INSEAD Participant Interview

Deepening confidence to lead at the highest levels: interview with a Challenge of Leadership past participant

Manon Janssen

CEO and Chair of the Board at Ecorys, The Netherlands

"It is an intense experience, so if you feel you’re ready to commit the time and energy to facing the depths of your soul, then don’t hesitate. It will change your life for the better. I don’t believe I would be where I am in my career today if I hadn’t attended the programme." says Manon Janssen, past participant of The Challenge of Leadership

What has been your career path so far?

I graduated in Brussels as a commercial engineer, then spent many years in senior marketing roles for global companies such as Procter & Gamble, Electrolux and Philips Lighting.
But the thread running through my professional life has always been a deep-seated desire to bring about positive change – to make a difference. That’s why I now focus on energy transition and climate change. I specialise in strategic thinking, innovation and complex stakeholder management, so I contribute in various ways to initiatives in this area. They might involve government, the private sector and universities.
This includes my current role as CEO and chair of the board at Ecorys, a leading international research and consultancy company based in the Netherlands. We help private and public leaders address social, environmental and economic challenges. A key part of that is developing and implementing strategies and assessing their impact.
I’m also one of five chairs of a new climate deal that we are preparing here in the Netherlands that aims to cut our country’s emissions by 49 per cent by 2030. At the same time, I hold several board positions as an independent director. One of these is at a Belgian private equity firm that focuses on supporting sustainable scale-ups.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

It can be very lonely being a CEO. Of course, you’re still part of a team, but at the top there’s a lack of people to confide in. Your teams look up to you for leadership. The expectation is that you will get through what is often an 80-hour working week in top form and keep moving the machinery along.
Also, when you work at a macro level as I do, some of the challenges you face can seem frustratingly intractable. It’s very important not to become cynical, but to keep your dreams fresh and remain optimistic that you really can bring about positive change.

What drew you to INSEAD’s The Challenge of Leadership programme?

At the time, I was at a career crossroads. I was on the senior leadership team of a large organisation, but felt disappointed in the quality of leadership there and was wondering whether to move on. I felt a great need to connect with senior peers and understand whether the issues I was facing were common ones. A colleague who knew my dilemma had attended the programme the year before and encouraged me to do the same.

What were your key takeaways from the programme?

The highlight for me was standing before my fellow participants – senior peers from all over the world, some of the best and brightest brains in my community – and sharing my personal experiences. Despite revealing what I consider to be my less than perfect side, which was pretty nerve-racking, nobody judged me. In fact, the feedback was extraordinarily positive. That was highly rewarding.
Listening to other people’s life stories and hearing the feedback, I also discovered that the challenges I was facing as a senior leader were shared – that I was not alone. That gave me the courage to take the plunge and change jobs, and I’ve never looked back.
Interestingly, half the class made big changes in their lives within six months of finishing the programme. The other half subsequently made changes as well, but over a longer period. Nobody stayed the same.

Has it helped you address the challenges that you mentioned above?

Yes. Because the modules are spaced out over a year, you get to know your fellow participants very well. I’m still in touch with a number of people – a supportive network of people in very senior phases of their careers who know my challenges as a professional and a person. I regard that as a great resource and a luxury.

What would you say was unique about it?

There’s a focus on uncovering the emotional side of your decision making – on both your conscious and unconscious behaviour. You’re offered a supportive space to consider how that affects the way you operate as a leader. Then you’re encouraged to think through in a professional way what you could do differently, define your career goals more clearly and decide how you could take action. I don’t think the opportunity to do all that exists anywhere else in quite the same way.

What would you say to someone who is thinking of enrolling on the programme?

It is an intense experience, so if you feel you’re ready to commit the time and energy to facing the depths of your soul, then don’t hesitate. It will change your life for the better. I don’t believe I would be where I am in my career today if I hadn’t attended the programme.
Find out more about The Challenge of Leadership, and how you can take on the confidence to make a change in the way you operate as a leader.


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