INSEAD Participant Interview
Own your ambition
How the Women Leaders Programme spurs you to confront your major challenges and overcome them
Monique Slee-Valentijn, M.D.
Director of Specialised Elderly Care, Cordaan
“The programme challenges you to think hard about yourself and really explore the depths of personal insecurities as well as strengths. It's an intensely emotional week. There’s also this unique dynamic when you bring 40 different women together. You create a safe space in which to open yourself up to the learning.”
Monique, you have a consolidated career in medicine as a practitioner and academic teacher. What brought you to INSEAD?
I’m a qualified physician and I’ve worked as a medical specialist in hospitals for more than a decade. My current company is a provider of care to the elderly, the young and those with mental health issues, with revenues of €320m. For some time I have aspired to put my professional, academic and leadership strengths to more effective use within the organisation, helping to drive our strategic goals. A couple of years ago I made that transition – moving from research and practice to a board-level role. It was a good move for me. Taking a leadership programme from a recognised business school felt like a natural next step in consolidating the skills to do my job well and maximise my impact.
What sort of skills did you want to build on?
I would describe myself as a natural leader. Whenever I join a committee or a club, I typically take on a chairperson or leadership role – it’s a native competency. What I was looking for was a learning experience that would help me to take this to the next level, leading effective teams and following through on long-term business goals and strategies.
Why did you choose INSEAD’s Women Leaders Programme specifically?
Well, I’d heard a lot about INSEAD from friends who’d taken their MBAs at the school, and INSEAD has a strong reputation as Europe’s most prestigious business school. I’d previously taken a one-week course at Harvard Business School, and I wanted to have an experience as intense and transformative in the European context.
Choosing this programme in particular was a strategic choice for me. As a medical doctor moving into a management career I could have chosen to go down the learning path of filling the gaps in my knowledge or experience – I could have focused on finance, for instance. But I wanted to work on a personal strength that I already possessed, and that was leadership.
I’ve always been fascinated by how women develop as leaders and the barriers that we have to overcome in ourselves. I’m lucky that since I was very young, my mother always encouraged me to embrace my own leadership potential and reach for the very top. So this programme felt like the best fit to me. It is also very accessible in terms of format and length: 2–3 weeks of preparation by writing your Professional & Personal Identity Narrative and pre-programme readings, followed by a short but intense one-week immersion.
What expectations did you have of the programme?
I guess I went into the experience expecting to study cases and explore the research. As a scientist I’m accustomed to an evidence-based, analytical approach, and I expected the programme to deliver that. But the experience I had was so much more personal than anything I had anticipated. The programme challenges you to think hard about yourself and really explore the depths of personal insecurities as well as strengths. It’s an intensely emotional week. There’s also this unique dynamic when you bring 40 different women together. You create a safe space in which to open yourself up to the learning. The programme exceeded all of my expectations in this sense.
What elements of the programme made the greatest impression on you?
I think the answer to that is threefold.
The first breakthrough for me was coming to terms with the distinction between perception and reality. To see that the entire world is our playfield; there are no boundaries. The programme director, Jennifer Petriglieri, leads a session in which you are encouraged to identify and face up to what she calls your Big Bad Outcome or BBO: that thing that you’re so afraid of and that leads to certain ineffective repeated behaviour. It’s a very personal, very intense session and you’re challenged to delve deep within yourself. The learning, inevitably, is that your BBO is yourself. It’s your own fears or insecurities that hold you back, and that’s a very emotional discovery.
Then, I would highlight another element, which is quite hands on. We are each given a flipchart and asked to sketch out our lives. Again, the effect is intensely illuminating. Visualising where you stand in life and seeing your struggle at a glance – it’s nothing short of amazing.
And finally, I’d say that work we did with theatre school professionals on voice and body language was revelatory. For many of us, this was the first time we’d become acutely aware of our own presence and how we project to others. There were simply, extraordinarily practical takeaways here: how you shouldn’t inflect your voice into a question at the end of sentence, for instance. These are straightforward but really important tools you can use every day to maximise your assertiveness as a female leader.
In sum, I’d say that the programme delivered both the analytical, research-based piece and the personal development toolkit that empowers you to dig deeper and build your self-awareness.
What about your cohort of fellow participants? Was there a peer-learning aspect that you enjoyed?
Absolutely. Being part of a very diverse group of women from different nationalities and backgrounds, each of us facing the same challenges and having the same kinds of experience, is an empowering experience. There was so much laughter in and outside the class! There is plenty of time to reflect, enjoy the campus life, discuss and exchange ideas. This not only enriches the learning, it also means that you build deep connections and a strong support network.
There’s also a high degree of coaching built into the programme that helps you to unearth hidden strengths and weaknesses, and to develop the confidence to face up to personal challenges. This support – from your network and from the coaches – runs through the programme and continues after it ends. The programme encourages you to do a conference call for follow-up with your “buddy” from your coaching group, one week after returning. It was wonderful to talk to my buddy again after really having put the learning into practice and she had done the same. I set up a reunion a few months after with a smaller group, and we have a very stimulating and inspiring Whatsapp group since the programme. So you feel the momentum continue as you return to your day-to-day life.
And going back into your daily life, how do you feel the programme has impacted you as a leader?
I’ve learnt to own my ambition. And to stop apologising to myself for aspiring to be more. Instead of wondering if reaching for the top of the mountain is the wisest thing to do – having a family life also – I now sit with and embrace my ambition completely. The programme has helped me to let go of external expectations and to understand that the only thing holding me back is me, myself and I.
Since I left INSEAD, I’ve been promoted into a senior leadership role, and the programme has really helped me prepare to manage any stress that comes with this new job.
Would you recommend the Women Leaders Programme to another woman looking to transition into a more senior role or develop their leadership competencies?
I’d not only recommend the programme, I have already positively encouraged other women to take it. And if you are going to make the commitment, then I’d urge you to take it very seriously. The Women Leaders Programme is a challenge to open yourself up completely and dive in very deep. So it’s important to come into the experience well prepared emotionally and intellectually, and to really let it happen to you.