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The path to leadership

John Molson MBA Q&A series
January 29, 2020
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By Chris Wise

John Molson MBA Q&A is a series of interview-style blogposts discussing the John Molson School of Business graduate programs experience from the perspective of current students, faculty and alumni.

In this edition, we meet Achille Ubalijoro, MBA ’03, along the path of continual learning and growth as a leader. Achille tells us about leading people and projects in various industries and cities across the globe.

Achille Ubalijoro headshot At the PMI-Montreal 40th anniversary event. Photo: www.marieandreeblais.com

Many John Molson students and applicants aspire to a career in management; what were some key hurdles you had to overcome to succeed as a leader?

In my career, the notion of leadership has evolved, as well as what it means to be a successful leader. I had the opportunity to work with leadership at all levels of organizations – large and small – beginning with a small start-up whose founders were three friends and a class mate. Although short lived (less than a year), I learned to create my own job description where none existed. This experience allowed me to develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

All my subsequent jobs were in large corporations, with defined hierarchies, cultures and systems that required a different skill set from the start-up culture. My entrepreneurial mindset gave me the capacity to be an intra-preneurial change agent within these complex systems, which meant challenging the status-quo when required and expanding my comfort zone. Interestingly, in the typically male-dominated industry of technology and engineering, I have had a number of female leaders. Myself coming from a minority background, this made for a great learning experience for my managers and me. Having the opportunity to interact and work with very diverse cultures and backgrounds has helped to define my leadership style. I have been able to hone my skills for connecting with and harnessing diversity in the workplace to navigate global organizations in ways that leveraged inter-connectedness above egos.

Furthermore, I have had to manage very technical teams with significantly more seniority than I held, as well as geographically dispersed teams from various disciplines, cultures and languages. The key lesson for me has been to strive to know myself better, in order to better know and serve my teams and clients, whatever the circumstances.

No one else can define you but you; that has served me well throughout my career, from Montreal to Shanghai, Tokyo to Perth, and among the various cities where I have worked. I have continuously re-examined myself to more effectively and strategically serve the systems I have worked within. As I progressed on myself as a mindful leader, I also mentored others to be stronger leaders themselves.

Self-care has been crucial to ensuring that I have the needed energy to work long hours in high-stress environments. From hot yoga to strength training, taking care of my body has helped me navigate my professional career with greater mindfulness.

How did the John Molson MBA help you along the way to reaching your career goals?

I started my MBA at a pivotal time in my career; I was starting to interact with senior executives, from department directors to the CIOs of large corporations. The courses and the interactions I had with my classmates forced me to look at the bigger picture of what we try to achieve in organisations, including what role we can play as individuals and groups to support positive outcomes for stakeholders.

One particular MBA course that was an eye opener for me was the Organizational Change and Development course given by Professor Steven Appelbaum. Especially when managing large programs, one realizes how technology alone cannot solve the complex business problems that companies and industries face today. As leaders, we have a key role to play as change enablers or, at least, to have a better understanding of what dimensions actually drive transformation in today’s fast-changing business context. We need to assess what parts of the system are on ‘autopilot’ and need greater consciousness on how to continuously self-correct and improve.

Working with senior executives challenged me to focus on outcomes and be my best self in all circumstances, as well as to recognize the limits in areas over which we have little control. In psychology, ‘intelligence’ includes the ability to benefit from experience, act purposefully, solve problems and adapt to new situations. As a project manager, constantly learning from past outcomes is key to continuous improvement. I have been able to harness emerging intelligence in the systems I worked in to navigate organizational uncertainty and ambiguity more effectively.

Whereas my engineering background – I have a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with a specialization in Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing from Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal – taught me to be a continuous and inquisitive learner, my MBA taught me that, at the end of the day, you get results through people and their ideas. Your ability to harness these powerful ingredients ultimately will determine your success at work and in life. Your capacity to influence others and raise collective intelligence is more important than being the smartest person in the room.

Achille Ubalijoro in Prague

Having worked in such a diverse set of positions, industries and places around the world, some might say that the world is your oyster. What factors do you look for when taking on a new position?

