INSEAD participant view
It’s the introspection it gives you. And that’s priceless.
Josep Sitjes Heras
Vice President of Commercial Excellence EMEA with Baxter International, Josep Sitjes, was in conversation with INSEAD’s Alex MacDougald about his experience of the Advanced Management Programme; a “pit stop” and a timely reminder that it takes more than good execution to be a truly effective leader.
According to INSEAD’s Professor Ian Woodward, there are three distinct modes of thinking that define senior leadership. And these modes – Woodward calls them altitudes – correspond to three different areas of focus.
At an altitude of 50,000 feet, leaders are seeing or thinking about the big picture; the entire panorama, and the possibilities, challenges and risks on the horizon. Drop down to 50 feet and the focus is much closer to the ground: the tactical steps, the planning, execution and implementation dynamics that constitute tactical thinking. At an altitude of 5 feet, the focal point becomes the self: the self-awareness or self-knowledge that drives the impetus to improve – to develop and grow as a leader and a person. All three modes of thinking are integral to effective leadership, says Woodward. And effective leaders need to be able to move seamlessly from altitude to altitude.
It’s a metaphor that resonates deeply with Josep Sitjes, Vice President of Commercial Excellence with Baxter International. Across much of his own leadership journey, he has poured his energy into doing – flying at the 50 feet level, he says, and focusing perhaps too exclusively on the granular demands of execution and short-term goals. A shift in gear and a chance to lead a completely new function within his organisation proved to be the motivation he needed to pause, take stock and rethink his leadership thinking and approach. It’s also what brought him to INSEAD and the Advanced Management Programme (AMP) – a programme designed and directed by Professor Ian Woodward.
“I joined Baxter in 2018 to build a Commercial Excellence organisation within the company for EMEA. It was an exciting opportunity to spearhead change at Baxter, and it saw us driving a slew of critical transformation projects – many of them around digital innovation – so there was a lot of change management involved. It felt like the right time for me to take some time out and think about what I wanted or needed to change within my own leadership.”
With full backing and sponsorship from senior management – a mindset, he says, that wholly characterises Baxter’s approach to learning as an organisation – Sitjes threw himself into the programme in 2020, taking time out from day-to-day responsibilities in the workplace for a month in order to optimise the benefits of the learning journey.
“There’s so much change happening and the world is evolving so fast, I had begun to understand how critical – how essential – it is to find new ways to think about leadership to approach your work.”
I also wanted to look outside of the healthcare and med-tech industry which can be quite narrow or endogamic, and to learn with and from other people facing similar challenges within different industries. It felt like a good moment to join the AMP.”
One of the principle draws of the INSEAD AMP, he says, was the fact that the programme goes well beyond the “technical knowledge skills of leadership.” Navigating the triple altitudes of strategic leadership, high-performance leadership and self-aware leadership was a challenge to step outside of the comfort zone of execution, and to fully explore what Sitjes describes as his “drivers” and “blockers;” the strengths and those areas for development that will undergird his personal and professional growth in the years to come. And he wasn’t alone in this motivation.
“All of us coming into the programme knew about the importance of stepping back to allow for self-reflection but none us had done this in a structured way before. Coming together has challenged us to step outside of our comfort zones and practice conscious leadership: to ask ourselves why we do certain things, why we react certain ways and how our emotions impact our teams.
“There’s a psychological safety within the programme from day one that builds an immediate sense of community and the honesty or vulnerability to put everything on the table, and to ask for – and give – open feedback. It’s amazing, actually, how quickly and how easily we have been able to build this spirit of sharing and honest. And to carry that back into the workplace, and see the reaction from our teams and colleagues.”
Progressing through the AMP experience, Sitjes has developed the discipline to stop and think consciously about the three altitudes of leadership; to invest more time, he says, in the strategic thinking and the self-reflection just requisite to effective leadership as execution.
“It’s been a huge discovery. To be a really good leader, you can’t just excel at one aspect. You need to integrate strategy, performance and self-awareness – navigating all three altitudes at all times. If you get trapped at 50 feet, you’re stuck. You won’t make the time for learning, adapting, growing or delivering real value both to your organisation and to your people. The programme has really connected the dots for me in this sense.”
And there’s been a “trickle down” effect that his team and colleagues have not only noticed but positively embraced.
Reflecting more his choices and behaviours, making the time for that reflection, and practicing conscious leadership has seen him step back more from the day-to-day, give greater autonomy to his team members, and make space for them too to grow.
“My team can see the evolution and I’m sharing the learning with them,” says Sitjes. “Learning is a gift to be shared with others.”
Sitjes believes that the AMP journey has reinforced what “good leadership” looks like. It has also highlighted aspects he hadn’t previously considered. A need to “grab people by the heart” to inspire them, he says. And the techniques to manage personal “drivers” and “blockers” to understand your personal response to stress, and how it can impact other people.
“I am a different person to the person I was a year ago. Starting the AMP in the midst of the pandemic was a huge challenge to shake things up – to stop and ask hard questions about who I am, where I want to be and how I can evolve as a leader and as a person.”
It has also afforded him a “pit stop.” A chance, he says, to pause and think and learn to bring the right amount of acceleration to himself and to others, at the right moment and in the right way.
“This has been a journey in enlightenment and self-discovery – whether the way you behave today as a leader is the right way and how you can continuously adapt and learn. Combine this with the strategic insights, and it is truly amazing. Above all, it’s about the introspection the experience gives you. And that’s priceless.”