Carnegie Mellon University

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou

March 01, 2021

Dean Bajeux Shares Advice for Emerging Female Leaders

On Sunday, Feb. 28, Dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou sat down with Ivy Gong, MBA 2022 candidate, for a Q&A session following her opening keynote address for the 2021 Tepper Women in Business Leadership Conference. This year's conference theme focused on resiliency. Dean Bajeux discussed her experience in academia as a woman and the challenges she faced on her path to becoming dean.

Most of us are balancing a career, with family and personal priorities. What is your approach to what people call work/life balance and your philosophy on work-life integration?

I am not going to pretend that it is easy. Especially, as a woman, if you want to have a family and raise children. Unfortunately, the day-to-day burden is often still on women. The main problem is that very often, even the most supportive partner, talks about “helping” instead of “being in charge,” which is a big difference.

So, be organized in scheduling professional and personal obligations, tasks, and appointments. For example, scheduling family zoom meetings, days off, holidays, workouts, and time with friends. Simplify your life and schedule. Not every aspect needs to be perfect.

You do not need to get everything done in the same year. Life is long and some things, both personal and professional, can wait. Life is not a race, it is a marathon, and the goal is to enjoy the journey, not to focus on the destination. The secret is to have fun along the way.

What has been the hardest career negotiation and discussion you’ve had? For example, for a new role, promotion, etc. and how did you manage it?

Probably when I was asking for special work arrangements to be able to be with my kids and husband in Paris for a couple of years, while remaining a full-time professor in the U.S. Double careers are very difficult to manage. I got lucky that the university had a campus in Paris, and I offered to develop it to be able to manage to spend half of the academic year there.

As an executive and leader, there are many people and things demanding your time and attention. However, you are still a regular person, with 24 hrs available a day and the same needs as everyone else. How did you scale yourself to attend to the increasing demands in an effective way?

You cannot scale yourself. As I said, I am a regular person and I need to sleep. The key is to build a good team, surround yourself with complementary, smart people who you truly trust, and empower them. I have never been afraid to surround myself with people smarter than me and try to learn and be challenged by them. In other words, a great leader is never alone. A leader must understand his or her shortcomings and blind spots and know how to build an A team.

What has been your biggest failure? How did you overcome it?

I should have come to the U.S. earlier for my Ph.D. I was very close to my family and did not think about leaving France in my early 20s. It was too comfortable for me to leave. I went to the best school, had a very nice academic career, and enjoyed the support of my family while raising my son.

When we had the opportunity to come to the U.S. later on, we took it, but it was way more difficult to make the move later because I already had a 3-year-old son, I was pregnant with the second, and I had no professional network in academia in the U.S.

Many people have trouble speaking up and asking questions in particular when they are the most junior/only minority person in the room. Why is it important to ask questions as a leader and what advice do you have for people to overcome the fear of asking questions?

I will confess that I am an introvert, raised in a culture where asking a question means that you have the deepest understanding of the material that was just presented and that your question is supposed to be the smartest and most insightful remark. In other words, it has been a long struggle for me to overcome my gender and cultural biases in making myself more visible.

What are the top three things you struggle with the most?

  1. Isolation because of COVID-19 and starting in a new position without meeting people in 3D.
  2. Not being able to be supportive of enough of people because I am not sure that I can fully understand their struggles during these difficult times we are living in; but also, in general, trying to make sure that people are comfortable enough with me to share their concerns and how I can help them.
  3. Dishonesty. I always trust people until they prove me wrong. And then I get very hurt when I find out that people are trying to manipulate me or the system. When the trust is gone, it is very difficult for me to rebuild it.

What strategies have you used to effectively deal with conflict?

Conflict is good. I thrive in talking with people in private and finding solutions to work through our differences, as long as this is done in a respectful and constructive way. I try not to be afraid to have these difficult conversations that a lot of people seem to avoid. In my experience, it is usually highly appreciated.

How did you pick your career roles?

I was very happy to be a professor, teaching and researching for the longest time. It allowed me to find a good work/life balance to raise my three children, while my husband was always on the road. It was only later that I started taking interest in the administration of a university.

I became department chair -- mainly because everybody had to take his/her turn -- and I found out that I very much liked having a more direct impact on the strategic direction of the school, being part of that conversation, and implementing new projects. So I became associate dean for undergrad programs, and I liked it even more. Then, when I was approached to take on the dean’s position at McGill, I said why not. And the rest is history.

Bottom line, it was initially somewhat by chance but became more and more intentional on my side.

What is your self-care practice? How does that influence your effectiveness at work?

I am an introvert, so I need my alone time. Also, when I am anxious and/or upset, I bake. So my family is always worried when they see cakes piling up in the kitchen.

What is your superpower?

I am very direct, but I am also very respectful, regardless of rank, wealth, or power. Because of that, I consider everybody as an equal, from the janitor to the billionaire. That helps me build a lot of meaningful and deep relationships with people.

As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?

Men. 10,000 years of men ruling western civilization is very difficult to overcome. But this is not only from men. I strongly believe that everyone is biased, including myself, so I constantly try to remind myself to work on it.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

Dare. Nothing is impossible. Thanks to my generation, there is more and more awareness that females are instrumental in contributing to the economy. The future is yours.