The June 2017 Ethics and Performance Seminar with Father Hugues (second from right)

Learning Ethics from a Benedictine Monk

At exactly at 12:30 p.m., we began the 6-hour journey from campus to Chomelix, a medieval village of less than 500 inhabitants. My seven MBA colleagues and I were heading to a monastery there, to spend four days grappling with questions of right and wrong during the Ethics and Performance elective offered three times a year by the HEC Paris MBA.

The facilitator of this four-day seminar, Father Hugues, greeted us in the traditional way he greets all of the students he hosts: by ceremoniously washing our hands.  From the second we arrived until the second we left, this former lawyer and current Benedictine Monk showed us amazing hospitality and made us feel very welcome. I shared with him that his name means South in Russian, and that this was especially poetic due to our long, 500 km journey to south-central France to meet him.

The Notre Dame of Sereys Monastery is remote, situated in the middle of the woods with just a few neighboring houses. During the seminar, every day began with breakfast, followed by 1 hour of personal reflection time. At 10 a.m., the group discussions started. After dinner, we dedicated our free time to walking around the monastery’s property and having long discussions that lasted into the night.

How often do you get the chance to have a private conversation with a person who manages over 250,000 employees?

During one session, we debated the real and very tough ethical decisions faced by Vincent Schürr, the CEO of Invelis. It was amazing to discover some of the dilemmas that he had faced during the 40 years of his fascinating career – none of which I can disclose here due to the confidentiality that we all agreed to at the beginning of the elective.

On the third day we talked about the ethical challenges that each of us had already personally encountered in our professional lives. As a group, we looked at past and future dilemmas. Everyone was fully engaged in the conversation thanks to the uniqueness of the topic. We discussed how the business world can confront you with ethical dilemmas caused either by malicious decisions or by innocent human errors; how sometimes you need to choose between a bad solution and a worse one; and how sometimes being a leader means making painful decisions.

The last day was the most interesting. We met with Philippe Wahl, CEO of La Poste, and spent the entire morning and lunchtime with him. How often do you get the chance to have a private conversation with a person who manages over 250,000 employees? We flooded him with questions, and he didn’t stop surprising us with his answers. We asked him about his moral and ethical challenges, the issues he faces leading such a large organization, the strategy of a postal company in an instant-electronic-messaging society, his work-life balance, and much more.

Father Hugues serves desert during the Ethics SeminarAnd of course, we were in France, which meant four days of fantastic food, cheese and wine. What else could you ask for? Every meal was a celebration of French and regional cooking. My favorite was a Gazpacho starter, followed by duck with mashed potatoes and onions and a salad. A cheese plate was offered at the end, and just as we were about to leave the table we were surprised by a desert of strawberries with whipped cream.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and our amazing long weekend in the monastery was over. Father Hugues hosted a goodbye drink for us and walked us to our cars. The only thing that softened the sadness of leaving was the knowledge that we had beautiful scenery to gaze out upon on our way back to Paris.