Sebastian Spencer already had an impressive resumé when he decided to take part in an Executive MBA programme at Vlerick. A specialist medical doctor, university lecturer and instructor, he had just transitioned from a Head of Emergency Medicine position to become the Medical Director of a 500-bed hospital in Brussels.
living the executive mba
Sebastian says that working in groups provided focus and accountability – and that he enjoyed achieving things together. In fact, his experience of Vlerick profoundly changed his thinking about business altogether.
He says: “I decided an MBA would help me gain a broader understanding of the functioning of the hospital. I did not want to be intimidated by subjects like finance, HR and logistics.
“But also, as a doctor, I didn’t want to be put in a little box. I wanted to send out a very clear message that I can understand other stuff. I wanted to have legitimacy and to be heard on topics other than medicine.”
So in 2015, Sebastian opted for our Executive MBA Combi Format – studying on Fridays and Saturdays for 18 months. “It is challenging to accommodate,” he says, “And it was only possible for me because of the excellent support of the Vlerick team.”
He says: “I had a view of business that it was about combat – about people eating each other! But at Vlerick, you learn it’s more about working together and everyone getting something.
“Even in negotiations, you learn that it’s not about leaving the other party empty-handed. It’s about reaching a point where everyone gains. It’s good to see business in this way.”
“Something else I discovered is what a beautiful city Ghent is. I think it is now my favourite Belgian city.”
learning on the executive mba
Sebastian’s Knowledge-in-action project came at a perfect time. While he was on the Executive MBA, he moved to a different role – partly as a result of talking through his career aspirations and options with our careers team.
During his MBA, he became the Medical Director for Médecins Sans Frontières at its headquarters in Brussels.
He said: “My Knowledge-in-action project was to carry out an analysis of the department I had just started leading. I realised in the analysis that our units were a bit frozen. People did not feel like they had autonomy – and there were middle managers who were frustrated and feeling burned out. We needed to make changes to be able to achieve our operational ambitions.
“Because I did the analysis with expert support and guidance from incredible faculty, it was the best possible start to my new role.
“The support I had was above and beyond. I did not expect the big investment faculty made in the project. I have done a lot of studies in my career and nothing matched the support I had from Vlerick. They knew my analysis because they read it, re-read it, made suggestions, challenged my thinking. They were excellent.”
Another highlight of Sebastian’s Executive MBA was taking part in the international trip to South Africa.
He says: “We visited Khayelitsha – a township near Cape Town. I knew Khayelitsha very well because we work there to tackle diseases like TB and HIV – and a lot of the research outcomes from Khayelitsha have been implemented in other places in Africa.
“But on this trip, we were meeting entrepreneurs and young people who were achieving great things. We met a guy who set up a business called Ministry of Coffee. He was inspirational.”
making the leap
Sebastian says his Executive MBA has had a profound impact on his life and career. He says: “At the beginning, I thought the MBA would fill gaps – teaching you things you didn’t already know. And to an extent this is true. However, what has been more valuable to me is understanding the talents I already have and becoming even better at these things.
“I’ve gained a quiet confidence – and an understanding that I don’t have to be in control of everything and involved in everything. It is OK for me to step back and allow people to do their job while I take a more strategic perspective.”
This has been invaluable during the Covid pandemic, says Sebastian. Instead of being the “face” of the Covid response, he has instead concentrated on building a team dynamic that provides evidence-based information and guidance to MSF project teams around the world. This empowers local teams to design and contextualize their own response.
So what is the next step for Sebastian? “My next step can be anything I make it!” he says. “What my experience at Vlerick has taught me is that I have the power to choose what I will do. It has given me freedom.
“Before, my path as a doctor was mapped out – you become a Medical Director and then maybe a General Director. Now I know I have the freedom to do anything. So maybe I will launch my own NGO. Anything is possible. Vlerick has given me access to the field of infinite possibilities.”