Alumni Abroad: Sebastien Brion in Barcelona and Life After a Haas PhD

By Haas Undergraduate Nathan Tudhope

Sebastien Brione

Sebastien Brione

While studying abroad this past fall term in Barcelona, I was glad to find how much connection I was able to make with the Haas network.  Upon learning that I was going to Barcelona, Leslie Kanberg from Alumni relations kindly e-introduced me to Sebastien Brion, who completed his masters and PhD in Organizational Behavior in 2010.  For the last 4 years he has been teaching at Barcelona’s world-renowned IESE business school.  His work has been highlighted in The EconomistLe MondeDie Welt, and Valor Económico. I learned upon arriving at IESE that Sebastien was leaving for an international flight to the U.S. the following morning, yet he was still able to find time in his evening to sit down with me. Although Sebastian and I had no connection beyond Haas, he made me a priority. Wow! He is an impressive and smart guy, and I really enjoyed learning from his story.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Bird's eye view of IESE

Bird’s eye view of IESE

You have a really interesting life path. Give us a quick play by play on where you have been in your life.

Sure, I was born in Belgium; we moved for my parents’ work when I was four.  We spent a year in Canada, then to New York when I was five.  I was in New York until starting my undergrad at Tufts in Boston.  After I finished there I moved out to California with a friend and worked in HR consulting.  It was great to get real-world experience, but I always knew that I wanted to go back to school and get my PhD doing research.  I also knew that I wanted my research to be something in the intersection of psychology and business. I was accepted at both Stanford and Cal and I am proud to say that the choice was Cal.

What made you make the life-changing decision of becoming a Golden Bear?

I chose Cal for the faculty.  They were a better fit for what I was looking to research.  They were very aligned with my goals, and in the end it turned out exactly right.

Was there anyone in particular that you could tell us about?

At the time of application I was impressed with the group collectively.  Specifically speaking though, I really liked my PhD adviser.  As a PhD student you work really closely with your adviser and they really end up as a mentor and someone you can always tap for advice.  He actually was not there when I applied, but it was a huge part of my PhD experience at Cal.

View from the IESE terrace

View from the IESE terrace

View from the IESE terrace

So, we are here at IESE in Barcelona (check the pictures for the great views). Why here, why now? As a PhD student you need to be open minded about where you end up.  If you want to stay in Academia there are not an overabundance of options.  You need to say okay, “Who is hiring?” and then “where do I fit?”  That narrows down the options, but I was lucky to interview here, find a great connection, and get the job offer.

What do you think about Barcelona as a city?

Barcelona is fun; that much is obvious.  There is also so much history and culture which provides a great mix.  I like living here for so many reasons, the weather is great, there is always something to do, and the people are very international.  It is a warm and welcoming place.  Also, these people are proud of their region, Cataluña, and the active movement for independence is really impressive.

What do you think about the Catalan movement?

Well, I can see their point, and as an outsider you can educate yourself on the subject, but it’s hard to form an informed opinion without having grown up here in the culture.  The motivations behind seeking independence are not always that clear to outsiders – there are many factors, some historical and others economic that have contributed to this growing movement. But it’s certainly a topic on many peoples’ minds and it’s a discussion that comes up frequently…sometimes casually, and other times quite emotionally!  It will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years and to experience this potentially huge political shift as a foreigner.

IESE Business School Barcelona, Spain

IESE Business School
Barcelona, Spain

Tell us a bit about IESE and how it is similar or different to Haas?

IESE is unique in that it is a top-ranked school, but historically it has not been much of a research school, but more of a teaching school.  On the other hand, an obvious strength of Haas is its incredible faculty doing really amazing research. There has been a recent push to get more PhDs who are focused on research so that is something I am trying to bring here.   IESE Business School Barcelona, Spain There is always the balance between rigor and relevance in academia and they typically come at the cost of each other. Coming from Haas, which is such a strong school on both aspects, it is really cool to try to bring more of that side of the balance to IESE.

So are you pretty focused on research?

I am.  As a Haas PhD that is very typical.  Research is important here, but not as much as many American institutions.  I like the mix, and I was lucky to find IESE.  There are strong teachers, collaborative environments, and tons of opportunities.  We have campuses all over the world.  It’s really crazy!  We also have a lot of students doing MBA exchanges, and even beyond MBAs we teach to a lot of executives, and for that we have campuses all over the world, you name it, New York, Brazil, Munich, Madrid, and it goes on… You can really see that international influence in the classroom on a day-to-day basis.  Business schools in the states do a good job of forming an international student base, but here that is much more evident.  The variety of opinions we see simply as a function of differing backgrounds and perspectives of the students is such a great thing here at IESE.

Do you see yourself using this network of campuses you mentioned to see more of the globe?

I have already done a lot of travel with IESE.  I have taught in the Netherlands, in France, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, USA, and more.  Teaching in Africa has been amazing. This travel is super unique and something I love about IESE. We also have tons of groups coming here to the campus from all around.  Even this week we had our Pan-African executive MBA.  They come from two schools, Lagos Business School from Nigeria and Strathmore Business School in Kenya.  They come for a week and these students are really fantastic. They are great workers and these are some of my favorite sessions of the year.

Bringing it back to the research, what is it that you research? Broadly speaking I focus on organizational behavior.  I look at the psychology behind how people see the world, see themselves, see each other, work in teams, etc.  Specifically I have looked at the psychology of power, how people get it, maintain it, and lose it.  All of this is within the realm of organizations and business.

What kind of reaction are you getting to your research from both faculty and students? Well, when I have been preparing my lessons, I try to cover similar topics, yet cover them through the perspective of the research, and using research to help tell the story.  A student actually came up to me today and told me he really likes that aspect of the class.

He liked the use of more research? He liked the balance.  IESE is typically a case-based school where the students read a case and we discuss it in class.  It’s really about letting the students discuss the situation and using the research to support that is part of the balance.

I ask the students, “What does the research say about the particular situation?”

[Nathan: I’d call this a Defining Principles Moment! This is a great example of challenging the status quo.  Sebastian is teaching at a top-flight business school, yet still sees that there is always room to grow and bring something new to the table.  He uses what he has learned and what he knows to try to give his students a new perspective and challenge them to think in a different way.  Cool to see real examples of the principles.]

PrintDo any of the four Haas Defining Principles resonate particularly with IESE?  

Haas has done a great job of pushing these principles and it is great seeing Dean Lyons talk about them.  They have identified what they think is important and they have pushed those ideas throughout the school.  IESE has a strong mission statement, which aligns well with Beyond Yourself. We focus on creating leaders that will have a lasting impact.  Thinking about what you can do to benefit your own career of course, but more so what value you can add being a leader.  The students know that people’s futures will be in their hands.   We try to push the reality that our students will be able to benefit these people and also society at large.  The international influence also helps our students get a broader perspective and think beyond themselves.

What is your rough plan looking forward?

I am hopeful that I will stay here and I am doing what I can to stay here.  I am honestly really happy here and do not see myself moving soon.  Who knows, maybe someday I will even learn Catalan!

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