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In conversation with Sébastien Vivier-Lirimont, Founder & Managing Partner, HEADway Advisory

Sébastien Vivier-Lirimont, a white man with close cut hair, smiles at the camera. He has blue eyes and is wearing a check blue suit and pale blue shirt.

Sébastien Vivier-Lirimont founded HEADway Advisory in 2011 to help the higher education sector adapt and thrive in the face of a myriad of challenges. Since then, HEADway has established itself as the leader in strategy consulting and recruitment services for the education and research sector in France.

As HEADway and How to Change the World launch a new partnership, we sat down with Sébastien to hear more about the ways in which everything from AI to climate change are affecting higher education institutions' business models and the qualities he believes every good leader should have.

HEADway’s mission is to accelerate the development of a wide variety of higher education & research institutions. What does that look like in practice?


Back in 2011, I was convinced that higher education was on the verge of tremendous change. Of course, those changes turned out to be even more dramatic than what anyone could have expected, from artificial intelligence to climate change to the expectations of younger generations. At HEADway, we are both familiar with the specificities of higher education and at ease with management consulting methodologies, including in-depth analysis and solutions testing and adaptation.


We work with higher education institutions to enable them to tackle their strategic development challenges, answering questions around their mission and business model, how they differentiate themselves and how they meet the needs of young people from a range of backgrounds. We also offer quality assurance consulting, as well as executive search to help these institutions determine their staffing needs and recruit the right people.

How do you engage across your diverse client base?


As well as higher education institutions, we work with online learning platforms, professional education providers, and also with private equity firms to help schools and universities to access new investment sources.


Higher education and the corporate world do not collaborate enough. Despite positive intentions from both sides, communication is not broad or deep enough and the conversation is inconsistent. We are always seeking to close that gap; for example, we’ve previously organised events for employers in the consulting industry to come together with higher education leaders for open conversation.

Faculty need to be supported to adapt their curricula to reflect the world today, including via upskilling opportunities and finding ways to introduce more of an interdisciplinary approach.


HEADway is currently transitioning to being a mission-led enterprise. What drove that decision?


I created HEADway with the goal of having a positive impact on higher education institutions and society at large. So, after the option to become a mission-led company was written into French law in 2019, we discussed it at our annual company meeting and made a unanimous decision to go through the process. No one at HEADway is here by chance; we are all driven to make the education system better and we wanted to make that binding.


Becoming a mission-led enterprise comes with a number of obligations, such as having to achieve specific objectives and undergoing annual audits to ensure we are compliant. Going through this process has mobilised all our staff towards a common goal and being able to talk about being mission-led in this concrete way is a signal to other like-minded individuals who might want to work with us in the future, as employees or collaborators.


What are some of the most common challenges you’re seeing higher education institutions face today?


Firstly, competition is increasing between higher education institutions worldwide, and specifically between business schools. In some regions, demographic trends such as decreasing birth rates are contributing to this growing competition. Then digitisation and the rise of AI is changing almost everything, from how students are selected, to how they are evaluated, to the competencies they need when they graduate. That final point presents a huge pedagogical challenge for higher education institutions across specialties and sectors.


Of course, environmental change is a massive challenge, affecting not only day-to-day operations (including moving towards carbon neutrality) but also faculty management and curricula. For example, how can you still teach marketing today the way you taught it 25 years ago, when the sole purpose was to produce and sell more, whatever the consequences? Faculty need to be supported to adapt their curricula to reflect the world today, including via upskilling opportunities and finding ways to introduce more of an interdisciplinary approach.

How are you seeing higher education institutions factor sustainability into their strategic plans?


Institutions need to introduce a systemic process that stretches from the very top to the very bottom of the organisation, with genuine engagement across every department (students are fed up with greenwashing and will see through it immediately). When done properly this manifests in a number of different ways, such as changing the way teaching is organised, offering places to a more diverse range of students and creating opportunities for students to collaborate on real-world projects with people from different backgrounds and disciplines, via initiatives such as How to Change the World’s programs.


What qualities must young people develop to be leaders in a changing world?


Without critical thinking skills, you cannot be a good leader. I also strongly believe that a good leader is a team leader, so you must have team spirit. And thirdly, you must care. The world needs a caring approach to management: as a leader you must care about society, about your team and about yourself. If you care deeply about what you do and how it impacts others, you’ll be a better person, a better leader and will make better decisions.


You’ve just signed a partnership with How to Change the World. What are your ambitions for this relationship?


How to Change the World and HEADway share a belief in the power of higher education to build a better future, as well as the knowledge that sometimes it is easier to create change by combining insider knowledge with an outsider’s perspective. Both How to Change the World and HEADway are inside-outsiders in higher education, so we quickly understood one another and were aligned in our mission and vision.


With this partnership, we want to share How to Change the World’s programs with our partners in the Francophone world and beyond, and also to connect with more higher education institutions that might benefit from HEADway’s help in managing strategic changes. By working together, we can accelerate our shared goal to make higher education better and more accessible to everyone, everywhere.




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