Spotlight on Pierre Pirard
Pierre Pirard enjoyed an exemplary blue chip career with companies such as Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser, Stanley Works and most recently as CEO of one of AHEAD’s clients, Family Service. Then in 2009 he stepped out of the mainstream corporate world to teach underprivileged youngsters at the Institut des Ursulines in Molenbeek.

head_a10_3‘I always thought that a teacher would not work as hard as a businessman, and had expected more time for myself. That’s not the case. In fact, 8 hours of teaching a day is much more tiring than running a multi million euro business.

In industry, shareholders expect you to create value for them, and if the value of the company is higher in Year 2 than Year 1, then you’ve succeeded. So how do I create value today? By making sure that my students leave with a good diploma to create their own value in the world. My mission now is to create a higher quality after 10 months where the only dimension is people, people, people.’

‘Life is too short to just have one life’

So how do you bring business to life for these youngsters?
 ‘It’s a challenge. My students at Molenbeek, they are nearly all from North Africa with their own culture and are not particularly open to the world. My first challenge is to open their minds, get them to listen to the news regularly on RTBF not only Aljazeera. Yes, of course, I could have chosen an easier path but I can add more value here. 

Last June I saw a rewarding difference in my class but not among everyone. 50% were showing interest, 50% did not care. I don’t try to measure any more. If just one succeeds, then my work is worthwhile. As it happens, I’ve just had a text from two students from last year who have just enrolled at college to become primary school teachers. A year ago they were destined for unemployment. But remember, I did not achieve this alone, but as part of the School.’

Tell us more about the group of 12 businessmen you have gathered to help you.
 ‘My idea was to give students a coach, a stepfather, whom they could call and ask questions – a mentor who would not judge them, who was outside the academic evaluation process. So I called my friends – CEOs, COOs, CFOs, who thankfully were all receptive and willing to give one or two hours per month. It’s a privileged access for my students that I hope they will appreciate.’

How could HEADWAY readers assist further in your mission?
 ‘This year we are fine with 12 mentors already in place, but I am certainly keen to hear from anyone interested for the future. Also I’m always looking for internship possibilities for my students – essentially for 7 weeks a year (4 x 1 week and 1 x 3 weeks).’

What message do you have for business professionals considering ‘giving something back to society’ or stepping out of their mainstream business careers?
 ‘Do it ! I’ve met so many of my friends who say that they want to do it, BUT…  then come the excuses. Personally I think life is too short to just have one life. While some aspects may be less attractive, you learn so many new things. What you give up is nothing compared to what you gain. Besides, you’ll be 70 before you know it and then it’ll be too late.’

Resilience is a highly valued trait in today’s workplace...  In your opinion, how do your young charges at Molenbeek compare with their middle class counterparts? Will they have a natural ‘edge’ as future candidates for companies?
‘It’s true that my students have all had tough lives… often little money, poor education, no father around. But I’ve not enough experience to draw general conclusions about their resilience. Some want to be stronger in the future. However others may never be able to bounce back from earlier hardship.’

How important has resilience been in your own career?
 ‘Very important indeed. In Moscow in 1998/99 with Reckitt Benckiser, my brief was to ‘stop the bleed’. We were losing millions in the region so I quickly cut the headcount from 300 to 72. As a boss you need to do what is right for the future of the company.
In fact it’s not dissimilar today if one of my students won’t listen in my class. Do I eject him knowing that it will not be in his interest? Yes, if the rest of the class will not listen if he remains, and would all suffer.’

‘What you give up is nothing compared to what you gain.’

What have YOU learned from your students at Molenbeek?
 ‘I’m learning every day: how to teach of course, but also about their culture, their religion, the way they see life, how they act, how they see the future. It’s totally mind-broadening.’

In your opinion, how well does the education system serve business?
‘Frankly not well at all.  At 18 the level is dramatically low today.  One of the key reasons is that we don’t ask students to work hard enough nor teach them how to learn to work at home. It’s all too relaxed. We should ask much more rather than dumb down levels to the lowest common denominator. We should be pushing our young people to the highest level and helping lower achievers to catch up.’

You come across as someone who likes new challenges and to keep developing. What mountains are still to conquer? ‘Right now I’m so much into my new job, I’m only looking 3 to 5 years ahead. My main ambition is to make sure that my students get their diploma. And, of course, to become a better teacher…’

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