her kingdom, fill her exchequer with funds, control the complex political influences upon her and maintain her independent identity in a male-dominated era. She also promoted culture, music, science and arts. She was a prolific writer herself and the legacies of the great writers of her time — Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton — all linger on today.

In business, Indra Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo inspires me with her charisma and strong sense of self. She not only epitomises business through people, but has a focus on strength of purpose few can match.

2. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Earning a PhD, as breaking new ground is always full of challenges and excitement. Maintaining a focus on a research area that excites you and pivots you into other areas of exploration requires a lot of personal discipline.

3. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

If you believe in something, keep going. There were times during my PhD when I found it difficult to persevere. I was divorced and lost my eldest son in a tragic accident in 2008. Somehow, I persevered and dedicated my research to him. He is the light that drives me on.

4. What is your favourite memory of business school?

Attending Insead in the 1990s, I recall struggling to comprehend complex academic French and being helped by a gentleman who had been incarcerated in Nigeria for his political beliefs. He saw my struggle and translated for me without being asked. I will always remember his humility, warmth, sadness and helpfulness.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

You are stronger than you think you are. Even confronted by the most ghastly experiences, you can achieve more than you ever thought possible. Believe in yourself, believe in others and work collectively.

6. What would you do if you were dean of a business school for the day?

The Achilles heel of much of our education system is not to address the foundation of human experience. We often get lost in technical, operational or system approaches. Some element addressing human behaviour, discovering body language and learning to engage in honest dialogues in difficult contexts would greatly improve the impact of education in the real world.

7. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?

Look for opportunities to develop your sense of self and career. Take work experience wherever you can get it because all experience will teach you something about yourself, your interaction with others and what you do or do not enjoy. Life is a rich tapestry of opportunity and the threads we weave early on create a firm net on which to build the future.

8. How do you deal with male dominated environments?

I find male dominated environments extraordinarily encouraging and engaging. They welcome technical capability, straight talking and professionalism. There is no need to compete or be anything different as a woman in business. Like most environments, you simply have to research, prepare and plan ahead. I truly believe that if you know your subject well, understand the context in which you operate, conduct yourself with integrity and can engage others in effective dialogue, you can be hugely successful in any gender environment.

9. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when studying?

I once had to have reconstructive surgery on my nose after a swimming accident and was revising some work in the hospital. The surgeon noticed my book on psychology and recommended Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior by Desmond Morris (a superb book). We then had an eclectic discussion on the need for surgeons to learn to sculpt.

10. What is your favourite business book?

I am currently reading Mindfulness by Gill Hasson. The book is about experiencing life in the moment, rather than being distracted by what you have to do next or did yesterday. This has a huge pertinence for me both personally and in the complex work environment I operate within day to day.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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