French hospitality giant Accor’s new VP of Sustainability and Transformation is Julie Allison, EMBA ’19. A Franco-British product of the University of Warwick and Sciences Po, the arc of her career has been crafted by more than a decade of highly diverse and unconventional leadership experience across the public and private sectors—and refined by her 18 months at the HEC Paris Executive MBA.
From the fast track to the faster track
In May, she was appointed to her new role after having served as Accor CEO Sebastien Bazin’s Chief of Staff for the just under two years since she graduated from HEC Paris. She characterizes her stint as Bazin’s right-hand woman, a role which requires 360-degree organizational vision and understanding, as “incredibly stimulating and demanding, like an EMBA after an EMBA, especially in the context of Covid-19. The hospitality sector took an unprecedented blow, deeply affecting the teams and the business model.”
It was, in many ways, the perfect transitional experience to prepare her for a role which sees her working alongside Brune Poirson, Accor’s Global Chief Sustainability Officer, helming complex sustainability and transformation projects across the group’s 5,100-plus hotels in 110 countries and 40 hospitality brands.
“My new role involves building up a vision for more sustainable hospitality, so that Accor hotels provide guests with environmentally friendlier stays,” she explains. “Accelerating our ecological transition involves getting buy-in from all of our stakeholders, which involves learning how to speak their language and understanding their concerns.”
Learning how to ask the right questions
Effortlessly transitioning between the languages spoken across business units is one of the many skills she picked up at the HEC Paris EMBA. Like many, she found her way to HEC Paris at a career crossroads: she wanted to benchmark herself in addition to seeing what else was out there.
“When you’re going back to education at that stage, you want to make sure it’s good, so excellence was an important criterion in my decision-making,” she explains.
“The overall recruitment process also pushed me to choose HEC, which had a much more professional approach than other schools.”
“The overall recruitment process also pushed me to choose HEC Paris, which had a much more professional approach than other schools,” she says. “The essays we had to write required a lot of time and energy, which I really enjoyed. It was quite stimulating, and it also helped me realize how much more I wanted to learn. I remember having a business case in front of a jury and the pleasure it was to prepare for it.”
Even after having passed the hurdle of the application process, the journey was just beginning. By her own admission, Julie says she initially arrived at HEC Paris with certain incorrect preconceived notions about what the program would mean for her.
“I came in [to HEC Paris] for the wrong reasons. It’s clear now that it’s not about what you know, but rather whether you are able to ask the right questions and identify the right people to answer them.”
“I came in for the wrong reasons, thinking it was possible to know everything, that I could eventually master every single item on the program. It’s clear now that it’s not about what you know, but rather whether you are able to ask the right questions and identify the right people to answer them.”
She expands on her point by explaining that “however good you try to be, you’re never going to be an expert in finance and marketing and education all at once. You’re not going to be a business expert on the finer points of every business angle you’re going to have to handle. It just doesn’t work like that.”
Making it work: the myths and realities of going back to school
Centering her focus and learning to asking the right questions of herself and her teams is among the myriad skills she picked up along her HEC journey. Another less-heralded competency she mastered was in calibrating her own response to one of the biggest myths about going back to school: that people think it is, as she puts it, “like getting extra time off from work.”
“When you think about it, juggling family life, the EMBA, and a job is not an easy task, but an absolutely necessary one to master. It only works if you question everything you know and identify ways for the pieces of the puzzle to match.”
“the EMBA is not a comfortable journey. It’s going to be uncomfortable”
Like so many others who have gone through the at-times-gruelling 18 months of an Executive MBA—“the EMBA is not a comfortable journey. It’s going to be uncomfortable” —she found that much of her motivation and support came from her family.
“You just go ahead with it and make it work,” she explains of the challenges involved in juggling her job, her family, and the rigors of the EMBA. “I would go to class, and whenever there wasn’t class, rush back home and kiss the kids. Letting the kids know what I was doing was important: I had to explain that learning is a lifelong process and that adults should go to school, too.”
Discomfort and growth
Conveniently, among the important lessons she learned at adult school was embracing the discomfort and subsequent growth of the EMBA journey. That, along with HEC’s expansive alumni network, began to pay quick and decisive dividends for her career.
“The school played a role in landing me my job as Chief of Staff for Sebastien Bazin.”
“HEC opened a lot of doors for me,” she explains of the program’s benefits, which she began to reap even before she graduated. “I actually met with Accor through an idea for my Capstone project. The school played a role in landing me my job as Chief of Staff for Sebastien Bazin by pushing me to explore new businesses and meet new people.”
Accor-ding to her…
Now, two years into her tenure at Accor, she is leaning into learnings from her professional career and the EMBA. Among them, of course, are the wisdom and the humility of knowing what you know, and what you don’t, and how to bridge the gap between the two.
“One of the key strengths that you get from the Program is being able to identify which areas are the ones in which you are missing expertise.”
“The first thing I do when organizing my team is making sure that I have the right experts on each topic,” she says. “One of the key strengths that you get from the Program is being able to identify which areas are the ones in which you are missing expertise; being humble about what you do is essential. I’m a very firm believer in servant leadership; as a manager and team leader, your role is to find out what your team needs, coordinate the work, and, of course, ask the right questions so they can come up with the best possible answer.”
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 has the best EMBA program in Europe and #3 in the world; click here to learn more.
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