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Professor Delphine Manceau Dean of Neoma Business School: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

…open communication with stakeholders and daily dialogue with the staff are essential to create buy-in, which remains one of the keys to dealing with adversity. You must keep a collective approach and a full engagement of the teams to face turbulent times and uncertainty together. Solidarity and team spirit might be more fragile in difficult times, but they are more a priority than ever. You must also trust your teams and their expertise.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the Dean of Neoma Business School in France, Delphine Manceau. She is passionate about innovation and believes education has a key role to play in changing mindsets and encouraging creativity and risk-taking. As an eternal optimist her advice to leaders is know where you are and where you want to go and take your teams with you.

Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us about your backstory and how you got started?

I did my PhD at HEC Paris and then a post-doc at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) as a senior fellow in marketing.

Most of my career has been spent in higher education. I started at ESCP Business School as a faculty member in marketing and innovation. I then became Associate Dean for programmes. It was a crucial moment for the evolution of European higher education with the implementation of the Bologna process. I then became, still at ESCP Business School, Associate Dean for Executive Education and Corporate Relations.

In parallel, in 2009, I wrote the report “For a new vision of innovation” (with Pascal Morand), at the request of Christine Lagarde, then Minister of Economy in France. We then founded an academic think tank, called i7 — the Institute for Innovation and Competitiveness to analyse new innovation approaches in companies. I also joined the RISE (Research Innovation and Science Policy) expert group for the European Commission between 2015 and 2018.

I became Dean of NEOMA Business School in 2017.

What motivates you?

I am passionate about innovation and have done a lot of work on it. It is very exciting to implement what you have been teaching and doing research on for years, and I now conduct innovation and change teaching practices at NEOMA! Our ambition is to be an innovative challenger to the world’s top business schools, and we are eager to try new approaches in a test and learn approach.

Innovation is never linear, and in any sector, major transformations often occur discontinuously. If I take the example of higher education, the digital revolution announced ten years ago had not fully taken place until the covid pandemic, which generated a very strong digital shift. Business schools have done in 10 months what they had not achieved in 10 years! But in a very different way from what had been expected at the beginning of the digital revolution.

When I think about the role of Higher Education on the economy and companies, I believe it is essential to work with the new generation to develop a strong culture of innovation, by encouraging creativity and integrating new user experience and business models. Education has a key role to play in changing mindsets and encouraging creativity and risk-taking.

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

The sanitary crisis has taught us a lot about what leadership is about in times of high uncertainty.

I think that leadership in this type of context requires the ability to combine strategic vision with strong operational agility, long-term view and short-term adaptability. If I apply this to my role as Dean of a Business School, I would say that in a context marked by changing teaching conditions oscillating between face-to-face, distance learning and hybridity, and with increased health and mental needs, operational management and adaptability have been more crucial than ever.

However, it is very important to also have a clear view about where you want to go, to show it, and to keep the strategic vision and direction. Also note that a crisis is also an amazing opportunity to lead change, innovate and reinvent ourselves! In a nutshell, one needs to combine short- and long-term vision even though challenging times might push short term issues.

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

This is a lot about relationships and emotions. It means communicating a lot and being able to reassure teams. You have to show stability and empathy on what everyone is experiencing. When we work together, we are stronger to weather the storms. We must ensure that we reinforce the community spirit that exists within the organisation. By communicating, we provide valuable situational insight, and in times of uncertainty, this insight, provided with transparency, is necessary to create consensus around the decisions that are made.

It is also important to say when we do not know what to anticipate and to explain why decisions are made, even when we are not sure this will be a good decision but it seems as the best one given the information we have at this point. One must always communicate simply what one knows, without being afraid to say what one does not know.

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

I am inspired by Winston Churchill’s sentence: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. It invites you to find new ways of analyzing situations and issues. We mentioned my taste for innovation earlier and I think this quote resonates perfectly with this trait of my personality.

