Executive Education

Getting My EMBA During COVID Transformed Me As a Leader — Here’s How

Hasan El Kojok remembers the first time he saw the masks that would come to typify the COVID era. One day in early 2020, he was at the airport in Paris, where he’d been staying for the first module of his EMBA program with HEC Paris.

Hasan, who lives and works in Saudi Arabia, was about to fly home to Riyadh when he was struck by the number of travelers wearing N95 masks.

“It was unusual, as if I was watching a movie,” he said. “Like, what’s going on and why are these people wearing masks? And then the pandemic started.”

For the next 15 months, with the support of HEC Paris to buoy them, Hasan and his cohort would pursue and complete their Executive MBA degrees against a backdrop unlike any other in modern history. For that reason, he believes his cohort is “a special one.” And the learnings he was able to glean, from other cohort members and from HEC’s “full transformation” approach to its EMBA program, are ones he’s been able to apply to his career as an executive already.

Countering uncertainty with education

Pursuing an EMBA while working full-time — at World Trade Center Saudi, where Hasan is Executive Manager and an executive board member — is challenging enough. Navigating a pandemic on doesn’t exactly simplify matters. But despite the journey being at times “hectic,” Hasan also believes the pandemic was a particularly good time to apply himself to an EMBA, and that COVID has driven home the importance of his degree all the more.

“With all the disruptions taking place across the whole world, we should be more equipped to face these uncertainties,” Hasan said. “We should always upgrade ourselves on the educational level, on the business level, and on the human level so that we can arrive at a level where we can manage, or at least comprehend and absorb, disruption.”

That, in part, is why Hasan wanted to pursue the entrepreneurship and innovation Specialization at HEC Paris, with additional focuses on negotiation and corporate impact. Entrepreneurship fed well into his existing experience, he says, as someone with a diversified career background who hasn’t followed a “strict, straight line.” Plus, the 360-degree view of organizational structure it affords promised to help him think yet-more holistically.

“It definitely opened a lot of directions to think holistically, as well as more in-depth, about any situation,” he said. “This started paying back positively at work. When issues at work would arise, they started to be addressed in a strategic and highly technical way implementing what has been gain as education throughout the EMBA journey.

Finding paths forward, collaboratively

Succeeding as an executive means staying nimble and open to alternatives. It also means embracing collaboration, particularly on a global scale. Hasan says his HEC Paris program facilitated those challenges well before the pandemic made them an even deeper necessity.

“The EMBA journey with HEC always had an emphasis on international exposure,” he said. “For that reason, you’ll have in the cohort probably more than 40 nationalities, from different cultures and different industries, studying together over the year and a half program.”

This spirit of cross-cultural collaboration benefited Hasan and his cohort members on a personal level, as they networked with executives in other markets abroad. But it also promises major benefits for the business environments they operate within, too.

“For industry diversification and knowledge, the HEC program helped a lot because most of the courses are based on study cases and group studies and group work,” he said. “We had in each and every module, or in each and every course, to meet with other people in the cohort and work as a team.”

And for other Middle East-based executives considering an EMBA degree, the amount of international collaboration and exposure afforded by the HEC Paris EMBA is an advantage that cannot be understated.

“I believe such standards of professionalism, agility, transparency, and innovation— this is what we need to implement in our area of the world,” he said. “We have seen a lot of countries start doing that, and they are well-achieving, pathfinders.”

Powering transformations, personally and professionally

Hasan completed his EMBA program with HEC in June of 2021. He is excited to apply his learnings and exposure in his executive director role at World Trade Center Saudi, but it’s not just the tactical learnings. It’s also about corporate structure and reorganization that will characterize this next career chapter. Through his EMBA experience, Hasan says he’s been transformed as a leader, too.

“My experience of the EMBA program and journey is that it’s a full transformation of the mindset, the characteristics and the behavioral skills of the human being,” he said. “That’s what I’ve seen in myself, to be honest.”

To illustrate his transformation, Hasan pointed to the results of his first leadership analysis, done by HEC at the start of the program. His results at the time? A somewhat overly assertive version of leadership, with words like “aggressive” and “bold” emphasized.

“They said, ‘These are your blind spots. We will help you overcome them, and we will help you comprehend yourself,’” Hasan recalled. “Before the course material, they started intentionally with us as people and as leaders. It’s a journey I would advise my kids, and everybody I care for, to do. And I’d especially advise them to do it with HEC Paris, because I’ve seen the amount of effort the team took under difficult circumstances for us to continue this journey.”

All in all, it’s this kind of versatility in the face of adversity that leaders, like the HEC Paris program heads and Hasan himself, need to succeed during COVID times — and beyond.

“I think in two or three generations, they’ll make case studies out of the human resistance and flexibility we have exercised to overcome this pandemic,” Hasan said.

“So always be creative. Always be flexible and agile and listen to others. And always believe in the team, because I couldn’t have succeeded without my cohort’s support, and I’m sure each and every one of my fellow colleagues would say the same.”

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About the Author

HEC Paris specializes in education and research in management sciences. As a leading academic institution in Europe and worldwide, HEC Paris offers a complete and unique range of education programs for students and executive education programs for leaders.