“The best way to predict the future is to invent it”

Interview with Gloria Perrier-Châtelain (EMBA ‘93 & AMP ‘10)


Gloria Perrier-Châtelain

Gloria Perrier-Châtelain, a senior global director at SAP and president of the French IESE alumni chapter, talks about the benefits of working in multicultural teams and how, wherever you go in the world, IESE offers a safe haven.

You come from an academic background. What attracted you to business?

I started my career in academia and even after moving into corporate positions I continued throughout my career to work as a visiting professor at several universities and top business schools. Academia is my natural ecosystem. I enjoy it and have consistently, throughout my career, been involved at different levels. This has included the following: numerous positions where I was a visiting professor at top business schools; consistently involved in my own IESE Alumni Association as well as networking with other top university alumni associations; organizing "inter MBA" events; translating and promoting a book1 used at business schools. I really enjoy this. I also like the idea of building bridges between academics and practitioners, of combining two worlds that might be seen as distinct, but they need to play together as many instruments in an orchestra need to play together to produce the right harmony. When academics and practitioners collaborate closely they achieve great things, they co-innovate, they enrich each other and jointly can provide a holistic perspective. In reality, even after moving into business, I have always tried to find opportunities to be a lecturer/trainer/ mentor. I was appointed assistant professor at different universities where I taught organizational theory and its practical application in business. I also taught accountancy and finance that allowed me to consolidate my knowledge in financial techniques and to build on my economics background.

You have worked in consulting, real estate and now high-tech. Tell us something about this journey.

I never imagined doing one thing for the rest of my life, and in fact I did different jobs in various parts of the world. Concerning the timing of each change, it is important to avoid the two extremes, to get carried away by an unjustified fear of change and remain in painfully bad work situations or to constantly consider changing job situations. I developed the ability to recognize the signs of change that let me know the right moment to reformulate priorities and embark on a new professional path. There is a rationale in each move I made in my journey. As mentioned before, I started my career as professor (concepts – theories) and continued my career as a management consultant. The consultant is in a position between theory (concepts) and action; the consultant observes, the consultant does not really make the decisions but advises others to make them. The learning curve was extraordinary during my time at Accenture; I could explore different industrial sectors and lines of business. After some time as a consultant, I moved to where the real action was and assumed line responsibilities which gave me the hands-on management experience I needed.

I managed a growth of 300 percent per year and initiated expansion in the Middle East, Egypt and Israel. Finally, my move to high-tech was also natural, I was always fascinated by the impact of technology on our lives: the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

We are living in a world of change, and this has many implications. For example, more than 1 billion people are actively engaged in social networks, and as a consequence of that collectively they have the power to make or break brands instantly. It is also a fact that there are now more mobile devices on earth than there are people: as a result a business can now exponentially expand its reach in a flash. In 2013 more than 15 billion of these devices are capable of connecting to the internet and operating items from cars to washing machines, and even the clothes we wear.

Businesses can fundamentally transform themselves by using these connections to their advantage. Something else to bear in mind is that more data has been created in the past five years than in the entire history of mankind. Unlocking the secrets inside this data presents breakthrough opportunities for businesses.

From a social point of view, an emerging global middle class, increasing from 2 to 5 billion by 2030, will strain the world’s diminishing resources, and therefore businesses will require new strategies for resource optimization, innovation and growth. There have also been changes in the way we work, and the lines between our personal lives and our business lives have blurred. The way businesses sell to consumers has changed as a result of this.

The collective result of these trends is an unprecedented empowerment of people – as consumers, as employees, as citizens and as societies.

Today being digital is no longer a competitive advantage; it is now the norm. We are in the era of the digital enterprise; mobile connectivity; cloud computing ; social media; big data. All these are key drivers for positive transformation to becoming digital enterprises and success- fully handling all these technological possibilities to reach a sustainable competitive position.

I am a serial intrapreneur and at SAP I had the great opportunity to be part of the leading team of many strategic initiatives, like launching Enterprise Portal (the first SAP web interface); defining the go-to-market activities of NetWeaver (SAP first platform); leading programs of breakthrough innovation of Business byDesign (first SAP Cloud Computing offer), and being a key player in the marketing and sales transformation through digital marketing strategy and social media.

The constant in this journey is meritocracy, which is a big concept for me. It is in my genetic code, I have always been convinced that we need to fight and to work hard in order to overcome adversity and to be successful.

What are the cultural challenges of leading multicultural teams?

