Becoming a Leader in the Supportive Environment of INSEAD

Cecily Liu

Leadership is both science and art.

It is so intangible and abstract just like the air, yet such an incredibly critical force that holds ambitious endeavours together like gravity. 

Learnings about leadership are so embedded in the INSEAD experience that when I reflect back on my one-year MBA journey, I feel pleasantly surprised by the new leadership wisdom and capability I have developed.

In addition, I have already put many such lessons into practice in my role as Managing Director of Visionary Education, an all-volunteer-run charity that works to empower better quality rural education delivery in China. As a small and uniquely-focused charity operated entirely by volunteers, we are proud of our two flagship programmes, working with rural Chinese principals and children respectively – together impacting at least hundreds of children each year. Although our significant track record does mean high expectations for our team of just over 50 young volunteers. 

Through Visionary Education's two flagship programs, we empower at least hundreds of children each year
Through Visionary Education's two flagship programmes, we empower at least hundreds of children each year

For me, studying at INSEAD and working for Visionary Education at the same time was also a valuable experience allowing me to bring real-life questions into the classroom for deeper reflection and discussions, and practice implementing academic theories into practice to enhance my grasp of lessons.  

In particular, I have experienced more leadership confidence across the realm of relationship management, leading cultural change in an organisation, leadership communication in virtual environments, and potentially in crisis management situations, and designing new incentive structures. 

At INSEAD, we learnt quite a lot about stakeholder relationship management. In Organisational Behaviour classes, we’ve learnt about the importance of developing networks and engaging key supporters to help an organisation achieve higher impact. 

INSEAD Organizational Behaviour lesson - Leading organization cultural change is a big yet critical endeavor
INSEAD Organisational Behaviour lesson - Leading cultural change is a big yet critical endeavour

At Visionary Education, our team receives significant support from our regulator and our donors. I was once of the opinion that our regulator and donors were incredibly busy individuals and I should most probably only ‘bother’ them when I communicated successful news, critical breakthroughs or strategic re-direction of our projects. But learning about the importance of frequent communication and diverse ways of engagement prompted me to change my approach, and in a recent Visionary Education teambuilding event I invited our senior stakeholders to participate in a teambuilding day along with our volunteers. 

Our regulator, the China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO), and all our donors felt grateful to have received the invitation to our teambuilding day. Several senior leaders from our regulator and donors attended our volunteers’ teambuilding day personally. Not only did they deliver heartfelt keynote addresses on stage, they also interacted closely with our young volunteers. They left the event praising the energy, enthusiasm and passion of our young volunteers, and expressed their gratitude to be invited for this opportunity to know Visionary Education and our team much better. 

The occasion gave me much food for thought, especially in how our team could more frequently seek for guidance from our senior stakeholders, hence enabling our content to be more professional, well considered and scalable.  

My own experiences working with rural children in 2019
My own experiences working with rural children in 2019

Leading cultural change has been another big endeavour.

Having learnt in Organisational Behaviour about how difficult change can be even for some of the world’s biggest companies because of the difficulty to alter organisational inertia, the challenge was much more significant for a charity like ours. 

But having learnt from the tragic stories of organisations that started their adaptation only once the threat had arrived, such as the old camera companies during the transition to the digital film age, I reflected on the importance of early adaptation. In particular, at a time when education technology is rapidly growing, and becoming a trend making some incredibly high quality education material widely available and bringing down the costs of large-scale access to education, I felt that Visionary Education also needed to scale up our virtual education delivery to supplement the summer camps we deliver in rural schools. 

So, this year we promoted one volunteer to lead on our digital education content curation, and made her post a significant one in our new organisational structure. The virtual lesson delivery she is leading the team to curate will both be a backup plan if any crisis prevents us from travelling to our partner rural schools, as well as a smart extra education boost to help our volunteers continue to engage with rural children long after the summer camp finishes.  

Another critical lesson I felt grateful to have learnt is the importance of the communications strategy as a leader in times of crisis. The lesson came from the Advanced Communication and Leadership class taught by INSEAD professor Ian C. Woodward. The lesson helped me a lot when our team had to communicate an urgent plan to postpone a leadership training programme for rural principals from this February to August. We had to urgently make the decision after witnessing tightened COVID prevention restrictions just after Christmas, and felt that a postponement would guarantee the best certainty and help with logistics planning. 

Knowing that the decision would really be a disappointment to our partner rural principals, who would have no doubt been looking forward to their trip for months, clear and credible communication became even more important. Thankfully, we learnt from Advanced Communication and Leadership about the importance of a leader to acknowledge the problem, express empathy and explain the actions.  

Senior leaders from a number of our supporting organizations left our team-building event praising the energy, enthusiasm and passion of our young volunteers
Senior leaders from a number of our supporting organisations left our teambuilding event praising the energy, enthusiasm and passion of our young volunteers

I followed those steps dutifully, not only in communications with rural principals, but also with our volunteers’ team and all external stakeholders. Consequently, everyone was very understanding of the tough choice we had to make. Our regulator and donors felt that we’ve taken a responsible decision, which prioritised the health and wellbeing of our volunteers and rural principals. And our partner rural principals understood that we cared very much about providing them with the best educational experience, and are now looking forward to receiving it in August.   

Wisdom, inspirations and advice from our incredible supporters is helping our work to become more professional, well considered and scalable
Wisdom, inspirations and advice from our incredible supporters is helping our work to become more professional, well-considered and scalable

Looking back, I feel that as a leader at Visionary Education, I am not necessarily smarter in grasping technical skills compared to a year ago when I came to INSEAD. In actual fact, many of our volunteers in specialised roles (such as HR and finances) are much better in their field of focus than I would ever be. 

But I did develop leadership capability at INSEAD, and practiced putting this capability into practice, so I now feel much more confident as a leader.

This confidence comes from knowing what questions to ask and where to seek for answers. It also comes from knowing when to make a critical decision, even if faced with uncertainties. 

In our post-MBA careers, we will all emerge into leaders of change, and the lessons and experiences at INSEAD have built for us a solid foundation to support us as we travel forward on this journey.