By Claire Harbour (INSEAD MBA ‘92J), Founder, Culture Pearl, and Antoine Tirard (INSEAD MBA ‘97D), Founder, NexTalent | December 2021
The pandemic has been taxing on most of us and has given many the time to reflect on what is important in life. It has led to the Great Resignation phenomena, various kinds of other career changes, but perhaps most of all to an increased consciousness around why it is we go to work.
We know from our many years of coaching and researching peoples' careers, that in such times of disruption, a return to education can often give breathing space to a career. Not just to learn new skills, but to feel into other ways of seeing and experiencing life, so that the transformation is deeper. Indeed, as we go on that quest for meaning, we search out change in ourselves, as well as our environments. There’s an executive programme for that! Well, a few, anyway.
In this article, we examine the stories of three individuals who sought out their own personal change journey. They come from diverse backgrounds, in terms of country, culture, industry, function, gender, and aspirations. They chose from a handful of schools offering substantial change programmes, and they all emerged different people.
What led them to choose the course they did? What did they learn?
How much were they challenged along the way? How did they grow? And what was the result and the “return” to them in the longer run? Let’s find out.
Janet – Changing yourself to change the organisation
EVP Human Resources, Safran Aircraft Engineers
Janet grew up in a small town in a small country and knew instinctively that she wanted to go and work overseas to gain more experience. She found the opportunity to do just this early on in her career.
As she became involved in work that focused increasingly on change management and people leadership, she consciously made choices that allowed her to find other perspectives. She worked in the US and France, with responsibilities that led her to interact with clients and colleagues around the globe.
In 2006 she found herself in a leadership role in a family-owned small conglomerate. This was her first C-suite role, and the complexity was a stretch.
Her invigoration and inspiration came from the need to create massive cultural change.
One thing was clear to her: she wanted to ensure this was done with an inside perspective, as opposed to bringing in a consultancy. With the certainty that education is the key to progress, Janet embarked on the search for a programme that would help her to tackle the changes holistically.
She considered a programme in the UK, and then compared INSEAD with HEC. What she hoped for in the INSEAD Executive Master in Change (EMC) programme was that it would be less generic: Janet was keen to do further work on “who she was and how she fitted into the eco-system”.
She had already undergone some individual therapy work by this stage and understood the importance of self-management and transformation, so she was convinced that her challenge was nothing to do with changing the organisation chart, but the make shifts in herself and supporting others in doing the same.
By her own admission already a sensitive person by nature, Janet experienced the whole course profoundly.
Her energy in jumping in was possibly too great, she admits with hindsight, and although this caused some pain, it also created more impact on her. She describes it as “like using a facial peel, and then needing to grow new skin”. She thrived in the group work, being challenged by an array of profiles and backgrounds fundamentally differing from hers, and experienced this as a reflection of the way things are in an organisation, anywhere. “
But it was not the same as being in other management programmes that I have done since, where it felt like being in a bubble. This was augmented reality! It was about “putting my own muscle into everything I learn, really developing that muscle beyond imagined limits”.
The relevance of the course is measured by Janet in terms of the big revelation that it was all about her. “All the questions I deal with today, leadership, effectiveness, and so on, are by no means solely about performance. It is about consistency and authenticity to myself, to how I deliver in every context”. The programme allowed her to approach all the transformation topics with greater confidence and prowess.
There was so much reading and information available that Janet actually took a two-year business book-buying break after the course. She realised the most important tool was herself, to such an extent that she saw more value in taking singing lessons outside work than in reading any more books at that time.
In the years since the INSEAD EMC, Janet has been through several highly prominent Chief People roles, including at Sephora and Air France/KLM, and is currently at Safran, the world's second largest aircraft equipment manufacturer.
“Of course the EMC gave me ammunition to take on bigger roles. But it did more than that: it showed me where my true energy is".
"Having put aside my initial idea of becoming a coach or consultant, I knew my energy is working with teams towards an organisational goal. Without the programme, I would never have accepted the Air France/KLM role, or indeed the one I occupy now. I am totally at peace that as a Dutch person overseas, I have a different angle to anyone else. I may not fit in and will bring a different perspective. That is who I am”.
