Nora Illona Grasselli (PhD.08)
The Non-Academic Academic

Berlin. We wanted to make Nora’s interview because her profile is very unique: she didn’t do a Master or an MBA at HEC, but a PhD in groups dynamics. But she chose not to follow the tenure track that almost all PhD graduates follow. If you are a Grande Ecole or a Master student, you will discover a world we know very bad, the world of our professors, a world in itself, with all his specificities and his diversity.

Read full transcript…

HU: Hallo Nora, thank you for welcoming us in the amazing location of ESMT. We are going to start with our little Proust questionnaire. So, if you were a color, what would you be? 

N: Blue. It’s my son’s favorite color, so anything I can think of is blue.

HU: An animal?

N: A turtle.

HU: A meal?

N: Oysters!

HU: A song?

N: Happy Birthday, my son is singing it all day long. He wishes happy birthday to various animals so my days are full of this song!

HU: Everyday is a party then!

N: Absolutely! (laughs)

HU: If you were a movie?

N: Forrest Gump.

HU: An object?

N: A house. It’s solid but it can have different forms and shapes.

HU: A sport or a game?

N: Basketball, a team game.

HU: A book?

N: As a scientist, it’s hard for me to choose one book. It will skip this one!

HU: A (super)hero?

N: Spiderman.

“When you are a tenure professor, nobody can fire you unless you sell drugs to your students!”

HU: Good choice for a scientist! Now, can you sum up your professional background in just 30 seconds?

N: I completed a DEA in Nantes at the university. Then I joined HEC to do a PhD with a topic focused on group dynamics and my supervisor was Gilles Amado. In 2008, I defended my PhD and I joined the Boston Consulting Group. I was located in Budapest but I was travelling all the time. I was partly in the organizational practice but I also worked a lot in pharma and in financial services. In 2012, I joined ESMT, a business school in Berlin. I am a Program Director, doing Executive Education programs for managers here in Berlin and elsewhere.

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HU: What is ESMT?

N: ESMT is a new international business school based in Berlin. It’s 14 years old, which is very short when you look at the competitive landscape. HEC is 130 years old, I am not going to talk about Harvard and even INSEAD is 40-50 years old. Our competition is much more established.

As a new player, our objective is to grow, mostly internationally. We also want to improve our research as well as our teaching portfolio.

Our younger students are the Masters in Management (MiM), they are between 22 and 24. This program started last year. We have a full-time MBA program that lasts a year, we have EMBA programs and we have various Executive programs: some are designed specifically for companies that want us to train their managers but there are also open programs everybody can join.

HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice in your professional life?

N: I made a difficult choice when I decided not to follow the traditional academic track. After completing your PhD, you are supposed to go to an assistant professor position and to work your way up to a tenure professor position. When you are a tenure professor, nobody can fire you unless you sell drugs to your students!

All the classic academic profiles are heading toward this position and that’s also what the PhD program of HEC prepares you for.

I decided to do something different by joining a consulting firm. I wanted to get business experience. It wasn’t easy because all my friends were going to academic institutions or universities for salaries that are comparable to consultants’, but for lifestyles that are completely different. My supervisor understood my choice, but he was thinking that I should become an assistant professor and go into the tenure track. Last but not least, my father, who is also a professor, could not understand why somebody would decide to go into business when the doors of the Academy were open.

I had no real support but I don’t regret my choice because I am currently in my dream job: Executive Education. What I learnt from it is that you sometimes need to go against the flow. Don’t care about what others tell you and do what you think is best for you. Maybe you’ll fail but it doesn’t matter because it’s your life.

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HU: What do you bring to the table when you come from an academic background and you go to a consulting firm?

N: BCG is a great firm and I learnt a lot there, but this world was completely new for me.

My first project was with a telecommunication company and it didn’t take me long before I realized I was on another planet! When I got an idea, I said to my team that we should meet to talk about it, but the project manager told me to do it directly! There is not a lot of discussion, but when you have an idea you have to make something out of it. The other thing that surprised me is that no one ordered a book to prepare for a specific project! On this first project, we worked a lot on employer branding, so I ordered a book to get into it, but I was the only one! Most people in consulting firms don’t have time and lack the academic interest; they just want to get things done!

