Daniel Traça, Dean of Nova School of Business & Economics: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
“Never forget the reason Why. The ‘Why’ is what gets you up today and it will pick you up when you are down tomorrow. That sense of intention will help you continue to be committed. As a leader, you have to remind people of their ‘Why’.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Traça, Dean and Professor of Economics at Nova School of Business and Economics (Nova SBE), in Lisbon. He has worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the European Commission and published scientific research in several leading international academic journals. He is a true leader and believes that with the correct guidance- better times are coming.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I lived my childhood in Africa. My family has origins in Southern Africa, India, and Portugal, and my adolescence and college years were in Lisbon. I studied economics because I was very interested in economic development, so once I graduated from Nova School of Business & Economics, I went to Columbia University for my PhD, in New York City.
After graduating, I took a faculty position at INSEAD, first in France and then in Singapore. I was in Singapore for 4 years and it was a great experience. In 2004, I returned to Europe to teach at Solvay Business School in Brussels, where I was eventually appointed to run the School’s MBA programs.
I discovered a passion for academic management, which brought me back to my alma mater in Portugal in 2009, after 18 years, 4 cities, and 3 continents abroad. I have spent the last 12 years at Nova School of Business & Economics in different managerial roles, culminating as Dean since 2015. I am now in my second and last term, which will end in January 2023.
What motivates you?
New York had a strong impact on my life. It is a city where everybody is from somewhere else and is redefining their new life in the way they want it to be. No boundaries. No legacy. No judgment. Total freedom. So it is then that you are forced to ask the question, what do you want your life to be?
This is something that I now continuously ask my students. Why did you choose to be here? What do you want to do? What is your purpose? When you are forced to think about purpose, you start making some sort of a framework in your mind about what life is about.
For me, Humankind is a wonderful team to be part of. Despite our challenges, we have achieved tremendous things of which we should be very proud of. I am committed to making my small contribution to grow those achievements. Knowing that I’m part of something bigger, that we have achieved great things as human beings, and that these will have a lasting impact on other human beings is what motivates me. This is what I found out in my New York years.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Purpose. You have to make sure that the people in your organization are really committed to making a difference. A great story that a colleague of mine always tells is that when someone asked a guy who used to sweep the floor at NASA what motivated him, his answer was, “I’ve put a man on the moon”. Leadership is about actually making people feel they have a sense of purpose in what they do every day. It’s not just about making general statements. It is communicating that sense of purpose and magnifying it.
Trust. You really need to make sure that you are in an organization that is built on trust. Trust among people. Trust toward the CEO or the Dean.
And thirdly, Vision. As a leader you need to create a roadmap for your organization, share it, and have people commit to that vision. It is around that vision and its viability that you build purpose. People must trust that there is a path, not just a strategic plan but a clear vision of what you want to achieve. As a leader you need to communicate the vision constantly to everybody in your team.
When the future seems so uncertain, what do you think is the best way to boost morale?
Never forget the reason Why. The ‘Why’ is what gets you up today and it will pick you up when you are down tomorrow. That sense of intention will help you continue to be committed. As a leader, you have to remind people of their ‘Why’.
Secondly, you have to help your employees with anxiety, which is the worst of motivators. It creates a wall among people. To help with fear and anxiety, especially when people are working from home, you must build a community and let people know you’re leading them through the crisis and that they will come out well on the other end.
You also have to care. Right now, many people are going through hard times. It can be loneliness, anxiety, grief. There are so many elements in people’s lives you might not know about. Caring means setting up systems to support people in need. Here at Nova SBE, for example, when the pandemic started and we were all forced to stay home, we knew that some of our students would suffer financially. I said that we would support the students that were suffering hardships. I told the students in need that any financial flexibility we had left over would be used to support them. They knew that we’re all in this together, and this mentality is what makes a team. Because in the end, if the purpose is the sense that we’re doing the right thing, then we must walk this path together.
Which three words best describe your approach to leadership?
Why — Why are we here? Why am I working in this organization? Everybody needs to have a clear answer to this to give to their employees. They need to have an emotional reason for why they’re doing what they’re doing.
How — How do we put our culture into practice? Do we just compete with each other and eventually kill each other? Or do we actually try to cooperate and move forward? And I think it’s very important that we invest time in creating that culture. And understanding that cultures can change.
What — What is it that we do, and how do we measure what we are doing for the sake of society? What impact are we having?
