This Alumna’s Tips for Radical Career Change and Making the Most out of the Executive MBA

Anna Lenaerts was a huge success as a 10-year engineering veteran at Shell. But she didn’t want to be stuck in a technical role for her entire career. She knew she needed an Executive MBA to help achieve her goals, but she also knew that in order to achieve them, she needed to be proactive. See how she went from oil pipelines to managing the hydrogen energy transition at a French multinational firm thanks to an EMBA.

Among the last tasks of the Executive MBA is completing the exit survey.

It is the moment fresh graduates of the intense, 15- to-18-month program share their experiences, thoughts, and advice for future EMBA participants.

Their comments — from the lengthiest and most long-winded to the bluntest and most brief — run the gamut of ideas. There is, however, a common thread in urging incoming participants to make the most of their time in the program. This is perhaps most vividly articulated by the following anonymous comment, from a particularly lyrical member of the outgoing EMBA Class of 2020:

“The school will provide you with the canvas, the tools to paint with, and how to paint. It’s up to you to take advantage of those resources and create your masterpiece.”

Anna Lenaerts, who graduated in 2018, is a prime example of this advice.

She had a highly successful and satisfying 10-year international career at Shell, the Dutch energy giant, where she held critical technical roles in the management of multi-billion-dollar oil and gas projects.

In the early years of her career, she had been able to rely solely on the competences and skills that she obtained during her studies in aeronautical engineering. As she rose through the ranks, however, she began to worry about being stuck in technical roles for life- unless she was proactive, of course.

Thanks to her own drive, determination, and taking full advantage of an EMBA opportunity which included extensive use of HEC’s Career Center, she’s gone from strength to strength. Today, she makes decisions about the future of clean mobility.

First as a Managing Director in the electric vehicle (EV) domain, specializing in investment, deployment and operation of EV infrastructures in Europe for Allego. She was responsible for the P&L (Profit and Loss) of France and South of Europe where she developed and grew the business.

Then, in the latest crescendo of her career transition, she accepted a job at Air Liquide, the French chemicals, healthcare, and engineering firm, where she is Director of Marketing and Business Support, Hydrogen Energy.

Having successfully complemented legacy technical skills with newly acquired business acumen made possible by her time at HEC Paris, she sat down with us to share some remarks about getting the most out of her EMBA experience.

Why did you choose the HEC Executive MBA?

Anna Lenaerts: In November 2015, the COP21 took place in Paris. At that same time, oil prices were getting lower and lower. As a result, in 2016 many projects at Shell were cancelled, which convinced me it was the right moment for me to shift towards a career involved in the energy transition. At the time, I was only working and living in Paris for 2 years, but I wanted to stay for personal reasons. At Shell, I was an engineer on Oil and Gas projects, and it would’ve been very difficult for me to move to a role that was less technical while also making the transition to new energies in for me a fairly new French ecosystem.

I thought, “so what now? How could I best prepare for a successful move?” I read about EMBA’s on Google and was convinced this would for me be the first step to take; then, I looked on LinkedIn and I found a lot of alumni in key companies in the energy sector from HEC. Today I can say that it was the right decision. 

What is the most important lesson you learned in your time at the Executive MBA?

AL: Firstly, I think that thanks to the EMBA, I am more confident on business topics, which I lacked as an engineer. This helps me to dare and gives me the confidence to take on new challenges that seem very difficult at first. For example, for my Capstone, I knocked on the door of Total. I was well prepared of course and listed my proposals, and eventually it worked out. I was really pleased to do my capstone on flexibility of energy, a novel and complex topic. Four years later, energy flexibility is one of the hottest and most relevant topics at my day-to-day work.

Secondly, the EMBA in many ways taught us to think broadly, keep your eyes open, connect with all kinds of different people, and stay connected with them. For example, it was through connecting with friends from family and discussing my professional wishes that I met the company in the EV mobility domain.

Thirdly, and from a more practical point of view, I learned to keep presentations for managers very simple, no matter how complicated the topic. Being part of the management team, we do not have much time, so I work a lot on being short and keeping it simple.

How did the Career Department at HEC help guide you to where you are today?

AL: I had several one-on-one sessions with them. They gave me exercises to get to know myself better based on what I did in the past and what I want to do now and in the future.

It became quickly clear that I wanted to stay in the energy domain, but that it wouldn’t be easy to move to new kinds of energy, or from a technical to a more business-focused role. They helped me realize I needed to put my situation in today’s context and to not over-estimate; that I should focus on quick wins by using my existing network which I could slowly expand with new connections. Step by step, I received new contacts, who then accepted to talk — some even proposed job offers –directly from the Career Department itself.

Through our sessions, we concluded that it was better to start with any first opportunity from which, while not a 100% fit, would be easier to explore further. They advised me to keep looking for new opportunities and helped me to orient myself and continued to put me in contact with interesting people. At the end, it was up to me to take action and to take it further, which was energy- and time-consuming — sometimes even feeling like a full time job — especially when discussing with multiple contacts at the same time.

What is one of your favorite memories from the EMBA?

AL: My trip to California for the Leading the Digital Transformation Specialization. It was an extraordinary experience with memories I think about regularly. I still wear the socks Slack gave us during our visit (smile).

I read every day the industry news coming out of California, which I can relate to more since I have been there in person. I see that EV companies continue to receive funding and keep investing, even though they are not profitable (yet). This is not really the case here in Europe; we are in many ways much more prudent about spending, which sometimes hampers new developments. Perhaps that is why one of our main competitors from the Netherlands announced that they will go public on the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange).

What would be your advice for today’s applicants to the program?

“You have to make the most out of it yourself. Other people – professors, peers, program advisers – can give you good advice, but you have to do the work.”

AL: You have to make the most out of it yourself. Other people – professors, peers, program advisers – can give you good advice, but you have to do the work. For instance, you have to find your Capstone and, depending on your situation, you have to find a job afterwards. I used the advice of the various useful information sessions at HEC (also for example on how to use LinkedIn, how to write a good CV, how to reflect and explore, etc.) but I spent much more time on the action part.  Not only did I have a plan A, but also a plan B, C, and D.

To conclude, always remember when you deliver good work, the work will come to you.

I am very happy to share with you that I have now moved on and taken on a new role in the hydrogen business at Air Liquide.

More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe, and nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris Executive MBA is ranked #1 in Europe and #3 in the world; click here to learn more. If you’re ready to take the next step in your EMBA journey, introduce yourself here