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Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou is the first female dean of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. She joined the Canadian business school on September 1st, having spent 21 years at George Washington University in the US in a number of roles, including associate dean for undergraduate programmes. Before this, she taught at Essec Business School in France.
A mathematics graduate from L’Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris, she earned her doctorate in 1989 from l’Université Paris-Dauphine in financial mathematics and has since published numerous articles in academic journals such as Management Science and Mathematical Finance.
1. When did you know you wanted to be dean of a business school?
For a long time, like most academics, I never thought I would be interested in management and in assuming leadership positions. As I became department chair (somebody has to do it) and then associate dean, I discovered I love being able to have a more direct impact on faculty, staff development, and students’ educational experiences. I feel that change happens for the better when taking the time to carefully listen to all stakeholders and articulate a clear vision.
2. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I am a strong believer in interdisciplinary learning. One of the dangers in academia is that both faculty and students become siloed. At George Washington, I spearheaded interdisciplinary curriculum designs. In 2013, I launched a Bachelor of Science in Finance, in which students are required to do a second major outside the business school. In 2014, I redesigned the Bachelor of Business Administration curriculum. These projects have not only been fun to work on with faculty, alumni and employers, but also the most rewarding.
3. How do you deal with male dominated environments?
I have always studied and worked in male dominated environments. I studied mathematics and then taught finance — two areas that were heavily male dominated in the 80s and 90s, and still are today but to a lesser extent. When I started at George Washington University in 1994, I was the only woman for a long time in the finance department. I strongly believe that bringing female perspectives is highly valuable and I hope that business schools will move even more in this direction, at the management, faculty and student levels.
4. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
Being educated in France, the first two years of college were the most intense and competitive. when the workload was so intense that it was simply not possible to do it all my maths teacher advised that I had to learn to manage priorities. I also learned at that time to never give up and work hard.
5. What is your favourite business book?
Good To Great by Jim Collins. Although this is not a book about management in academic settings, I believe that many of the book’s findings can apply directly to universities: “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”
8. What are your top tips for networking?
I am an introvert, so it takes me lot of energy to network and develop business relationships. However, these relationships are always genuine and long lasting. I have found that working in a language that is not my mother tongue has helped me to be more courageous. My top tip is to try to conquer your fears and be yourself.
9. Which three people, living or dead, would you invite to a business meeting?
I would choose an intellectual, a visionary and a humanitarian. First would be Albert Einstein, who was able to think outside the Newtonian box and revolutionise the understanding of our universe.
Next would be George Washington. Perhaps I have been influenced by my 21 years with the university, but he personifies the best qualities in leadership — resilience and humility. (He stepped down as president when he could have been elected for life. This single act can be seen as the foundation of democracy in America).
And Nelson Mandela, who was able to bring an end to apartheid without firing a bullet, through sheer force of persuasion and charisma.
10. What has been your best business trip?
This year, I took a group of international, diverse students (including two US military veterans) to visit “the start-up nation” of Israel and meet Israeli entrepreneurs and business leaders. In general, travelling with students is the most invigorating experience for professors and while it takes lots of time and energy to prepare for these trips, it is the most amazing way to connect with students on a much deeper level than in a classroom environment.