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Vincenzo Vinzi, Dean of ESSEC Business School: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

“While working in statistics it was apparent that numbers and analysis could help companies in all sectors, from chemistry to cosmetics to food and public policies. But in the end what mattered most to me wasn’t necessarily the field but having an impact. I often asked myself, how and who is this useful for? Human relationships, on the other hand, create value for you.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing the Dean and President of ESSEC Business School, Vincenzo Vinzi. Equipped with over 20 years of experience, he has previously been a professor of statistics at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy and a visiting professor and lecturer at several universities and research centers throughout Europe, the United States and Asia. In 2007, Vinzi joined ESSEC as a professor of statistics, became Dean of Faculty in 2011 before being named the first non-French president of ESSEC and its first faculty member to serve as President in 2017.

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 was born and raised on the island of Capri in Italy. When I was 17 years old, I spent a year in a high school in North Carolina located in the research triangle as part of an exchange program. For this, not only was I awarded a scholarship but also found an interest in the higher education sector. I not only wanted to transmit knowledge but to create it, through research in a scientific field which would have an impact on society. I just didn’t know which one.

I found my passion upon attending a conference in Capri on data analysis, statistics and applied mathematics in the economics and business fields. This field married numbers with interdisciplinarity and human interaction; the perfect job for me. I attended the University of Naples Federico II and got a master’s degree in business and economics before earning a PhD in computational statistics. I became a university professor in Statistics at this same university.

As a researcher, I had strong links with French academics and came to French business schools as a visiting professor. I always felt like an academic with an entrepreneurial spirit and understood quickly that the French environment was a good fit for me.

What motivates you?

Having an impact, value creation and human relationships are the motivating trio of drivers that propel me out of bed early every day. Creating value for individuals but also for society as a whole. To this day, I am invigorated by a rich conversation, or by talking with people from very different backgrounds. What is interesting is recognizing the differences between people, seeing their individual uniqueness and observing how this can enrich the whole. As a leader, it is this blend of backgrounds and approaches that I seek to create within my teams. The more diverse a group, the stronger and the more effective the resulting solutions.

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

During challenging times it’s easy to get sidetracked and lose sight of the bigger goals. A leader stays the course and doesn’t become trapped by a short-term mentality. She or he provides people with a sense of purpose so they understand what they are doing and why. And finally, it’s important to give them hope so that they understand that the period is transitory. Call it my island attitude, but optimism comes quite naturally to me. I always seek to see the positive in challenging situations.

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?

I’m convinced that people are most motivated when they find meaning in what they do. Good leaders provide purpose and share optimism. Most importantly, they demonstrate what they expect from others. They really “walk the talk.” Creating this alignment between words and action is key to motivating people so that they understand what their contribution is to the overall vision of the institution in their daily lives.

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

Like statistical models, all plans are wrong in the sense that they will most likely need to change to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. But some are still very useful because they provide us with a guiding principle! The key is that they remain flexible.

Plans also allow you to inscribe short term activities into a longer term perspective and they

increase your chances of being at the right place at the right time. For example, during the pandemic, we prepared the roll-out of a new strategy and communications campaign and managed to launch it between two consecutive lock-downs. Had we not been prepared we would have missed our window of opportunity.

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 for each if you can.

1. Make informed decisions backed by numbers but without discounting human judgment based on experience and gut feeling. Trust your intuition. Data is very important, but doesn’t paint the whole picture.

2. Walk the Talk. Make sure that your words and actions are aligned.

3. Co-construct instead of moving forward in an isolated way. During the pandemic, ESSEC’s four campuses on three continents all shut down. We managed to put all of our courses online and made the transition to 100% distance learning in record time. We built our solution rapidly through close coordination between departments and campuses.

4. Be open to experimentation. Don’t wait for perfection or for the perfect moment before trying something new. Experimenting means taking reasonable risks. For example, when the opportunity to move to France arose, my wife was pregnant with our second child and I already had an established career in Italy. I was in my comfort zone. The time might not have seemed opportune but I recognized that a French environment would allow me to be more creative and impactful. The rest is history.

5. A leader should incarnate the institution without making it about her or himself. Leaders should live out the values of their institution and serve it to the best of their ability.

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

One of ESSEC’s most distinguished alumni is Pierre Nanterme, the former CEO of Accenture. He liked to say, “Let’s do things differently to make a difference.” ESSEC lives by this motto in a lot of ways. We constantly seek to create impact through initiatives that are pioneering. For example, in line with our social diversity plan we created the Diversity Fresco, a workshop designed to fight against all sorts of discrimination. Nothing of its kind existed in France. Today several schools have adopted it and use it in their classrooms.

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

Keep striving to be better and to do better. Create a vision of who you want to become and use it as your guiding light. The only way to learn is through experience and mistakes. Don’t be afraid to be creative and seize opportunities to experiment. When presenting new ideas, don’t seek praise, but rather constructive criticism. Finally, don’t lecture people but seek to involve them.

What are your hopes for the future and ESSEC?

I would love for ESSEC to be a very dynamic laboratory at the crossroads of different communities providing personalized education, characterized by interdisciplinarity, committed to having an impact.

Thank you! 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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