When Jean Marc Bolinger entered executive education he was surprised by how much he thought he knew… but didn’t. The impact of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme, he says, is as great “as the openness of your mind ”
All Jean Marc Bolinger remembers ever wanting to be is a businessman, though his Catholic parents (a social worker/sculptor father and a schoolteacher/politician mother) role-modelled a non-corporate lifestyle.
He confesses that it made him a bit of a “black sheep” in the family but it was a guilty secret that he couldn’t keep under wraps. He recalls coming back from a school ski trip at the age of 11 with more money than he left with, having sold various items to his friends. He even bought a present for his mother with the proceeds.
By the age of 18 Jean Marc was studying for a business degree at HEC Lausanne and running a company called USP with a friend, first importing American beachwear and later developing snowboarding goods. They expanded the business across Europe and merged with another company, operating for nine years before selling the business to the sports equipment and fashion brand Head.
It didn’t make Jean Marc rich but he’d had a great introduction to business life. His next jobs saw him shaping restructures at two companies before joining his current company, Eden Springs, in 2006.
Eden Springs was then in a joint venture with the global food company Danone and the plan was to grow the business aggressively through more M&A. Jean Marc contributed to a dozen acquisitions within nine years in his markets, expanding the range from just water coolers to include water filtration and coffee.
The JV with Danone ended in 2007 and after a period of being backed by private equity it is now part of the US$4 billion beverage company, Cott Corporation. Today Eden has 3,000 employees and is vertically integrated with its own production, distribution, technicians, sales team and service support.
Throughout his career Jean Marc, who lives in Edinburgh (soon to be Barcelona) with his German-born wife Sally and two children, Adam, eight, and Nola, five, had enjoyed the essence of business – “working with people to try to achieve something together and either initiating change or coping with change”. But by 2012, at the age of 41 and managing director of Eden Springs’ UK operations, he felt the need for a refresh. “The mid-life crisis might be a bit of a joke,” he says, “but as time goes by you realise that things are changing fast around you, your kids are growing, you start to work with much younger people… and they challenge you. You realise that you have to continue to be relevant and it would be unbelievably arrogant to think that you will remain relevant without unlearning… and relearning.”
Jean Marc researched the Senior Executive Programme (SEP) at London Business School. He persuaded his company to give him a month off and paid for the programme himself. His son said he thought it was “cool” that his Dad was going back to school, and Jean Marc embraced the homework. For a couple of months he worked through the preparatory reading list, spending one or two hours a day refreshing basic finance concepts and reading articles written by faculty along with cases, so that he felt ready to absorb as much as possible from the programme.
“You have to be in the right frame of mind to receive this stuff because it is profound,” explains Jean Marc. “And it really is the whole process. I don’t think you could achieve the same impact by reading a book, or having a 360-degree feedback session; it comes from being with those people for a full month.
“You are in a peer group of bright people and clearly even brighter faculty and it’s a great environment to realise that a lot of stuff you thought you knew is a bit useless. So it’s a bit tectonic in that sense and the more you open your mind, the more it will sink in. I think everyone on my programme was affected. I don’t think you can walk away and pretend nothing’s happened.
“The challenge then is how you deal with all this when you return to your normal life. You need to structure it, know what you might apply immediately and what you can keep for the future.”
Jean Marc singles out Professor Rob Goffee’s teaching in particular as “mind-blowing”. As well as his ideas about diversity, building teams and leading clever people, Jean Marc was struck by his concept of authentic leadership. He has taken on board the approach of “be yourself, more, with skills”, saying that he is no longer “one me in private and one me in my work life; these became very much the same thing”.
Jean Marc says he now has a concept of bringing out the parts of his personality needed for different circumstances – whether it’s dealing with a demanding customer, managing an employee issue or working with peers on strategy.
“In a funny way it helps you let go,” he says, “so that you can focus on the important stuff. I will be myself and people will engage with all my strengths and weaknesses, rather than trying to hide weaknesses.”
For six months after the programme, Jean Marc reviewed the topics at weekends. And he’s tried to continue the learning experience by joining the global community of business leaders, the Young Presidents’ Organisation.
He credits the SEP with accelerating his career – he’s changed his role four times since 2012 and is now chief commercial officer for the group.
He’s also felt an impact on how he relates to his team. “I think I’m more relaxed with my co-workers now,” he says. “We joke about the ‘new me’, but beyond that, I think that they see a change for the better. I’m determined to make a positive impact on the people around me and to inspire them to achieve greater things. I’m also ready to grasp responsibility for my organisation and help to take it forward.”
All of which has made him feel happier and brought him back to the strong moral code of his roots. “My parents spent their lives helping others and I do believe I help others – just in a different way with my co-workers,” he says.
“The beauty for me is that I just had to reconnect more deeply with my upbringing – it was always there and I just had to combine my focus on business with being true to my roots at the same time.”