We are proud to announce that the Financial Times has profiled our Honorary Dean, Tawfik Jelassi. He is currently on the board of École des Ponts Business School, a professor of e-Leadership with our MBA programs and a professor at IMD in Switzerland. In this article, Tawfik Jelassi recounts how he answered the call of duty and faced one of the biggest challenges of his life — restructuring the post-revolution Tunisian government.
(Published by the Financial Times, Feb 16, 2017 – Abbreviated version)
An education in leadership from post-revolution Tunisia : Former government minister Tawfik Jelassi’s strategies for managers under stress
Tawfik Jelassi took the fateful call on Christmas Day 2013. The Tunisian academic was waiting with his family for a flight to Florida and a 10-day holiday from his role as dean of a French management school [École des Ponts Business School], when a Tunisian number flashed on his mobile.
A voice said: “I am Mehdi Jomaa, the prime minister, and you are the first I’m contacting to become a minister in my cabinet. “
Pros Jelassi, then 56, had never met Mr Jomaa. Indeed, he had not lived or worked full time in his homeland for 35 years, as he built an academic career in the US and France, specializing in the strategic use of information technology.
In 2010, though, the “Jasmine Revolution” had unseated Tunisia’s longstanding president and ushered in a period of turmoil, culminating with Mr Jomaa’s appointment to run a one-year technocratic government. “I used to be a spectator, watching the [Tunisian] news on TV out of Paris. And overnight, I was asked to become an actor,” Prof Jelassi says in an interview. “The switch was that sudden.”
He accepted the offer. His year juggling three ministries – higher education, scientific research, and information and communication technologies – saw him taken hostage in his office, subjected to blackmail and threats, and heavily criticized for the controversial educational reforms he pioneered.
Consider all opportunities, however daunting. If the call had never come through, though, or if he had declined, he says he would probably still be dean [of the École des Ponts Business School]. The shock offer forced him to reconsider his future and opened up experiences and opportunities.
Set clear short-term goals – within a long-range strategy. The terms of Mr Jomaa’s invitation were stark: a mountain of challenges, physical peril, a salary of “peanuts” and no resignations or complaints— “We start the mission together, and we finish together,” the premier declared.
Prof Jelassi picked higher education as his priority, because he saw that tens of thousands of well-qualified Tunisian graduates were unable to get jobs.
Bind your team together and get all parties to buy in to the strategy. Prof Jelassi brought together 150 people with an interest in education — university presidents, senior officials, student union and business representatives — to discuss his plan, facilitating workshops, even during Ramadan, to thrash out the changes. The message: this was their reform not Prof Jelassi’s.
Over-communicate. Asked what he regrets. Prof Jelassi says he did not communicate enough, particularly through informal channels: “The youth and students are on social media — they’re not reading my press communiqué, issued through the national newswire. So I under-communicated.” Partly as a result, the second half of Prof Jelassi’s tenure was overshadowed by demonstrations.
Reframe the problem and learn to be resilient and Survive. Prof Jelass says sometimes it is as important just to get through difficult situations as it is to make progress: “Every day I survived, politically and physically was a good day for me. Having survived high turbulence is, by itself, some sort of achievement.”
If he got the same phone call, would he again accept the invitation to lead in turbulent times? “For me, the call of duty is stronger than all other considerations,” he says. “I would seriously consider it.”