Frédéric – Coaching and supporting people through change
General Manager Middle East Africa & Global Business Development, Jacobs Douwe Egberts
Frédéric’s start in life was pretty classic and traditional. Born in Paris, educated in a good business school in the South of France, he just sensed that he wanted change and learning more than his classmates.
Having turned down graduate roles close by in Europe, he jumped at the opportunity to work for a small company in Cote d’Ivoire. Africa was a defining place and time: he explored his limits, his beliefs and his values.
Having become adaptable and even more hungry for change, Frédéric returned to the fold, taking on a role at a French pet food multinational later acquired by Mars, building on his Africa experience, with a wide-ranging export management role. His roles since then have included building a business from scratch in Greece, and then a higher leadership role in South Africa. The learning was intense, and his leadership and inclusion skills were often called on.
A move to Turkey at an inopportune moment led to him finding himself on the wrong side of the negotiation table in a restructuring. While he could have moved on to another role at Mars, or indeed taken his skills elsewhere, Frédéric opted to recognise that he was refusing to accept failure at a time of great stress and tension, and was struggling. This led to a decision to take a break, and transform it into a meaningful and worthwhile experience.
He carried out his research into the various educational options available, and was attracted by the HEC/Oxford University programme, Consulting and Coaching for Change. Having found another compelling job offer at a Dutch FMCG conglomerate, he decided to take on the “crazy” option of tackling a new job and taking up the place he had been offered at HEC.
Frédéric wanted to challenge his assumptions and beliefs, which he was aware of having built up over his twenty-year career.
He also wished to deepen his knowledge of change management, returning to academic models and context. And he was looking forward to doing this in a diverse cohort, where he could connect.
There was a further deep reason for him, which was around the increasing realisation that his vocation was to coach and support people through change. He had become more and more aware of this ever since the transformation work he had done at Mars.
His purpose was clear, and this perspective served him well during the course.
The first classes had a destabilising effect on him, with a hesitant moment of “what on earth have I taken on?” But a while later, he was loving digging into the shadow side, the unconscious, and all kinds of other “uncomfortable” subjects. This was when he began therapy, too.
As the course went on, Frédéric enjoyed considering life from a system-thinking perspective, embracing change as it came, and developing his courage as a leader. He also deepened his conviction that he will become a coach one day. He does not know exactly when that will be, but, leaning on his new-found comfort with not knowing, he is happy just to go with “when it is right, and most valuable”.
Frédéric would recommend a change management programme to anyone who is clear that it serves his or her purpose. “It’s too big to carry if you are not 100% motivated, and if you do it just as ‘something to learn’, it is probably not going to be right. You cannot do this kind of course as a passenger”.
Anuprita – Opening up the lens of empathy for herself and others
Head of Customer Experience, Google Devices & Service
Anuprita was a model child and young woman from the outset, according to her traditional Indian upbringing. She succumbed to parental pressure to study engineering rather than becoming a writer.
By the time she had completed her studies, she was already showing a deeper interest in people than in machines, and became the first female sales executive in her Indian IT company. When she won the “best salesman” award, the company was forced to change its title to suit her gender!
From that point on, she had a stellar rise, in companies including Apple, Intel, HP, Dell and Yahoo, pushing boundaries, and realising, with joy, that “tech is a great equaliser - Bill Gates and I both use the same internet”. Several years into her career, she had accrued further educational laurels, was married to another tech star, and they were living a comfortable life in Singapore - dual income, single child.
Several years after her MBA, done at NUS, Anuprita was drawn to her husband’s INSEAD Executive Master in Change (EMC) cohort. He was part of the first class of the course on INSEAD’s Asia campus in Singapore, and this allowed her to connect with some of his classmates. The variety of backgrounds was heady, and each one of their stories held its own fascination, with all kinds of dramatic developments. She started to understand how interesting and motivating it might be to be able to know the story of people coming to work with her, and vowed to sign up soon for the programme.
