When senior talent development manager Shweta Kumar signed up for INSEAD’s Executive Master In Change (EMC), she gained a lot more than a business degree. Inspired by the programme, she embarked on a personal and intellectual journey of discovery that has transformed both her career and her life.
Senior Leadership Coach, India
What sparked your interest in INSEAD’s EMC programme?
As a senior HR leader, I specialise in senior leadership development. I’ve built my career over decades in large multinational companies, working to create and implement talent development solutions that deliver real business value.
But despite my career success, I’d started to feel something was holding me back – that I hadn’t yet reached my true potential.
I’d also started to feel there was a blind spot in the standard development approaches when it comes to understanding the drivers of human behaviour. I’ve spent a lot of time in companies where it’s the norm for leaders to make decisions based on data. But if you’re data-driven all the time, it can be limiting.
Sometimes, you can make better, more mindful decisions if you trust your intuition and powers of reflection.
But there was no space for that kind of approach, at least in the companies that I worked with.
One night, I was chatting about all this to a friend who happened to be on the EMC programme. When he explained that self-development and psychological approaches to management was a big part of the EMC’s focus, that was it! I knew right away that the programme was something I had to pursue.
What impact did the programme have?
It’s been transformative, and in ways that I did not anticipate.
I certainly didn’t go in thinking, “This course will teach me how I’m going to change the world”. I was just very curious and open. Yet with each module that went by, I did start to change. I realised there was so much buried deep inside of me that I’d never tapped into in my work, let alone in my private life as a mother or wife, daughter and friend.
Where things really started coming up for me as I wrote my essays and course papers was the issue of gender bias, and how it can hold women back. I’d never truly reflected on its massive impact on my life, or on the lives of my mother, grandmother and other female ancestors.
As the programme progressed, how did what you were learning feed back into your professional life?
As I started digging deeper into how my identity as a woman had shaped me as a leader, noticing certain patterns in my style and approach, I started to feel restless. I was in a major role in a leading multinational firm, yet mid-programme I shifted gear and took on the role of CEO in an Indian leadership development enterprise.
Looking back, I can see that the EMC’s strong focus on issues such as leadership dynamics and interpersonal perspectives was having a profound impact on my own personal journey of exploration. I felt like I’d been offered a safe space to explore the unknown.
Were there any particularly inspirational moments or insights?
I remember a stimulating discussion on gender stereotypes. The reaction from some in the class was, “We don’t want to talk about this! It’s not relevant to us.” And I realised that the conversation around gender can provoke a defensive response, because it makes people feel uncomfortable. I started to notice everyday examples of this playing out in India where I’m based, and on the world stage.
Then there was the module on family systems led by Professor Randy Carlock. This led to some extraordinary discussions on the influences that a family has when it comes to shaping leaders, where we touched on intergenerational trauma. That made a lot of sense to me personally and affected me deeply.
What was the key takeaway?
Researching and writing my thesis was where everything came together for me. There, I focused on psychological violence in the workplace and how that can affect women in the early stages of their careers.
I found it profoundly meaningful to complete that piece of research. It helped me redefine my professional approach to enabling inclusive and compassionate workplaces and empowering leaders to champion change.
How about after you completed the programme?
Inspired by the EMC experience, I immediately threw myself into a range of projects to ensure I didn’t lose momentum. That included a course in women’s leadership development, and a master’s degree in applied neuroscience.
I was powering through all of this very intensely, with a lot of passion and joy. One day, without warning, my back gave out. I was completely bedridden. “Dear Lord, what are you trying to tell me?” I remember thinking. Then I realised it was International Women’s Day, and the penny finally dropped.
I decided life is short – I needed to take my passion project and make it real.
And I did. I set up Invincible Women, a company aimed at coaching and developing senior women leaders.
What happened then?
Right away, three or four companies said, “Yes, please – we want what you’re offering”. Since then, the response has continued to be positive, and that includes highly rewarding feedback from the participants themselves.
Leaving my full-time job to be my own boss feels like a natural next step, and it’s terrific to be able to do the kind of work I feel I was born to do. It energises me every day.
I could never have got this far without being part of EMC programme. It changed my life.
Have your insights from the programme affected the way you lead?
Profoundly. I have a lot of work left to do – change is never-ending! But I do think what I learned has made me more reflective and less rigid as a person and a boss. If you’re not a very reflective person yet you’re driven, as I am, with a lot of energy, you can find yourself inadvertently stamping over many things without realising it.
Previously, my attitude was: “Get the work done, there is no room for mistakes”. I was also so anxious all the time. The programme helps you see that you don’t need to project your anxieties onto those around you and try to manage the world that way. Instead, once you become more sensitised to the triggers inside you and you’re clearer about who you are, it can lift your performance as a leader and transform the way you drive change. That’s also what I try to pass on in my work.
What does your family make of these transformative changes?
The EMC helped me grasp how easy it can be to unconsciously pass on certain negative approaches from old scripts, especially when it comes to your kids.
Ensuring that doesn’t happen is a big part of my parenting approach. And I can’t tell you how happy it made me when my son told me recently that he wanted to find a career that gave him passion and purpose – that for him, it wasn’t just about making money. That’s the kind of legacy as a parent that I want to leave behind.
Any words of advice for potential EMC participants who may be considering signing up for the programme?
All of us need to transform to be able to bring our best selves to the world. And the EMC not only gives you the trigger to do that, it provides a really compassionate space for that transformation to unfold. At the same time, you get to learn from the best in the world. So don’t hesitate – take the plunge!
Click below to access Shweta's thesis on Psychological violence at the workplace - Impact on early career women in India.