• Learning

Most of All a Learner

The leadership journey of emlyon Executive MBA participant Sophie Prévost


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Sophie Prévost’s top priority has always been to be true to herself while at the same time developing the skills to progress in her career and to be a better leader. She first considered taking an MBA while managing her first team in her 20s, when feeling the need to acquire the skill to inspire and empower others.

However, after eight years at Aster-Cephac including four as Head of the Medical Writing Department, in 2005 she was head-hunted by pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, before she was able to go for the MBA. Twelve years on Sophie is now Quality Risk Manager at Sanofi Pasteur, part of a team that analyses and manages risks for industrial operations at site and corporate level.

“I am a scientist and a bio-technologist – but most of all a learner” says Sophie, and it was with this in mind that she initially turned down the opportunity to take a more senior management position at Sanofi Pasteur. She felt she needed to learn more about herself and the business and to grow her leadership skills without taking a formal leadership role, so she worked for several years in “a normal job” as first a medical writer and then an operational training specialist and transversal project manager.

The epitome of a high-potential executive, by 2017 Sophie was ready to take a further step in her development and to apply for an Executive MBA – something she very much wanted to fund herself albeit with the blessing of her managers. She had two clear objectives: First, coming from an operational role, she wanted to gain a holistic understanding of business and how sustainable strategies are defined and to develop the skills to use this understanding as a leader. Secondly, she wanted the legitimacy to free-up her career choices and to extend her personal perspective.

The fact that Sophie was already based in the Lyon area in no way constrained by this in her choice of EMBA provider. She had been reading about the ‘Best MBA’ business schools since her twenties and, taking a forensic approach to making this important choice, she homed in on five leading schools to make detailed enquires, visits and/or attended webinars, etc.

Her choice of emlyon comes back to the idea that she wants above all to be true to herself. “I didn’t want [a school] to ‘format’ me, I want to be helped to grow,” she says.  Discussions with emlyon encouraged her to believe its methodology was on the same page. Furthermore, the transparency in how the school presented itself gave her confidence to, as she says, “be sure of the quality of knowledge provided… to understand what my investment was going to give me.” Now a few months into the 18-month program she has not been at all disappointed.

The catalyst that determined Sophie to gain deeper knowledge and up-grade her skills and propelled her to invest her own funds in an EMBA was the 2008/9 financial crisis and the period of gloom that followed it, when around the world many long-established companies were forced to retrench, close facilities, and make redundancies. Sophie felt there must be a more sustainable better way for businesses to conceive their strategies so as to avoid the consequence of rapid change and transformation on people.

In fact, Sanofi Pasteur responded in an exemplary way to these difficult years and developed several initiatives to better support employees and foster future leaders through internal mentorship programs and also the Big Opportunity Program – an initiative to revitalise the corporate culture and to: ‘Leverage the diversity of our employees to create innovation, engagement and operational excellence; to create connections and networks at all levels’. According to Sophie this “really gives hope about how we could all do a better tomorrow within our companies thanks to our humanly inspired leaders!”

The reputations of all large businesses, but pharmaceutical companies in particular, is built on a sense of their offering value to the community and in parallel to that their commitment to serving all of their stakeholders including their employees. When economic pressures and constant change cause people to suffer at work, and employees to see their bosses as detached hiring and firing automata rather than as mentors or sponsors of their careers, something has gone wrong.

Sophie wanted to understand “the true meaning of ‘the company’ and how taking risks, creating competitive advantage, and guaranteeing returns could be balanced with a more human approach.” As a project manager she understood the concept of ‘agility’ as a method applied to projects but believed the much-vaunted concept of the ‘agile manager’ was de-humanizing. Change is hard and humans have a limit to how much change they can take. As a leader from a generation that, unlike its predecessor, has been able to learn from the post-crisis era, Sophie wanted to arm herself to be able to enable a values-driven culture through her leadership.

The EMBA program has already given Sophie renewed energy at work, but she describes it as a marathon. She has had to give up swimming coaching and other activities and has to be extra well organized at work in order to leave on time to then put in two hours of EMBA work every evening – on top of the one day (8-10 hours) every weekend which she dedicates to the EMBA.

Two aspects of the program are proving important: First the sharing of ideas with emlyon faculty and particularly with the fifteen other participants – a group from a wide range of backgrounds, including people who think very differently to her, that has bonded around ‘rugby’ embracing the team spirit as the ‘The XV cohort’– a group she is “very proud of.”

Secondly, while an emphasis on softer interpersonal skills runs through the program, the new knowledge she is acquiring in finance, strategy management, scenario planning, collective intelligence and the like is transforming. A scientist who has no difficulty with mathematical formula, Sophie has found accounting and cost flow management to be a new language and ideas around value creation – merging and testing numbers to create viable strategies – hard to grasp but exciting.

In this early stage of the program the pace is fast and there is little time to integrate her learning into actually doing, but this will come later in the program when there will also have more time to reflect on the learning. The EMBA experience is already helping Sophie understand “where management decisions are coming from.” Which in turn is making her feel more confident, less anxious about change, and more relaxed about moving forward in her career as a manager.

Where will this take her? Sophie does not see herself as an entrepreneur in the innovative start-up sense, rather she aspires to be a better optimiser and organiser, a leader with intrapreneurial skills who can be an effective link between senior strategic management and effective implementation and operations. Strongly inspired by the Positive Leadership Institute, Sophie is committed to a business culture that takes CSR seriously and respects resources both environmental and human. She is one of a new generation of leaders that is acquiring the essential knowledge, skill, and outlook needed to succeed in an age of disruptive change.

Learn more about the emlyon Executive MBA here.

emlyon business school offers more than just training. It’s become a school for transformation.

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