INSEAD participant view
Learning, when it’s truly effective, is like opening a window you didn’t know existed.
CEO of Albatross CX, Thibaut Fromageau, was in conversation with INSEAD’s Alex MacDougald. Here he talks about how the Transition to General Management programme has provided learnings in the form of a “weekly reality check” on his leadership practice.
Learning, when it’s truly effective, is like opening a window you didn’t know existed. And beyond that window, there’s a landscape full of opportunities.
It’s a compelling analogy. And it’s very much how Thibaut Fromageau sees his experience of INSEAD and the Transition to General Management Programme (TGM) CEO of Albatross CX, a global customer experience agency focused primarily on luxury brands, Thibaut has enjoyed a variegated career – one that has taken him across the globe and a breadth of roles; from business development in an IT firm to account management with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, to a succession of management positions within his current organisation. His has traditionally been an approach very much focused on “learning by doing.” When he joined Albatross CX in 2011, the company had a headcount of just 15 employees. Over the last decade, that has grown more than 10-fold to a total of 200 people. And as Thibaut’s own star has risen within Albatross CX, the learning by doing approach had begun to reach certain limits, he says.
“In July 2020, my then boss invited me to step up from Global VP to the CEO position, and the take the helm at Albatross CX as he and the board set about creating a worldwide group. I was given a challenge: to set an ambitious direction for the company and to navigate us safely to our goals. But I was also offered my choice of premium executive education programmes to accelerate my learning and bridge the gaps in my knowledge.”
INSEAD’s reputation, particularly in leadership within luxury industry, was a key deciding factor when it came to choosing the school, says Thibaut. But above all, it was the TGM programme itself that stood out very clearly from the crowd.
“I had learned by doing the job throughout my career, but being promoted to CEO within a very few years, I understood that what I needed at this point was to really expand my knowledge base. If I was going to be the kind of CEO that talks to marketing, sales or HR, of to talk to my CFO, I was also going to need to understand the balance sheet, the different functions and the language of busines. The TGM was a clear opportunity for me to start joining the dots and putting things in their place.”
But it wasn’t easy. Far from it, he says. The very breadth and depth that he was looking for, meant that from the word go, the programme took him far beyond his comfort zone. Not only did he now have to delve into the universe of day-to-day cross-functional management, there was also the more personal or psychological dimensions of leadership to grapple with – a holistic understanding of senior leadership spanning the technical and the interpersonal.
“From the get-go, the experience was as eye-opening as it was uncomfortable; as challenging as it was psychologically safe,” says Thibaut.
“I’ve worked with other countries and cultures and as a Frenchman, I’ve always gone to great lengths to avoid the typical ‘gallic arrogance,’” he adds with a laugh. “But the opening profiling sessions of the programme – the profiling tests and the intense work with my coach – was absolutely revelatory. It’s like having a mirror in front of you reflecting how you see yourself and how others see you.”
An “precise and important” immediate lesson was that while being humble is great in terms of building relationships, at the level of CEO, it’s also important to be bold – to be strong in personal vision and beliefs, and to leverage motivational skills to drive real engagement across the team.
“This programme shed amazing light on how you lead as a person and the way that you communicate with others. In the negotiation sessions, I learned about the four ways that people communicate and learn: through Rational & Facts, structure & details, emotion & question, visual & future. As an extreme storyteller, I learned that I’m likely to lose a proportion of my audience – the facts or structures people, say – in my presentations. It’s just hugely revealing. And on that basis, I’ve taken on board new techniques and advice to communicate more effectively.”
There is a pragmatism and a precision to this learning experience, says Thibaut, that carries across a breadth of topics and leadership concepts; an intense forward momentum in learning, that is always still anchored to the specifics of each individual’s work and personal development.
“And there’s a tremendous knowledge-sharing across what is really a very diverse cohort that I have found so helpful. I think that’s actually part of the magic of INSEAD,” he laughs.
Coming out of the programme, Thibaut has condensed the learnings and the knowledge into 21-page guide – a handbook that he keeps on his desk and that he consults on a daily basis. Among the chief takeaways in his handbook are value creation framework integrating the company, employees and customers, that he has found “brilliantly” effective, and critical insights around the benefits of incentivising behaviours to drive performance, rather than focusing overly on outcomes per se.
“There are aha moments that just live with you after the programme. For me perhaps one of the most compelling is the need to stop, and to make important time to speak to people, to listen to them and coach them where I can. I dedicate three to four hours of my agenda now to this, where before I would have felt guilty taking time away from execution. I think what the programme has taught me in this sense is that leadership is an activity in itself.”
The programme experience, the breadth and depth of the learning, the handbook that Thibaut has created himself, all contribute to a shift in thinking and priorities – gaining the discipline, he says, to focus on his plan and a vision as a function of managing his agenda – that have transformed his leadership.
“In leadership, it’s not just about the hard skills. I’ve learned it’s about slowing down, taking the time to stop and think, and to listen to colleagues – to see the changing landscape from different perspectives and through a different lens as much as possible. I constantly review my TGM handbook and use it as a weekly reality check and a reminder to execute my learning. INSEAD has given me this.”