How can leaders make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans are pretty much useless, but making plans is critical. In today’s changing world, the plan you make will be completely changed. And most of your strategy is going to be emerging — a new opportunity comes, and you want to take it. But you can’t say yes to every single opportunity.
Making a plan allows you to have a structure in your mind that helps you cope with the day-to-day. I tell my students to make plans as it allows them to think about their purpose and what they want out of life. Plans help us organize our minds and allows us to see our place in the world. That is valuable.
And when things happen, you know your path, and you know when plans need to be adjusted. The planning process gives you tremendous capabilities of handling uncertainty.
Is there a number one principal that can help guide students through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The Spiderman quote ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ means a lot to me. I tell my students: "If you’ve made it so far, you have tremendous power in your brain and in your talent. You need to take responsibility as a human being and give something back. Take the powers you have and use them to make humanity better. And the anguish of being a superhero is your responsibility to deal with because that’s what heroes do.”
I work with many highly talented individuals, but we must insist that they build a sense of purpose, aligned with a sense of responsibility which they shouldn’t forget.
Can you share three or four of the most common mistakes that you’ve seen other leaders make during these times? And what should one keep in mind to avoid doing that?
Let me tell you three mistakes I think I have made.
- Number one was to try to change everything really fast and adjust everything to my pleasure. I had so much pushback from people that I think I wasted a lot of time and energy. You may win at the end, but it’s not a good win because it consumes you; it drains you, and you may have little to show for it. It is better to work with people, earn their trust, give people a chance, and have humility. I learned my lesson.
- My second mistake was too often giving people too long to adjust. At some point, you need to make a decision. If things are not working, you need to have an honest conversation. Don’t wait too long, have the courage, and don’t wait for problems to solve themselves.
- Another mistake I have made is believing that I can solve all the problems. There are problems that you can’t solve, so you need to work along with those problems and not stress. Get rid of your fear, your anxiety, and just accept them. I’ve learned through my mistakes that we, westerners, have a very linear approach to things. We see what needs to be done, and we do it. I am increasingly appreciative of eastern philosophy because it’s more about balance. You need to learn to accept the things you can’t change.
I think, because I come from an academic background, I tend to be very rational. I’ve learned the hard way that you need to listen to your emotions. There are so many things you’re not going to get right. But when you go home, you need to be okay with them. If you can say you made the best call and did what you thought was the right thing to do, then you can be emotionally at ease with the decisions you made.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Wisdom is more important than knowledge. But you only gain wisdom by going through events and overcoming challenges. And I think when we are young, we always want to be in control. We are always questioning whether we’re making the right decisions.
I was going through a difficult time during the election for my second mandate as Dean, and I was very stressed. I wanted to prove that I could do this. At the time, I had a conversation with a donor and she told me “… listen, in the end, so much of what you’re going to do, and so much of what’s going to happen does not depend on you. That’s okay. Go and do what you can do. Find the drive and the motivation for the decisions that you take. Feel comfortable with them. Then go home and sleep soundly because you have done all that you could do and, in the end, the world will unfold anyway. You don’t have to control everything, so don’t suffer for things that you don’t control.
That wisdom is what I really wish someone had told me when I was younger.
What are your hopes for the future of Nova School of Business & Economics?
Business schools will need to fundamentally change. Every single institution in our world is being disrupted by technology, globalization, sustainability, and I believe that these forces are creating an entirely new world. If you look at the past few years, we have had so much change. Look at Brexit. Look at the situation in the US. If we carry on, we will no longer have a sense of purpose. We will get to a situation where we don’t get along with each other. We could go back into tribes. When there are tribes, there are wars. And when there are wars, there’s destruction. So, I believe the only way out of this madness is that we all reassess what our role is and what the new society is going to be like. As a business school, we have a role to play in this. We need to change a bit in order to align ourselves with the change we need to create in this world fraught with challenges.
The vision of Nova SBE is a ‘school for a better future’. And I think in a few years from now, we can be a true lighthouse and a real role model for a business school that contributes to a new age of sustainable development. It’s not just about reputation. It’s about living up to our purpose and making the world a better place.
We don’t know what’s coming in the future, but I can promise you, the world that’s coming is going to be very different. Business schools and academics, and universities in general, have a massive responsibility for the next generation. We are educating the youth, so if we don’t think about the future, who will?
Thank you for your time! We wish you continued success!