“I used to go much deeper into my subject, to attend academic conferences. I am not doing it anymore.”

HU: A very different approach of solving problems…

N: Yes, it’s completely different.

I was a student for around 14 years, so you can say I like classrooms. I learn when I listen to a professor. It’s not the same for everybody and the classroom learning is almost impossible for some people: they have to try and to apply concretely what the professor tells them.

I am a pure academic type, so it helped me a lot when working with BCG, but it also was harder sometimes.

HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?

N: The diversity of the job. I didn’t want to become an academic because 90% of the job consists in research. I like research but I didn’t like it that much and I wasn’t ready to do it full time.

At ESMT, my days are different. Some days I teach, whether it’s here or abroad. I have sessions during the day, I meet new people and we talk about teams and leadership. Other days I am recruiting my clients, designing new programs, valuating existing programs and it looks like my former consultant job. Finally, I have days when I do research or when I just read a bunch of new stuff that has come out, with a huge freedom in terms of topics, because anything that can be related to my stuff or to my clients is interesting.

This diversity keeps me in the job.

HU: How would you explain you current job to a 5-year-old kid?

N: There are people who help other people to do what they do better. But these people also need some help and that’s the reason why they come to us. With them, we discuss on how they can work better with their people. My job consists in helping people to work better with their teams.

HU: And you get help form the academic knowledge. Are you following the new trends and the new topics in the academic world?

N: Partially, because you can never go as deep as when you are a full time academic researcher. I used to go much deeper into my subject, to attend academic conferences. I am not doing it anymore.

But we are able to help our clients thanks to our organization. We are about 12-13 program directors and we try to support each other. We learn a lot from our faculty – the teachers teaching in our programs – from our clients… It’s a network job.

There is a big hype around digitalization and we learn a lot about this topic from our clients. They tell us what is the practice in their company and this we can build up a case and use it in our classrooms.

HU: As an academic, is there one big idea or thesis you like very much?

N: Asking this question is like asking me who can be considered as a role model as a leader, I can’t give you an answer. I don’t have one theory that I support. There are some very interesting things that have been written recently, but I don’t have a guru.

HU: As students in a business school, we just want to know what are our teachers reading, so what is the last academic book you have read?

N: I just read a bunch of academic articles on virtual teams. The articles are often more recent than books so it’s the best way to see what are the most recent thesis and ideas.

As innovation is a big topic currently, I read Adoption and Innovation, which is an old book written by Kirton. He writes about the different profiles around innovation. You can be an adopter, like Thomas Edison, who adapted an existing technology to create something new, or you can be an inventor like Albert Einstein, an out-of-the-box thinker who asks questions nobody asked before.

What Kirton says is that we are all between those two types. We are all both adaptors and innovators and organizations need both, so the big question is to make the two work together. In these terms, innovation inside organization relies on group dynamics, which I found very interesting. It was an interesting read; I can link it to my research but also to my teaching in leadership.

HU: During our trip, we heard that people would need to be re-skilled all along their career. University will not be enough to educate people for their entire life. Do you agree with this? Does ESMT want to address this issue?

N: I think it’s true but all business schools are going to play a role.

The world is changing really fast and people continue to learn. The question is: how much of this learning will happen in traditional learning institutions like business school. Peer-to-peer learning is developing really fast, you can learn a lot online so do you really need to go to a school to learn?

We are here to address questions that are up to date, but the real question is to know what will be the percentage of structured learning in this new continuous learning.

“I am not German, but I want to say that I really respect the way they are tacking the refugees issue.”

HU: Let’s talk about Berlin now. For how long have you been living here?

N: I lived 5 years in Paris, 5 years in Budapest and 5 years in Berlin!

HU: What a balance! We are only going to talk about Berlin today. Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?

