“Internal combustion engines and personal vehicles are going to be greatly scaled back in the next decade,” says engineer Zdravka Bondider (EMBA ’22). She’s talking about the state of the only industry she’s ever known.
“In fact, many countries in Europe are taking steps to exit internal combustion engines altogether.”
It’s a heady statement coming from someone whose charmed career course has been plotted chiefly alongside the fortunes of the internal combustion engine. She is, in many ways, the consummate veteran automotive engineer; her resumé glitters with an array of technically complex leadership roles in Japan, France, and Germany.
“In Japan, I was technical lead, customer interface for Toyota. Then I moved to Germany, working on hybrid powertrains [a combination of internal combustion and electrical engines] for McLaren,” she explains.
And yet, “in 2020, I decided I needed to reskill.”
Curious, maybe, that a professional with such coveted, in-demand professional nous should feel the need to reskill. Indeed, even given her own prognosis of a gradual European phasing-out of the venerable internal combustion engine, her technical specialty in developing low-emissions engine systems could well future-proof her career if she had decided to stand pat.
“I liked the approach at HEC Paris: leadership skills are developed from the beginning of the program and throughout the modules. It’s a long-lasting process, of course; it’s not like you take a course on leadership and you become a super-talented leader.”
Still, when she explains her reasoning, her urge to reskill makes sense.
“It had been several years that I had been thinking about an MBA,” she says, “but there was always something in my life that prevented me from doing it. Even though I lived in many places around the world, I felt that I needed something more: something to express my potential, to boost my impact, and to handle upcoming changes in mobility. I had great experience, and international exposure. I needed time to take a step back for a more global view on company operations.”
Hungry for the challenge and with her mind made up, the naturalized Frenchwoman of Bulgarian origin put her plans into motion. After some research, she settled on the HEC Paris Executive MBA as the program that would best marry her prodigious technical skillset with a leadership sheen worthy of her ambitions.
Having recently participated in HEC Paris’ largest-ever graduation ceremony, she explains the reasoning of how The Financial Times’s top ranked EMBA program from 2021 best fit her professional aspirations.
Q: You are an automotive engineer with an in-demand skillset. Why did an EMBA from HEC Paris make sense to you?
Zdravka Bondidier: For me, there were two things that differentiated the HEC Paris Executive MBA:
First of all was the strong sense of community with the worldwide HEC Paris network. It was important to me to be a part of something like that.
Second was the leadership development program.
This is because in my career of having worked with teams in multiple countries, I have had to get used to different leadership cultures. Depending on locational and organizational matrix, that can be difficult, especially when you have team members spread out around the world. These experiences have shown me that there are a lot of ways to achieve things with people who are not my direct subordinates, and who do not answer directly to my office.
These challenges were always interesting and enjoyable for me at work. But before my EMBA, I used to approach it more intuitively.
As one of my criteria for searching for EMBA programs, I wanted to build something more methodological, with a framework, to acquire leadership fundamentals.
I liked the approach at HEC Paris: leadership skills are developed from the beginning of the program and throughout the modules. It’s a long-lasting process, of course; it’s not like you take a course on leadership and you become a super-talented leader. Still, for me, the program’s technique in building awareness of yourself and of others really worked. And that the leadership part for me works on different levels.
When I know what I want to do, I put in all my energy to do it. For me, I didn’t even consider other schools. It was HEC Paris or nothing.
Why did you select the track that you did? How did its format suit you most in balancing your career, family life, and studies?
ZD: I chose the January (modular) track. For me, it was important to be able to focus all my energy on the modules, with enough time to focus on work and family in between. So, the modular format was the ideal way for me to balance the three. Being based in Stuttgart, I can’t imagine travelling every two weekends to Paris, given work and family commitments.
Of course, it mainly works because I had good support at home from my husband and kids. They understood my goal, and they were really supportive, both during the modules and when I was at home and had to work on assignments.
What is the most important lesson you took from your time at HEC Executive MBA?
ZD: What was remarkable for me was Jeremy Ghez’s course in Business Environment and his business and career metaphor derived from Alice in Wonderland: The Red Queen.
It holds that if you want to stay in place and keep your current position, you need to run fast. If you want to move up, you need to run twice as fast. This metaphor works both for businesses as a whole and equally also for individuals; on a personal level, you have to answer the question of whether you will leverage your capacity to evolve, to create, and to innovate. Will you commit your own resources to become a front runner instead of being dragged behind by unforeseen changes?
Pursuing an EMBA is an example of being proactive, of running twice as fast.
With this metaphor, I felt challenged and motivated from the beginning of the program. Over the course of the year, all our professors challenged us on what we wanted to be and how we want to achieve that. This is the strength of HEC Paris: creating this auspicious environment, making us ask questions about ourselves and how we want to evolve.
What’s a classroom experience that sticks with you today?
ZD: At work, my motivation always comes from people I meet and the exchanges I have with them. For me, the diversity in the cohort and the presence of so many nationalities were a prerequisite for the EMBA.
During group work, it was amazing to see how on a common problem can be solved with a thousand different solution based on everyone’s backgrounds. The power of the collective thinking and debating brings creativity to ideation and solutions that no individual could reach.
These different perspectives and points of view were fascinating. Not being with people from your industry is valuable. Seeing things through different lenses was challenging but satisfying.
“What I took away was that when it’s your organization and you are 100% focused on the transformation itself, you might think that things are running and organized well. But people with an outside perspective see things differently, and they might see blind spots that you don’t.”
The most impactful moment was when I brought in a real case study from my work. In my division, we’re orchestrating transformation by changing business models. I wanted to see how my classmates from other sectors and industries would approach the problem and to see what their solutions would be. The exercise was to evaluate what the changes to be done should be, and how to approach the organizational transformation itself.
My peers came up with such interesting ideas.
What I took away was that when it’s your organization and you are 100% focused on the transformation itself, you might think that things are running and organized well. But people with an outside perspective see things differently, and they might see blind spots that you don’t.
Is there anything– a theory, an experience, an insight– that you learned during your time at the EMBA you can pinpoint that you use in your career today?
ZD: There’s a framework we had in business strategy which is related to business innovation: the Odyssey 3.14, from Professor Laurence Lehmann-Ortega. In short, it’s a ground-up approach to be profitable in a sustainable way– not only for the shareholders and investors but for your employees and community.
It’s one of the frameworks I use now at work.
What is your favorite memory from the program?
ZD: One of my favorite memories of the entire programs was the Outdoor Leadership seminar.
I was surprised at my resistance through these difficult weather conditions to stay motivated. It’s one of my favorite memories because you’re put into action as a leader. The principle is that in each exercise, each group participant is appointed a team leader. The leader needs to organize the team and to achieve certain goals within a given timeframe.
The group dynamic changes from chaos to a well-oiled machine, and in every instance each group member has their place. In the working world, you rarely have real-time feedback of what went well and what didn’t.
In the Leadership Seminar exercises, you have immediate feedback from your peers and from the coach. You have time to reflect on what you did well.
More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe. Nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris offers the best EMBA program in the world; click here to learn more.
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