Q. What are your backgrounds? How did you come to be working together?
Olivier – My family is full of entrepreneurs, particularly in the restaurant business. When I started my career, I thought it wise to enter an industry where I had access to a network and financing opportunities, so I opened a restaurant. I used that platform to gain experience, develop myself, and raise money.
Isabelle – I was working elsewhere at first and was not involved in the restaurant. But in 2002, we moved to Japan for a new business opportunity. Given how challenging it would be to succeed there, we decided to pool our energies and started working together. At first we did everything together. But eventually we opened multiple businesses, and each of us took responsibility for different business lines. For the past few years, Olivier has focused on ecommerce, and I have mostly managed our agencies in communications, events, and public relations.
Q. What business challenges led you to seek executive education?
Olivier – We'd created several successful businesses in China and Japan. But when one of them—an ecommerce venture—started to grow significantly, I realized I had very little training that would help me understand the wider possibilities. The business was doubling in size every year and becoming a lot more complex. At the same time, we had raised USD $120 million to invest. I needed to become more effective at running a board of directors that included investors.
Because I wasn't the only one running the business, the decision-making process required sharing more information, influencing others, and building consensus. I wanted to become more professional in engaging with this larger, more structured business and with people who had much more training than I had.
Q. Why did you choose the Owner/President Management program at HBS?
Olivier – A close friend had attended the Advanced Management Program at HBS and explained how he had benefited from the experience. I thought, "This kind of learning is exactly what I need." He encouraged me to look into OPM because the format and content were designed specifically for entrepreneurs like me. I made my decision based on the OPM structure and the typical participants. For example, I would not have come for a two-month program, but the OPM structure—three weeks at a time over three consecutive years—was doable. Similarly, the participant testimonials showed me that I would be working with true peers—people with my level of experience. OPM seemed to be the best, most interesting program available for CEOs and entrepreneurs.
Isabelle – Olivier attended OPM before I did. When he came back after the first unit of OPM, he was so excited. He told me I had to do it. At first I said, "I don’t have time. I'm managing a company. We have three children. It's impossible." He kept pushing. He is one of the best ambassadors for the program! It was a big step for me to be away from the children and the company for three weeks at a time. Olivier told me, "Just go for the first unit and then decide. I'll take care of the business and the children. Just go for three weeks." I did—and found that everything at home and work went very smoothly without me.
Olivier – I was learning a great deal at OPM and really wanted Isabelle to have the same experience. We had been partners in life for 25 years, sharing everything and running businesses together. I had just taken a real step forward through OPM and didn't want to live with that gap—that advantage in knowledge and skills. I tell my other partners and managers what to do based on what I learned at HBS, but that was harder with my wife! I was 100 percent sure she would love the program—and I was right.
Q. How did your interactions with peers contribute to the OPM experience?
Olivier – Something special happens when you're thrown into a new situation with strangers. At OPM, we lived in groups of eight entrepreneurs with totally different functional backgrounds and experiences. Each OPM group has a perfect mix of backgrounds. With such vast differences, we might never have become friends. But by working together for three weeks at a time and having breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, we came to know each other very well. We talked about what mattered in life. We were like family. By the time people reach their forties, they are often established in life and don't make new friends often even though they engage with a lot of people. But at the end of three years in OPM, I had built very strong, new friendships.
Isabelle – When you arrive at OPM, you don't realize how close the friendships will become. But after three weeks, you feel as if you've known these people for 15 or 20 years—and have built a level of trust that will endure for many years to come. Since the program ended, we all share updates online, send pictures, and visit one another.
Q. Will these relationships be valuable to your business?
Isabelle – Before I arrived at HBS, I was somewhat concerned that people might try to do business during the program, but that did not happen. We were all there to learn from one another. Everyone was in the same boat, even though we'd all been facing different issues at different times. After the first year or two of OPM, it's possible to begin to have some forward-looking interactions with people in your sector and consider doing something together after the program ends.
Olivier – Isabelle and I are French people working in Japan and China. It's impossible to accomplish something alone in a foreign country, so we had to build a small network to help each other. The people I met in OPM have become an extension of that personal and professional network.
When you succeed in achieving a certain level of business responsibility, you have fewer people in your business with whom you can confide. You have to be careful because everything you do or say can affect clients, partners, suppliers, or employees. But HBS provides a great opportunity to discuss issues and opportunities with peers outside your world. You don't have to worry about what they think of you, because there won't be any consequences for your business. As I start new projects or new ventures, I will have opportunities to engage with my new OPM friends who have experience in territories that I'm not so familiar with. I can ask for advice—or perhaps ask someone to join a board.
Q. Why is OPM valuable for seasoned entrepreneurs?
Isabelle – Entrepreneurs are always on the move, with little time to reflect. I appreciated being able to step back, do something different, learn again, and listen to people. It was very beneficial to talk with others who were facing the same issues. I came into the program knowing some business areas quite well, and having a lot to learn in other areas. When I came back to work, I was more confident in all of those areas.
Olivier – I had been starting and running businesses for more than 20 years, but I learned so much in OPM—it was like being six years old and starting to read. The program balances two kinds of learning. You can deepen your knowledge significantly in subjects that you know well—that already excite your passion—and also fill gaps in areas where you are not as experienced or skilled.
Q. Which aspects of the learning stand out for you?
Olivier – Most of the cases were relevant in some way to my business, starting with the first case on Amazon, since I run an ecommerce business in Japan and China. After discussing that first case in class, I made a list of all the mistakes I was making—20 things to change immediately.
I was surprised by how much I learned, even in the areas I thought I knew well. For example, I've been raising money for the past six years, so I did not expect to learn anything in that arena. But in OPM, I learned about the different kinds of investors and realized that 80 percent of them should not be my targets. I was wasting my time talking to them. Every part of the OPM curriculum was like that: I'd think I was already very good at something, but then learn that I was not doing it in the most efficient way.
Isabelle – My experience was similar. I believed I was already very good at managing a team because I have a big team with almost no turnover. Some people have been with us more than 10 years, which is unusual in China. Given that experience, I felt very comfortable walking into the session on talent management. But after an hour, I was taking a lot of notes and was very impressed. I started to think, "OK, now I understand why I'm here." That was amazing.
In comparison, I knew I had a lot to learn in the area of finance, so I was a bit anxious. But everyone was so supportive, and I was able to pick up the basics very easily.
Q. Do you recommend the program to other entrepreneurs?
Olivier – I explain to my very successful friends that if they want to continue to take pleasure in growing their business and in everything around them, they need to advance their skills. If they don't, there's a danger—to the business and to them personally.
We have four friends planning to come to OPM. Two of them are kings of advertising in France and very big in China. They started their business six years ago and are winning everything they pitch. They're very successful. At this stage of their development, they think, "Why go back to school?" I put it to them this way: "You're a great Monopoly player. You know how to buy the land and build houses, but you need to read the rules. You’re like a street fighter—you know how to play without knowing the rules. In OPM, you are going to learn about the rules of playing Monopoly. It will change your life."