When joining a new organization of any sort, it’s a good idea to get to know the new people you’ll be working with and have a plan of action. Those were the first two items on Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou’s agenda when she took over as dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in September of 2015.
“For the first year, I wanted to work on the strategic plan,” Bajeux-Besnainou tells Poets&Quants. “I didn’t come with goals that were pre-established. I really wanted to work with the professors, alumni community, and students on the strategic plan.”
For the native Parisian, the move to Montreal’s McGill University was a perfect fit. She earned her Ph.D. in France and had spent more than two decades at George Washington University’s School of Business. A spot at Canada’s top research university in the French-Canadian province of Quebec just made sense.
“It’s been wonderful,” Bajeux-Besnainou says of her first 20 months on the job. “Great place. And it’s a great fit for me being in a province that is French speaking in an English speaking university. The fit is very, very important. The energy is there. There is big support from the university for the faculty.”
$25 MILLION SCHOOL OF RETAIL MANAGEMENT TO ENROLL STUDENTS IN FALL 2018
In 2015, when Bajeux-Besnainou took over as dean, she immediately enlisted the pro bono help of a team of alumni working at McKinsey and Company to help with the strategic plan. She also met with current students and faculty to understand the strengths of the school and how to leverage those strengths. The result was a four-pronged plan focused on a student-centered approach, research excellence, community building, and financial sustainability. The specific action items have manifested in multiple ways.
Two of the biggest changes have been the addition of a Master of Management in Finance program and the renovation and addition of a new building that will house MBAs and other graduate students. Once the McGill University bookstore, the building is set to open to students in January 2018. Less than a week ago, the school announced a $25 million gift from Aldo Bensadoun for a new and innovative School of Retail Management set to enroll students in the fall of 2018.
Poets&Quants was able to catch up with Bajeux-Besnainou during her recent visit to California to meet with Desautels alumni. In a wide-ranging interview, she speaks about the international nature of the Desautels undergraduate degree, a bachelor’s in commerce, as well as the challenges she has faced so far on the job, her goals for the next few years, and why Montreal is the best place in North America to study — as long as you have a good coat.
It’s coming up on two years now since you took over as dean at Desautels. How has it been and what have you been up to?
It’s been wonderful. Great place. And it’s a great fit for me being in a province that is French speaking in an English speaking university. The fit is very, very important. The energy is there. There is big support from the university for the faculty.
You were at George Washington’s business school in Washington, D.C. for two decades. Were you looking to become a dean at a business school, or was this just something that popped up at the right time?
I wasn’t looking at the time. It came as the right opportunity — not exactly at the right time from a family perspective — but the right opportunity, for sure.
What made it the right opportunity and an attractive move for you?
The reputation of the university, to start with. The fact that it is extremely international. The fit of Montreal, for me. The philosophy that is in-line with the faculty that is the approach of integrated management and breaking out of the silos within the faculty. That was a very good fit for me and what I want to achieve. The strength of the university, in general, and building more cooperation with areas outside of business. It’s a very strong research-intensive university and that’s a wonderful potential for the business school.
What were some of the immediate goals you set for yourself?
For the first year, I wanted to work on the strategic plan. I didn’t come with goals that were pre-established. I really wanted to work with the professors, alumni community, and students on the strategic plan. I got some pro-bono help from alumni from McKinsey. They were helping for the process. And we established a plan with priorities after that.
And then, obviously, meet all of the people at the school. When you’re in a new place, that’s the first priority — to understand the strengths and build on those strengths. So, meeting all of the professors, students, and alumni community. That’s something I’ve been doing a lot and the reason I’m traveling today. This is actually the first time I’m coming to California with purpose of meeting the alumni. But, I’ve been all over. I’ve been in Europe, Asia, Toronto a lot, New York, Boston. That’s one of the issues of being so international — the alumni base is spread out everywhere.
Do the majority of your alumni stay in Canada, or are their larger alumni bases in other parts of the world?
They are very much everywhere. The biggest proportion is probably in Canada, but they are everywhere.
The largest proportion of students at the business school are undergraduates. And, we are 42% international. So, we’re starting with an extremely international student population. Some of them stay in Canada, but a lot of them are going elsewhere, depending on where they’re coming from. Among the international student population, we have a very large representation from France, U.S., and China.