Nicole de Fontaines

Nicole de Fontaines is the secretary general of Cems, the alliance of business schools, corporations and non-governmental organisations. Its masters degree is ranked number fourth in the world in the 2015 Financial Times Masters in Management rankings. She has held this position for 11 years, before which she was executive director.

Ms de Fontaines started her work in academia at HEC Paris in 1986, where she was part of a small team developing corporate relations abroad. This inspired her to develop a degree with a shared curriculum between schools and subsequent meetings with Esade Business School in Spain, Bocconi University in Italy and the University of Cologne in Germany, led to the creation of Cems in 1989.

Over the years, Ms de Fontaines has maintained relations with more than 29 member schools as well as 70 corporate partners.

1. Who are your business influences?

Jean-Paul Larçon, former dean of HEC Paris, and Lluis M. Pugès, former director general of Esade, the visionaries of what was then called the Community of European Management Schools, now known as Cems. They were both incredible strategic thinkers, with a collective spirit and no limit to their imaginations. We created Cems with a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve and put the plan into action very quickly.

2. What piece of advice do you value?

Lluis Pugès would often say, ‘Dare to make your dreams a reality’. I loved that idea, and once we had developed the idea we did not hesitate — we just did it [and] learnt from each other. We would spend an entire day in a room with flip charts, thrashing out the Cems concept we see today — the common degree, corporate partners, shared curriculum, partnership of equals . . . I saw how valuable it was to challenge view points, change perspectives and collectively validate an idea.

3. What has been your best business decision to date?

I had intended to stay in the business education sector for two or three years, but was so passionate about this Cems project that I decided to [stay]. It shows that you can create things from scratch.

4. What is an average day at work like?

A day might begin with a call to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and come to a close with a discussion with FGV-EAESP in São Paulo. In between, there will be meetings with the international team at the Cems head office. It is a constant dialogue with the entire world, both academic and corporate. Sometimes I step back to catch my breath and look at the challenges of being so global. Every day brings a new opportunity.

5. What are you enjoying most?

Our goal is to educate global responsible leaders, and this is built into every board decision that is made, whether strategic or academic. So I always enjoy witnessing this Cems spirit in our students and alumni — the openness, the empathy and the collaborative approach that celebrates differences.

But I also enjoy the dialogue between business and academia. These are two worlds that do not always understand each other and we have the chance to build a bridge between them.

6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of listening, especially when you engage with different cultures.

7. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

I would try to show my students the impact of their decisions and encourage them to think long-term and care for society. To reinforce this I would do what Cems schools do and put students into the field — emerging countries, inner city neighbourhoods — places that help will expand their view and understanding of the world.

We need to develop the critical thinking of young people. We should not educate followers or solely actors of their own careers, so we need to constantly reinforce this by showing them the impact of their decisions.

8. What are your top tips for networking?

Involve and inform people very early in the decision-making process. When people do not feel involved, it is much easier for them to kill the project later on. As in any relationship, creating trust is fundamental to successful networking. A clear and regular flow of dialogue contributes to this and establishes a feeling of belonging and partnership.

Speaking by phone is powerful and often lets you address more than one issue, so don’t hide behind email. But if you are writing to someone, always re-read your email before sending and put yourself in the shoes of the recipient. Remember that your assumptions are not their assumptions, and you cannot impose your view, only share your view.

9. What has been your best business trip?

Two years ago I flew to Barcelona to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cems at Esade. The original founding partners all flew in and it was a very special moment.

In the early days of the Cems alliance, I would fly to Barcelona and other cities and was often the only woman on the plane. That has changed over the years, as has the student mix, which attracts a high percentage of talented young women looking to give wings to their own international careers.

10. Which business deals do you wish you could have been a part of?

When I look at the Cems alumni network, with more than 10,000 individuals spread across the world, I wish I had more time to connect with them. There are so many great examples of business deals within the community.

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