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Dr Ines Blal, Executive Dean of EHL On The Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

Establish scenarios ahead of time. We started discussing possible scenarios with my managers in February 2020 when we heard about institutions closing in China and that employers in China and the Apac region were cancelling internships. We discussed “crazy” options like closing several semesters and closing our campuses for one week. The benefits of the exercise were not the scenarios themselves, but the testing of our processes and operations under new circumstances. We identified together the leverage, breaking and inflection points. Knowing them and their interactions was instrumental in managing the crisis.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Ines Blal, the Executive Dean and Managing Director of the EHL.

Ines’ research and consulting works focus on the the financing possibilities for small and medium hotels, and the effect of distribution choices on their sales performance.

During her current position as Managing Director of EHL HE&A, she deploys an expertise in the management of education, curriculum development, digitalization of education, implementation of innovative teaching practices, academic governance, and program accreditation. She is a real leader and is motivated by building and executing projects as part of a team.

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?

It all started with two university students meeting at the university food court, the young lady was from France and the young man was from Tunisia. My parents fell in love and decided to get married and live in Tunisia. I had a happy childhood growing up in Tunisia in a multi-cultural family. After that I studied finance in France, then worked in hospitality, more specifically in the catering business in London. Then, once I obtained my Master’s degree in hospitality management from EHL Hospitality Business School- founded in 1893 as Ecole hotelière de Lausanne and recognized by QS University rankings as the best university of hospitality management in the world — I traveled for work and leisure and got my PhD at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. In 2006, I took on a lecturer job at EHL. A few years later, in 2017, I was elected by the faculty council as Executive Dean and Managing Director of EHL, and they renewed their trust in 2021.

What motivates you?

To build and execute concrete projects as a team. I love the feeling of group participation with the aim of building something new; making an idea become a reality with positive consequences on others is what I enjoy the most. I love the interaction and bonding that happens when leading or being part of a team that makes things happen with a positive impact.

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership and why?

· Purpose: For a project to be successful, (i.e., to bring about a significant, positive change through and during the execution of the project), we need purpose. It is the north star during difficult times; the guide when making choices of what to do and not to do. Finally, it is the measure our success.

· Competencies: Through my experience at EHL, leading the academic and operational activities during crisis times or not, I realized that I was surrounded by competence and expertise. Competencies and respect for each others’ expertise are instrumental for building a team: to have diverse and established expertise around the table, capable of facing all situations.

· Transparency: Office politics can be a strong “interference” in organizations and can instill a culture of non-performance where individual agendas prevail over the ones of the project. I find that being able to discuss everything together is essential to the success of a project, (again, ‘success’ based on achieving something that has a positive impact).

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

To be there for the team. People work on projects; people make things happen — from the dream to establishing and executing the plan.

During challenging times, we human beings with our capacity to project into the future, can become anxious and stressed which has a negative impact on our lives and work. During Covid, the latest crisis I managed, I realized the importance of being there for the team but also for the students. Becoming a support, a listener and a facilitator. Someone people know they can turn to for a clear answer, purpose and support.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

In my opinion, we tend to stress about uncertainties because we fight back against the things that we cannot control. We feel that if we could control or know what the future holds for us, it would be better. I have learned through mindfulness that this is an illusion.

We don’t know what the future holds, we can never know in fact, and that is the beauty of it! We then have the chance to build the future the way we want it to be. Because the future gets prepared today, by us, people. So, to boost my morale and that of the people around me, I focus with the team on imagining how we see the ideal situation, identifying the things we can control. Then, we focus on making the outcomes the best we can based on what is within our control. The rest is part of the discovery of life and we should try to remain open to its opportunities.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Same approach as in Q5. In my opinion, it’s important to have a meaningful, universal, non-time related purpose (e.g., to pioneer education in the hospitality industry or a learner-centered approach to enhance the learning experience is what we focus on with my teams at EHL). Then, if we view any long-term changes outside our control as an opportunity to execute our purpose, we open up to exciting adventures. Strict execution plans monitored by the cent and minute, without a guiding purpose can be stressful and often ineffective. Be clear on the purpose, principles and values, and be more flexible on how to get there.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example of each if you can.

I will share with you the most recent and challenging experience I’ve had to face: managing EHL during the Covid crisis. On March 13th 2020 the Swiss Federal Government announced that all higher education establishments had to close their campuses, (the first time since WW2 in the history of EHL). Three days later, on Monday March 16th, approximately 3500 students, more than 160 faculty and 90 staff were operating remotely. Not all faculty members were delivering courses online and not all the operational details were in place within the first week, but we were ready.

At that time and since, this is what I learned about my job:

· Establish scenarios ahead of time. We started discussing possible scenarios with my managers in February 2020 when we heard about institutions closing in China and that employers in China and the Apac region were cancelling internships. We discussed “crazy” options like closing several semesters and closing our campuses for one week. The benefits of the exercise were not the scenarios themselves, but the testing of our processes and operations under new circumstances. We identified together the leverage, breaking and inflection points. Knowing them and their interactions was instrumental in managing the crisis.

· Establish the purpose/north star to keep in mind during turbulent times. Thanks to the scenario discussions, we also built, implicitly and then explicitly, our purpose and common values for the crisis. What were the “non negotiables”? For instance, it was clear to us that a) safety of our community and b) quality of education needed to remain our two main purposes, and in that order.

This was helpful when having to take quick decisions, sometimes without the time to discuss them thoroughly. We knew that as long as we remained within these two goals, we were aligned and taking common focus actions.

· Discuss with the team and staff. They are stressed, worried about their health and that of their families and loved ones, they are also anxious about the negative narrative stories circulating. Listen and remember the things that we can consider ‘certain’. With the direct team, check on how they feel with the latest decisions they took alone in the rush of the moment.

· Take time to recharge. I learned this the hard way. When in the middle of crisis, it’s easy to get swamped and glued to the urgencies. In certain roles, we are needed, much like the captain of a boat, to set the direction. Helping the team on the floor is essential. It permits having the pulse on the unstable situation and shows the team your support and presence. However, it is critical to carve the time to recharge, take care of our own energy — otherwise there is none to give back — in order to sustain the stamina.

· Prepare soon the after crisis. The crisis is a unique window of opportunity to make profound changes. A leader seldom has the chance to turn things upside down if they see that it is needed by the entire culture-organization. So, I focused on making sure that we navigated the crisis, but most importantly, that the context we found afterwards was even more favorable to our purpose.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The way she talks and writes about feminism and racism is precise, analytical and constructive. There is one of her quotes that struck me in particular: “Your life belongs to you and you alone”.

As a woman, an offspring of a mixed culture couple, and a human being evolving in a society that tends to put humans in boxes as a resource, this is a good reminder. Most people will expect us to be, act and do things in a certain way. But in the end, why oblige if it’s killing our natural light and energy? Why give away that unique power of defining what is our success?

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

Chose your friends and the people you spend time with carefully. If they help you grow, shine and smile, if they want to spend time with you because of who you are and not because of who they’d like you to be, stay with them. If you and they are not in an uplifting relationship in difficult circumstances, move away. If they make easy situations difficult and difficult situations even more difficult, run!

What are your hopes for the future and EHL Hospitality Business School?

My hope is that EHL continues to inspire its learners as they prepare for their next professional step. With its unique DNA and history, EHL brings a wide range of personalities together to pursue learning within a respectful community that knows the importance of celebration. A community that knows that people make culture, work, life and success. I think that EHL still can bring much more to learning, education and the world. So, my hope is that we remain true to this mission.

Thanks for your time! We wish you continued success

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Kate Mowbray

Kate Mowbray

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