Elke Robbrecht : Break through the glass ceiling and be the actor of your future.
“I was stuck in an office programming!”
Everyone needs it. “It’s a sector that’s constantly evolving”, Elke Robbrecht explains. “At the start of my career, electricity was mainly produced in large gas, nuclear and coal power plants. Today, we are seeing a triple energy (r)evolution: a decarbonisation of the sector, with renewable energies being developed at unprecedented speed; decentralisation with a movement towards smaller, more local electricity generators that are closer to people; growing digitisation both in terms of technology and in services to customers.” All of which Elke Robbrecht finds thrilling – having successfully combined her technical knowledge and her commercial and financial expertise to lend support to this rapidly changing sector
Elke Robbrecht’s final year dissertation focused on software used at Tractebel. And once she had graduated, the company took her on. But after a year or two she began to feel bored.
“My male colleagues were being sent out in the field but I was stuck in an office doing programming! I wanted to experience other things.
So Elke then thought about doing an MBA, but her superiors believed that “real engineers don’t need that!” And when a female colleague told her that it had taken ten years before she was sent on a mission, it was the final straw: “If you can’t flourish and be supported in what you do, you must have the courage to leave to do what you want to do! So I took a career break to do my MBA.”
My personal challenge was to go from the deep expertise in one field to a more transversal profile, to bridge functional differences and find the right balance between operational and strategic focus, pragmatism and creativity and ultimately, to lead teams towards creating sustainable value for our clients and society. The mentoring I received as part of my MBA training enabled me to make this transition a reality.
At the SBS-EM, Elke Robbrecht found the economics, managerial accounting and innovation courses particularly stimulating. “It’s the concrete and inventive side of things that I find interesting: identifying problems, finding solutions and seeing their impact in real life.” At the SBS-EM, she also rediscovered the multicultural environment she so much enjoyed. “Discovering the different backgrounds of the other students really opened my eyes to the many different career opportunities. Above all, the MBA enabled me to make the professional leap I needed, to move from a technical profession to a commercial and financial career…” Interestingly, when Elke went back to see her former employer she was greeted by a young man from HR who told her “you need three things to become a manager with us: be an engineer, have grey hair and… be a man.” So when General Electric offered me the post I’d applied for I didn’t hesitate for a second!”
It was through an SBS-EM Alumni that Elke was able to find an opportunity that better fitted her expectations. In 2007, she sent her CV to an employee at Electrabel who passed it around. Bingo! The company was indeed looking for someone to carry out a market analysis for Italy. “My future manager had a meeting in the Italian capital, so I jumped on a plane and met him at Rome airport. And that’s where I did my job interview!”
She was given the post of market analyst and returned to Brussels. After the Italian market, Bulgaria and Romania soon followed. It was a very busy time. “Sometimes, I was travelling so much that I barely had time to return to Brussels to touch base before setting off again!”
“In europe, we analyse and prepare a great deal upstream…
In china, people go largely on instinct, on feeling”
Before long, Suez, which owns Electrabel, merged with Gaz de France (GDF). A new post was created for the new group in Paris: electricity production controller covering Europe and all technologies (nuclear, gas, wind, coal turbines, etc). “There were financial controllers in each country but the data reported needed to be consolidated and its reliability checked, key technical and financial performance indicators had to be defined and harmonised so that the system could be rolled out across Europe.
It was a genuinely cross-functional task. The technical skills I had acquired during my studies and with General Electric and the financial knowledge I had gained from my MBA were all coming together at last. It was the perfect post for entering the world of finance and my managers gave me a lot of support.”
Elke Robbrecht thrived in this post, but in 2012 the European energy market went into decline; a number of the group’s plants had to be closed down. There were painful decisions… In 2014, the CEO of GDF Suez’s brand new Business Unit (BU) offered her the post of CFO in Beijing. “It was like a start-up in a market with enormous potential, but difficult to penetrate. It was a project that attracted me straight away. After so many years within the group, I wanted to be closer to the operational side of things, where the real business happens. Working in a BU you find out about the operational and administrative difficulties particular to each country, but you also experience moments of collective euphoria when you win a new project!”
Today, after a 4-year enriching experience in Asia, Elke has moved back to Europe where she holds the Group Chief Performance Officer position at Engie headquarters in Paris.