Meet IE Business School’s MBA Class Of 2019

Niels Huybrechts

IE Business School

“Psychologist with a passion for multicultural leadership stuck in a businessman’s body.”

Hometown: Brussels, Belgium

Fun Fact About Yourself: I can quote The Simpsons to an almost encyclopedic degree.

Undergraduate School and Major:  KU Leuven (Belgium) – Master in Science (Industrial & Organizational Psychology)

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: PricewaterhouseCoopers – Senior Consultant (People & Organization)

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: As a consultant, I helped a major multinational company transform its HR strategy and organization. This translated itself into a year-long transformation program that involved dealing with group dynamics, culture, power and politics, and decision-making processes across the organization. The program was not only important because of its strategic impact, but it held a personal significance as I developed it together with the client in an autonomous way, from its inception to its execution. During this year, sweat, tears, and laughs abounded… All in all, it felt like my little baby and seeing it all come together was one of my most rewarding professional experiences.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? Surprising. It’s never a dull day with Section 1. The group contains an astonishing amount of diversity in terms of professional backgrounds and personal styles. My classmates are an amazing bunch of people that combine insights across numerous industries, razor-sharp wit and a whole bunch of heart. Just when you think you have both the group and its individuals figured out, they do or say something amazing to surprise you. Whether it’s coming up with a completely radical way to solve a business case, cracking (in)appropriate jokes, or showing authentic vulnerability and humanity. I’ve experienced some truly magical moments since I’ve gotten to know them.

Aside from your classmates, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? There’s a lot I could say here about academic curriculum, networking in compelling industries, opportunity for internships or exchange programs…But the factor that really set IE Business School apart for me, were its authenticity and its soul. I can hear you thinking, a corporation with a soul? With this, I mean a business school who has its values figured out, carries humanity at the heart of it, and actually behaves according to their leaflet. Whenever I exchanged emails with IE’s faculty staff, talked to current students during campus visits, or casually stalked its alumni on LinkedIn, I was reminded of their innovative mindset and their focus and respect for diversity. They matched very closely with the values I hold in my own life, and after a while it just clicked. I knew I had to be there.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? That is a difficult one to answer as IE sports over a 100 student clubs that you can join. Both professionally and personally, a great number of clubs appeal to me: technology, Big Data, consulting, China, gastronomy, sailing. However, as a Belgian, we can get particularly passionate (some say rowdy) about our beers (tripels, geuze, pils). At the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, Madrid is an absolutely amazing city, but finding a good beer has proven a difficult endeavor. So color me surprised when I found out that IE Business School has a craft beer (brewing) club! With their help I’m hoping to enrich my knowledge and taste of Spanish beer culture.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? A combination of drivers spurred me to pursue an MBA. Professionally, as a consultant for PwC, I regularly worked with and presented to senior leadership positions about a variety of organizational issues.  These experiences, made me realize that (eventually) I wanted to be in a similar position of strategizing, decision-making and managing people as they were. While I could have certainly attained this through industry experience or further consulting, I wanted to fast-forward my career a bit. Patience has never been my strong suit.

A second aspect is more related to my personal background. I have a multinational heritage, with Belgian and Chinese roots and consider both cultures as part of my identity. To integrate both parts in my career as well, I realized I needed a way to bridge these continents in a professional way. As such, I started looking into European MBA’s with long exchange programs to quality Asian business schools (or vice versa).

How did you decide if an MBA was worth the investment? In the end, an MBA forms you to be a leader. That is not to say you need an MBA to lead. God knows there are many titans of industry or successful entrepreneurs without MBA’s. But an MBA – at the right school, and with the right focus – will open doors, provide you with a general management background, and broaden your understanding of professional diversity. Or that’s what I’m hoping to get out of it anyway.

You can only decide if an MBA is worth it by setting targets. You need to know why you want to move industries, sectors, or locations and how an MBA will help you to do that. It doesn’t have to be a meticulous five-year plan, but you should have a general idea. From there, it’s a question of doing your financial due diligence (Google search: MBA *business school* ROI industry position) and seeing how what works for you. Whether it’s through grants or loans, you can almost always make it work. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s an expensive endeavor after all is said-and-done, especially including all the travels and parties that your section will organize (budgeting will be a key skill).

While everyone’s experience will be different, I did all the above, and so far it’s been more than worth it.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? I applied to most top-ranked European Business Schools that provided long exchange programs to Asia and matched on a high-level with my personal values: HEC, INSEAD, London Business School, Judge, and obviously IE Business School.

How did you determine your fit at various schools? My major learnings from the process were the following: be honest with yourself and don’t follow the rankings too precisely.

Personally, I first went to MBA discovery events to get a lay of the land: what business schools were out there, what type of programs did they utilize, and which exchange programs or internships did they offer. After that, I did some serious soul-searching and introspection on what I wanted to attain through such a program. I had to go to the drawing table multiple times. Often, the answers that first came to mind were the ones drilled into my head by years of professional experience and socializing. To really figure out what I was after, I had to scrap these and go for the second, or even third ideas.

The deep-dive research and campus visits came next. Business school websites & brochures often present convincing sales pitches on their values, program, alumni, … But the only way of testing it is by experiencing it yourself. In the end, what convinced me about IE was the personal touch, conviction and spirit of the replies I received of their current student, as well as the helpfulness of their alumni. Many, way more than I expected, wrote me back and were interested in helping me succeed in my search.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? I can still remember coming out of a terribly frustrating and disappointing meeting after a 14 hour ‘shift’. It was one of the most intense consulting projects I had done, my battery was spent, and the coming day seemed like Mount Everest. One of my direct managers, an older guy named Michel, called me into his office.

What you have to know about Michel is that we already had worked on a number of projects together. During these assignments, I had experienced him as an exceptional strategist who takes an integrated view on organizations. His credo was that sustainable impact and change require considering the entire company, from people to processes, and not solely the financial aspects.

However, I had never known him to be a very emotional guy. So coming into his office, I was expecting some typical status update or additional late-night deliverable. Instead, he asked me how it went, listened to my story, and gave me some words of wisdom. He reminded me of the strength of being kind to yourself, and how a healthy dose of persistence and optimism, sprinkled with humour, pays off more than trying to force a situation. The compassion and insight he showed me in that moment, made a tremendous impact in who I wanted to become as a professional.

What do you plan to do after you graduate?  I’d love to take a gap year to travel (I’ve always wanted to travel through Asia with nothing else than my backpack and my bike). (Un)fortunately, I have an entire MBA program worth of costs and loans to reimburse. As such, I plan to visit some of my section mates in their home countries, as well as go back home and spend some time with family and friends. I imagine professional life will come calling quickly afterwards.

Where do you see yourself in five years? While the crystal ball still looks rather cloudy (we’re only at the start of the program), I could see myself in one of Asia’s economic hubs (Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong) in five years’ time. At that point, I would have completed a management traineeship program at a multinational innovative company. One of my key drivers is combining my passion for leadership with my Belgo-Chinese background. I have always been kind of a tech geek and would love undertaking things that haven’t been tried before, so working with companies like Amazon, Microsoft or Google would be an absolute delight. In that half decade, I would have taken the time to fully absorb the local economy, and try out a number of managerial positions across different business functions. In turn, I would like to move back to Europe at some point, and utilize this background to find opportunities to do business between both continents.

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