I started my career with some sense of where I wanted to be in 5, 10, 20 years. I grew up on three continents – when I left Rwanda at 6 years old up to now – and sought an international component to my work. Starting at Bombardier in 1995, I worked with teams from Canada, the US and Northern Ireland. Then, at SITA, I worked with teams based in Madrid, Montreal and Munich (to name but a few). More recently, I worked and lived in Shanghai, Tokyo and Perth.

I love what I do! Everyday is a new challenge/opportunity to learn and apply my skills. My work has necessitated me being away from home quite a bit but, with each new opportunity, my circle of contacts, influence, impact and friends has expanded across the globe and across diverse disciplines – from aerospace to automotive, marketing to consumer goods and, now, mining.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a co-founder of Power Canada Africa, how do you see the current state and potential of business networks between Africa and Africans studying or having studied in the Montreal / Canadian ecosystem?

I see more and more that the African diaspora has its eyes set back on the continent. Some of us have returned and are building great businesses using skills acquired from careers in ‘the West’ and, increasingly, Asia.

By 2035, half of the global workforce will be in Africa. By 2050, Africa’s population is projected to reach 2.6 billion. The vision of Power Canada Africa is to enable better connections between Africa and Canada to help create jobs and prosperity for this growing African population. We seek to leverage global interconnectedness, create economic growth and sustainably minimize impacts on the planet.

We in the diaspora see Africa as being in a position where China was a few decades ago; we are bullish about the continent and its prospects and want our respective second homes and native countries to benefit from development and growth, all while contributing to a more sustainable planet.

Those of us that have studied in Canada feel that Canadian universities and the country more generally remains ‘on the sidelines’ of what is happening in Africa. We want to change that by rekindling our network of contacts who greatly enjoyed their Canadian experience – who have gone back to Africa or stayed in Canada – and harness the great opportunity of Africa’s renaissance.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” We recognize the challenges and negative views that are still prevalent in Canadian society relating to Africa and Africans, but we feel this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our generation to change things. In many ways, we are blessed with strong African roots that have been transplanted to a fertile Canadian and Quebec land. We can now return the favour to both societies. This is the challenge that I have given to my classmates and colleagues that went through the Canadian university system, as well as my alma maters, JMSB and Polytechnique Montreal.

Ubalijoro - REPAF 2015 Professional of the Year Winning the Professional of the Year Award at the African Professionals Network (REPAF) Gala in 2015. Photo: www.laurenamayifuila.com

You are clearly a very driven person – what are your goals for the next five years?

Career wise, I cherish professional freedom – deciding who I work for, what I do, and when – and want to continue with my consulting business. I strive to help my customers succeed one project/program at a time and to expand into new disciplines and geographies.

My siblings and I were raised with a strong sense of duty to society. I want to make a greater impact in Africa, via Power Canada Africa and other initiatives I have undertaken, whether it’s investing in an AI start-up in Rwanda (Shaka AI), supporting a charity in my home village of Rutongo (IBABA), or looking at areas where my expertise can be leveraged for the mutual benefit of myself and my partners.

I would love to see, in my lifetime, the consolidation of all my technological knowledge, capacity to lead complex teams and desire to be of service to the greater good in order to build strong African technological companies. I want these companies to tackle the wicked problems of the 21st century like climate change, sustainable renewable energy, food security, inequities in access to digital knowledge and finance. We can transform the lives of millions with business models that incorporate the African culture of human solidarity (‘ubuntu’), while addressing the challenges of wealth and income inequality.  

Lastly, networking is another passion of mine. By making meaningful connections with people who share a common vision, we have started to lay the foundation for the future we want for ourselves and the next generation.

 

Achille Ubalijoro (B.Eng, ITIL, PMP, MBA, PGMP) has a broad experience having worked across various industries including. Aerospace, Automotive, Consumer Goods, Mining, Engineering and Construction, Marketing and Higher education.

He is currently President and Project Executive Consultant at Kabera Consulting Inc., as well as being Senior Program Release Manager at Dassault Systemes. Having lived in Rwanda, Uganda, US, France, Canada, China and Japan, Achille is currently living in Perth, Australia…until his next assignment!

For more information on the John Molson MBA, visit our website. Then connect with a recruiter to arrange a one-to-one meeting or participate in one of our many online information sessions.

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