N: Sunday afternoons I am in the Tiergarten, the largest park in Berlin. We live very close from it and we like to sit at the English teahouse. The queen officially supports this teahouse and it has a large playground next to it, where we can do a pic-nick, relax and maybe play a little bit of football with our son.

HU: If you had only 24 hours left to spend in Berlin, what would you do?

N: I would definitely go to a techno party! (laughs) I would go to an all-night long party because it’s part of the city. I used to go to parties during my first year in the city, but since I had my baby, it’s more complicated! It would be my goodbye.

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Berghain, the most famous club in Berlin

Out of that I would just like to cycle around, because it’s a great city to do some bicycle. If I am a bit of energy left, I would do that.

HU: What are your favourite places in Berlin?

N: I really like the Tiergarten. I like the river, you can jog around the river, it’s very nice. I think it’s also good to go up in the TV tower, because you can have a magnificent view. There are many nice neighbourhoods and the lakes around Berlin are very nice. There is a lot of nature in the city and I think this is what I enjoy the most.

HU: What do you like about people from Berlin?

N: I like the relaxed dress code! (laughs) I spend my time in jeans and I am never worried about what I am going to wear.

You are in Berlin, so it’s not about what you wear.

HU: In your opinion, what is what is the most important challenge Germany is facing?

N: The question of the refugees in central. We don’t know how things are going to evolve. I am not German, but I want to say that I really respect the way they are tacking this issue. I admire their engagement with the refugees. At ESMT, we offer, jobs and trainings for refugees and we have a guy in our IT department who is a refugee. Germany offers a future to those desperate people, but it has to be sustainable and well-managed.

“My former colleagues from HEC are professors in business schools all around the world.”

HU: Let’s talk about HEC now. You spent 5 years at HEC for your PhD, were you living on the campus?

N: I lived a year and a half on the campus, but the rest of the time I was in Paris.

HU: What was your favorite place on the campus?

N: I really liked the Holiday Inn, but I think it changed…

HU: It’s a Best Western now.

N: We spent some time at the bar of the Holiday Inn, it was our little secret at the time!

HU: What is your best memory from HEC?

N: My graduation and the defense of my PhD.

The defense is a very personal moment, because you are in front of you committee in front of your family. But the graduation was great too, because the whole event is wonderful, you realize that you are done with 5 years of studying…

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PhD students graduating from HEC

HU: Do PhD students graduate with the other students?

N: Yes, we are graduating during the same ceremony. We are the first group entering the graduation ceremony actually! We didn’t know that at the time, so we were in the first line, with all the other students following. We have the black hat, but our color is green, when it’s blue for the other students.

HU: Why did you choose to do your PhD at HEC?

N: I decided to go to HEC because I wanted to work with someone there, Gilles Amado, who had written books I really liked. If I was to do a PhD, I wanted to do it with him as a supervisor. He was at HEC and at the time I didn’t know anything about the school. They asked me to send them a lot of documents, to pass a test and all of a sudden I had to go through a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about!

HU: Would you advise someone to do a PhD at HEC?

N: Yes. It’s a top business school, with a great faculty, so if your topic is in one of HEC’s faculties, you should go there. You get a lot of support concerning your research and I also received some financial support. I had an external scholarship so I was not needing it but it’s important to take it into account.

Finally, the job outlooks are very good. My former colleagues are professors in business schools all around the world.

HU: As a PhD student, do you use the HEC alumni network?

N: Yes I do! Things are just starting in Berlin thanks to Arnaud Becuwe, who is heading the Berlin chapter. HEC is establishing an office here in Berlin, so things are getting exciting. I met a couple of alumni but I can’t say I use this network extensively.

HU: What would you advise to a young graduate from HEC?

N: I would advise to Grande École students, who are pretty young, to try as many things as they can, without putting too much pressure on your first years as a professional. Your career is not going to last 2 years, so take your time to try as many things as possible.

In the German system, I will probably need to work until I am 70, which means that I am not even at the half of my career!

HU: HEC’s motto is: “The more you know, the more you dare.” What would be your own motto?

N: I would say something around “Relax and explore”, because I really think those are the two keys.

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