When starting the INSEAD EMC, she didn’t consider alternatives. Not only was she already teaching on the MBA course at NUS, but also she was firmly set on becoming a more empathetic manager through knowing and understanding the inner theater of people around her.
“The toughest was what I learnt about myself, epecially about how I manage drama. I have this super resilient framework, but what are the underlying risks of being resilient? I unpackaged myself, looking more into the mirror. I wanted to find the key to stopping repressing emotions, and grow, by putting together the broken pieces.”
One dominant topic became the subject of her EMC thesis - likability. “I realised I placed huge value on likability: parents, boss, friends and co-workers.” She explored the paradox of leadership and likability, being forced to recognise that “it’s not a popularity contest.”
There was little change of work activity upon finishing the programme. The transformation took on another form, when she decided, against all convention, that she wanted another child, sixteen years after her first. Symbolically, this was all about finally being able to make a choice freely. She had done engineering to please her family, an MBA because her boss asked her to, EMC because her husband was so inspiring and insistent.
Despite her new motherhood slowing down career growth to a certain extent, Anuprita went from strength to strength within whatever role she occupied.
“The course opened up the lens of empathy for me."
"In the past, a difficult boss or client would have had me complaining that they were toxic and difficult to work with. Now, if I come across somebody acting out, then I try to understand what might be happening in their personal life. I try to assume no bad intent. Mostly, it turns out to be the case.
Anuprita has also recognised that self-disclosure increases likability and engenders reciprocity. Her 360-degree point of view helps build long-lasting relationships with her colleagues and clients, which means that bumps along the way can be positively smoothed over. “It is authentic, because I deeply care about this person, and constantly give the benefit of the doubt.”
Four years after the programme, Anuprita found a leadership role at Google in Singapore, where she is at home with the commitment to inclusion, both internally and in the massive external goals such as connecting the next billion unconnected users.
In this “second mountain” of her career, she is intent on giving to others, for herself and via her company.
Not only is she working on the lofty inclusion goals of Google, but also she has developed a passion for giving “people who are not like me” a voice, finding empathy for them. As a consequence, she campaigns to help women make a choice to go back to work, and has chosen to become an ally for LGBTQ+, as well as leading the DEI group for her department.
On reflection, she says the INSEAD EMC is a building block in a process. “How can I put myself in someone else’s shoes, even if I don’t want to? How to go from dislike to a place of understanding and respect. I had not known how to process the feelings of previous traumatic events, so I put them aside and got on with “being happy and OK’. The programme allowed me to develop more understanding and empathy, for myself and for others.” It also gave her the joy of her second child.
In her team, Anuprita is often the go-to person for influencing stakeholders and she can see a more scalable impact from guiding many people’s careers, and coaching them informally along the way.
“Many young people I teach or work with say ‘I want to be like you and pay it forward’. This is such a humbling experience.”
Our three subjects, despite being quite different people, with contrasting backgrounds and stories have a great deal in common. Let’s take a look at what we can learn from their common features.
There are some aspects that might predispose a person to choose to do a master’s degree in change:
- Already thoughtful, mindful and conscious
- Interest in people and motivations, behavior and values
- Early bias towards change and exploration
- Previous exposure to challenging circumstances, perhaps not fully processed at the time
- A desire to grow, explore and develop
- A sense of connection to others and empathy for humanity
What is clear, however, is that the constellation of factors above is not sufficient alone to make a success of things. At times, a change management programme can feel heavy going, exhausting, triggering and relentless. It is the “gift that keeps on giving” in terms of peeling off the layers, to get down to the essence. This might indicate that there are choices to be made. If you are considering a change program, ask yourself: .
- Do I really want to change? Or am I just intrigued by change?
- Is this the best time for me?
- How much else am I willing or able to be accomplishing concurrently?
- Am I open to being open? To not knowing? To learning from others?
- Will I be truly committed and engaged right up to the end?
If you recognise yourself in your positive answers to the questions above, it might be time to consider a change management programme. But be prepared to be broken, challenged, floored, and then to build yourself up, even stronger and more open than ever before.