Diversity is creativity. Diversity needs to be leveraged and overcome the key challenges and benefit from the unique opportunities of leading multicultural teams, which are also geographically dispersed, and on top work as virtual teams, presenting specific technical and social challenges that do not arise in traditional work settings. But the rewards are huge. Today’s diversity drives tomorrow’s innovation. Innovation driven by diversity of thought is critical. Companies that leverage their diversity and maximize the value of heterogeneous teams produce better business results and higher customer satisfaction.

At SAP, over 65,667 employees from more than 124 nationalities work together in an inclusive environment that values differences in culture, race, ethnicity, age or gender.

It is true that every manager today needs to understand the challenges of leading global virtual teams and have the competencies needed to overcome cultural, geographical and temporal distances embedded in global virtual collaboration. Companies have no option but to develop cultural intelligence. Each culture has its own internal logic. The Chinese, for example, tend to be collectivist, while Americans tend to be individualist. This is a fact. But now there are employees who embrace many cultures at the same time, take my own example; more and more members of my team have this sort of profile.

"Born in Mexico City, lived one third of his life in Helsinki, plus some time in Sydney and used to travel up to 160 days/year." "Dutch, living in Ireland with a Slovenian boyfriend that she met in India and thinking about her future plans to work in America.""Born in Russia, married an American who was born in Taiwan, and lived five years in Saudi Arabia. Hiring these employees / managers is quite helpful, they are already multicultural, and know naturally how to handle multicultural teams.

How did the IESE MBA contribute to your career?

I chose IESE because it is consistently ranked among the best business schools in the world, because of the teaching method based on case studies and because of its general management perspective, international character, transformational impact, and relevance and rigor. But what attracted me most at IESE is that it corresponds with my values; the core IESE values are also mine: professionalism, a culture of of service and integrity.

It is a fact that 90 percent of the IESE graduates change function, sector or country. In my case, after my MBA I changed all three at once! I gained confidence, after my MBA, nobody could stop me, I felt I had wings. And in the end I had a deep faith in myself and my future. The program that I did, EMBA, requires exceptional energy to balance work and study. I studied and worked at the same time (as I always have) and I could apply on Mondays in my work what I learned on Saturdays in the school.

IESE makes each student a potential entrepreneur, and more than a third of graduates create their own business. I did not create my own company, but I developed an entrepreneurial nature and at SAP I launched many initiatives; I am a serial intrapreneur . In my way I went for it. Mission accomplished!

You are president of the French alumni chapter. Tell us about that.

Our mission is to promote continuous education among those who have participated in one of the school’s core programs and to strengthen ties and collaboration among fellow members of the Chapter, as well as with our school.

Our alumni community is quite diverse. We are a growing and changing community of 215 alumni from more than 12 nationalities, with less than 50 percent being French. Our youngest member is 29 years old and the oldest is 87 years old.

We have three stellar events per year, where we enjoy the visits of IESE professors, we organize networking activities, and let me say that more than networks, we build relationships. They are the "Dîner du Premier Lundi du Mois," a successful event launched more than a decade ago, and joint activities with our associated business schools, Harvard and CEIBS, but also Kellogg. We also organize summer events; we organized some industrial tourism visiting the area of Epernay, and we were received at Moët & Chandon, where we did champagne tasting; a hot air balloon trip over the Loire castles; golf tournaments and French cooking courses. IESE is the safe haven, you can be mobile and live in many countries, but wherever you go, you can find your IESE friends, there are more and more IESE chapters all over the world.

You are also a member of the Executive Committee. Tell us about that.

I feel so honored to have the opportunity to serve IESE and collaborate in IESE Alumni Association governance, both at a global level at the Executive Committee, which is the executive body of the Association, and at a local level as President of a regional chapter. The Executive Committee president is Mr. Jorge Manuel Sendagorta (PADE-II-90), and we meet regularly to decide on key topics of the Association. IESE has a growing community of more than 40,000 alumni in over 110 countries, and the services offered by the Association are quite broad. To facilitate the lifelong learning last year alone we offered over 300 aca-demic sessions worldwide.

I have explained previously the services and activities we perform from the angle of my local activity in France. Try to extend and visualize this example to a network of over 30 worldwide chapters with more than 250 alumni volunteers, working closely with the Alumni division. We all value the extraordinary work performed by Mireia Rius, IESE Alumni Director and her team.

Let me also emphasize that all this is sustained by the membership. Those members who collaborate with their dues annually are contributing to the ultimate goal of the mission of IESE. Choosing IESE for my MBA was one of the best decisions in my life.