Franz Heukamp: “Good business leadership is about using your talents and abilities in the service of others”.

Meet Frank Heukamp, the dean of the IESE Business School in Spain in this exclusive interview for MBA International Business.

How did this relationship of almost 20 years between you and IESE begin?

It began back when I was still finishing my PhD at MIT. In 2002 Jordi Canals, who was then Dean of IESE, was visiting Boston. We ended up meeting during his visit and talking quite a bit about his experiences as a professor, as well as IESE in general and his future plans for the school. At the time, I was thinking seriously about exploring further my growing interest in teaching. It was Jordi who really encouraged me on my path to become a professor. When Jordi was talking about IESE, I also got a great sense of the DNA of the school and its future ambitions. In particular, I remember him explaining the school´s plans to expand internationally, including in Germany (which, as a German national, was a project I was especially intrigued about.)

All this made IESE seem an especially attractive and appealing place to work.

How is the desire to teach awakened in you?

I have had an interest in teaching since I was in high school. More specifically though, for me the impulse to teach is rooted in the desire to be able to explain things in a way that is simple for people to understand. One of the great joys of teaching is the ability to see the moment when a student fully grasps a concept that, on first glance, may seem impenetrable. Suddenly a new perspective or way of looking at the world can be opened up. Watching students grow in this way is enormously rewarding.

This desire to teach then became crystalized during my PhD. I began teaching some courses during this time and received good feedback about my teaching capabilities. This then inspired me to continue down this career path.

What is it that you are most passionate about and have given you the greatest satisfaction in your professional life?

Really it´s all about having a positive impact on other people´s lives. And it is this shared focus on having a positive impact that makes IESE such a satisfying place to work. You can see directly how the activities of the school can improve things for people around the world.

It can be something that at first seems small – such as personal feedback from a student you have helped – to something bigger, like contributing to the creation of new jobs during a recession through our entrepreneurship activities, or the continued impact of our alumni around the world.

A recent example of this has been seeing how our alumni community are using their positions in business to make a difference during the covid-19 crisis. The range and depth of the initiatives our alumni are involved in is quite astonishing. They cover everything from creating testing kits and manufacturing respirators to using their businesses to deliver food to needy families or students.

It has also been pleasing to see the other ways the IESE community has come together to do its part to help counteract this crisis. For example, by offering dedicated scholarships for those hit hardest by the crisis, or open access resources and free online learning sessions to help executives better navigate this crisis.

Your teaching specialty focuses on decision analysis and prediction methods. What led you to be interested in these topics?

I´ve always been interested in understanding how people make decisions. After all, it is a topic relevant to almost every aspect of our lives. Every single day we make an innumerable amount of decisions (big or small.) Often, we do this quite instinctively. Yet it can actually be extremely hard to do it well. So many biases and factors can influence us into making sub-optimal decisions.

Sometimes this is of little consequence (such as when deciding what you want to eat for breakfast in the morning.) At other times, the ramifications of a sub-optimal decision can be huge.

That is what makes decision analysis and prediction methods such a fascinating topic to teach. It is connected in a very real way to the practical realities that business managers face. One of the most important tasks for any business leader is to understand how to make good decisions and forecasts within a complex, and often uncertain, environment.

What does IESE mean in your life?

It means making a difference. There is huge satisfaction in being able to go home at night and know that you are part of something that is always trying to do better for people and society.

Every day working here, I see people go above and beyond their regular duties to make a difference. Whether it is the receptionist who goes the extra mile to help a colleague, or the professor dedicating so much of his or her time outside of class to help a participant develop. It is an inspiring place to be.  

I have visited IESE in Barcelona on two occasions, and there is an academic and spiritual atmosphere, is it possible to combine a managerial life with the spiritual?

Certainly. But more than spiritual, I would talk more about morals. I believe there should be a moral dimension to management.

At IESE, we reject the idea that businesses should only be concerned about the bottom line. Of course, businesses need to be economically sound. Yet while economic considerations are extremely important, we also need to go beyond that and think about how our actions affect the people around us.

It is about recognizing that business are, in essence, a community of people that serves other people within a wider society (which again, is another community of people.) It not only makes good business sense to nurture the wider ecosystem upon which businesses depend, but we also have a moral duty as managers to do right by others and wider society. Good business leadership is about using your talents and abilities in the service of others.

Why do we think sustainability is important? We do we want to pay people a good living wage? And why should we care if our employees feel overworked or ill-treated? Ultimately, we care about these topics because of our moral obligations as people.

Finally, how to make decisions and lead in the midst of uncertainty?

While it is important not to rush in and act just for the sake of it, it is also crucial not to become paralyzed by the uncertainty. When unexpected events outside your control are happening (such as with the current health crisis), people are looking to you for leadership. You cannot wait until you have perfect clarity before deciding what to do. Not acting is a decision in and of itself.

Instead, first take a moment to try to gain a broader perspective on the situation.  What are the most important aspects of this situation in regard to your business? What are the potential scenarios of how this situation could play out? Do I need to involve experts from other areas to get a better grasp of the implications of any decisions I may make?

It may be a good idea to set up working groups of people from various areas who can help define set scenarios, and then work through which actions should be taken in each case. While you may not have all the answers yet, anticipating how the situation may unfold can help keep you on track and decide on the best path forward.