I believe that audacity is a precious quality, by not hesitating to question usual ways of thinking, standard methods and points of view… It is change that encourages us to progress, innovate, learn, dare to move forward, even if it means making mistakes or failing.

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

We often refer to the covid pandemic as a major source of unpredictability, but let’s not forget that unpredictability is the new normal. We now all live in an era of uncertainty, whether it is related to new technologies, geopolitical changes, health, or climate change. Leaders need to combine constant agility with a vision, strong beliefs to get through the fog, know where you want to go and take your teams with you.

Setting the right long-term priorities for your team is essential, as success in managing a crisis depends less on what happens and more on how we adapt to it.

In reality, a solid foundation must be built to support an agile attitude. Dealing with uncertainty is a combination of these two key elements that may seem contradictory. You need to have a really solid long-term foundation — combined with the capacity and mental ability to be agile.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times?

Open communication, team spirit, innovation, vision and agility.

As I mentioned earlier, open communication with stakeholders and daily dialogue with the staff are essential to create buy-in, which remains one of the keys to dealing with adversity. You must keep a collective approach and a full engagement of the teams to face turbulent times and uncertainty together. Solidarity and team spirit might be more fragile in difficult times, but they are more a priority than ever. You must also trust your teams and their expertise. Uncertainty and turbulence, whatever their origins, shake up every layer of the organisation. And even the best CEO cannot be an expert in all the areas covered by his organisation. It is therefore necessary to have full confidence in one’s staff, who have both the expertise and the experience necessary to face these uncertainties. And also encourage innovation to try to change the rules of the game and not feel you are just being subjected to circumstances and take back the initiative. It also enables to motivate the teams and show them they can take initiative. And then, as mentioned earlier, a good combination of long term vision and operational agility: by combining the two, we can get through the crisis while maintaining the organisation’s development trajectory and ambition.

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

I would say a quote that I love and that I think applies very well to the younger generation whatever their time and challenges. “Impose your luck, embrace your happiness and go toward your risk: by looking at you, they’ll get used to it” wrote the French poet René Char.

This sentence is very appropriate for a person who is about to enter adulthood. Your happiness today is to engage in the path that resembles you, be proud of it and enjoy it. A new page is opening and it is up to you to write it. All possibilities are open. Take advantage of your higher education to learn new subjects, discover and invent new jobs, imagine start-up and associative projects… You will take risks, encounter moments of hesitation, fail, be in the process of creation and invention. You have the chance to be a full-fledged player in a changing world. Take advantage of this and don’t forget that today’s professional life is like the lives of cats: they have 7 lives!

What are your hopes for the future and for NEOMA Business School?

My hope is that the young generation can take the lead to change the ways companies operate, with stronger environmental and diversity concerns. Younger generations are levers of innovation and transformation for companies and for the world. Our signature at NEOMA is “Be passionate. Shape the future”, and this is really what I hope and expect from future generations, for them to build a sustainable, prosperous and happy future and economic environment throughout the world. This is especially key in the current difficult geopolitical context where borders are being closed, and not only for sanitary reasons, and where tensions are arising around the world. On a more microeconomic point of view, the workplace is changing, new skills and new working habits are entering in companies that young graduates will push and favor.

As far as NEOMA is concerned, our ambition is to become an innovative challenger of top business schools and to contribute actively to current changes in the Higher Education. Every day we are committed to questioning our models, rethinking our learning spaces, proposing new teaching practices, inventing innovative international experiences. We launched the first digital campus in Europe (second in the world), we created the first virtual reality case studies. We are also conducting a major survey about what zoom and digital learning enabled that could not have been possible in a face-to-face class, we created a network of academic startup incubators to foster students to create born global startups. And we created areas of excellence to stimulate research on key topics such as “the world we want” or “the complexity advantage” … The whole NEOMA team enjoys launching new initiatives with a test and try approach.

Thank you 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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