2018 Best EMBAs: Hans-Martin Hellebrand, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Hans-Martin Hellebrand

Kellogg-WHU Executive MBA (joint program by WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management & Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University)

“Energetic and positive, naturally curious and enthusiastic; result-focused, yet a team player who is people-oriented and humorous.”

Age: 37

Hometown: 63150 Bad Homburg, Germany

Family Members: Julia (wife), Alexander (son, 6y) and Florian (son, 4y)

Fun fact about yourself: I decided and moved within one month with my wife and my two kids to Silicon Valley WITHOUT anyone of us having ever been to the United States before.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Bielefeld (Germany), Diploma in Business Administration with specialization in Controlling, Finance and IT

Where are you currently working? Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of eprimo GmbH (energy retail company with approx. 1 bn$ revenue). Furthermore, Non-Executive Board Member of the US-based electromobility start-up Oxygen Initiative

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • Valedictorian in my initial business administration studies at the University of Bielefeld in 2006 (honors degree: 1.2).
  • Winner of the “CIO Executive Award 2016” of the magazines “Computerwoche” & “CIO-Magazin” in cooperation with WHU.
  • Mentor of various young-talents primary within innogy group (eprimo’s shareholder) as well as in Kienbaum’s “Women into Leadership” initiative.
  • Author of various articles and publications on finance-, controlling- and innovation-topics.
  • Speaker and lecturer on innovation/entrepreneurship at WHU various programs and University of St. Gallen.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? CIO-Executive Award 2016 – This was an appreciation of my professional work from a “market perspective” and thus in relation to the achievements of other managers in this field working for companies throughout Germany, opposed to an appreciation within the own company

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Setting up an innovation HUB and starting my own business in Silicon Valley – I’m most proud of this achievement, as I had to leave my comfort zone (and by that achieve sustainable growth) on several levels:

1.) Personally, I had to start a new life with my family in a faraway country, that I have never been to before. This experience made me much more relaxed and secure with regard to “daily life challenges“

2.) Professionally, I mastered a highly ambitious task that I had no experience in (setting up a lab, partnering with start-ups, etc.) by learning to rely on my experiences and skills from past jobs, by proactively acquiring new knowledge, and by trying new learning-strategies and approaches as well as by just trying out new things.

Overall, these experiences not only increased my self-confidence and security with regard to changes and new challenges, but also made me a stronger leader by signaling and passing on these results (explicitly as well as implicitly) to team-members.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Prof. Christoph Hienerth (WHU) and Prof. Tim Calkins (Kellogg School of Management – Northwestern University)

Both professors have a unique and extremely rich expertise in their field (Entrepreneurship (Christoph) and Marketing (Tim). But what really separates them from other great professors is their approach to teach this knowledge in a very impactful and thus sustainable way: Christoph by guiding students through a business model sprint in which various ideation and start-up methodologies have to be applied to get to a very concrete result (viable business idea); Tim, by using a simulation tool (MarkStrat) to show the impacts of strategies and managerial decisions on a company in a playful but highly realistic game-setting.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it?

My favorite class was the “Applied Entrepreneurship” class of Prof. Christoph Hienerth. My biggest learning in this class was that creativity and design-skills are not given, but can be learned (in a very fast way). Deriving a new business idea thus can be achieved by following a structured process and is not based on one great idea or luck. Furthermore, this class highlighted that working on one topic with a cross-functional team (and thus members with completely different skills) leads to incredible results that would not have been achievable in a “single-minded” setting.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program?I choose the program of WHU & Kellogg due to various reasons:

1.) The high-class, award-winning faculty known for teaching meaningful business knowledge in an impactful and sustainable way.

2.) The Kellogg Network, which has allowed for studying at various different high-class universities around the world and building a global network of high-caliber peers.

3.) The Kellogg “lifelong learning” program, which has allowed me to take classes and stay up-to-date with regard to latest business topics even after finishing the EMBA program.

4.) The highly-diverse cohort composition.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? The people:

  1. My EMBA peers coming from different countries and having completely diverse private and professional-backgrounds. This variety was the basis for many extremely valuable discussions and talks and associated learnings and self-reflections that fostered my personal growth.
  2. The faculty. The knowledge of the professors and their way of teaching in a small group allowed me to gain enormous knowledge on business relevant topics (theoretically) and – even more importantly – helped me to apply this knowledge in business situations and thus in becoming a more impactful leader.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? With regard to content, my biggest learning was in the “Digital Leadership Class” in Schulich School of Business (Toronto), regarding how to transform an existing business in a structured approach into a digital company. I applied this framework to support the transformation journey of my current company from a classical energy retailer to an innovative, highly digitized energy company.

With regard to the way of working, the team work sessions with changing team compositions helped me to strengthen my team alignment capabilities. This allowed me, in my current role, to set up cross-functional teams for varying business challenges, aligning them fast and coaching them to achieve outstanding results. By supporting the formation of high-performing teams, I formed a completely new way of working in my company.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? The first 1 1/2 years of the program were extremely challenging as I had to balance three very demanding parts of my life: 1.) I was CFO/COO of a Silicon Valley start-up implying the need to master fast-changing and highly-time-pressured tasks; 2.) I was father of two small kids and tried to spend significant quality time with them; 3.) I had primarily modules in Germany, implying the loss of two days just for traveling as well as a 9-hour time-difference and a resulting jetlag, that made the very intense full-day modules even more stressful.

Two things were key for me to master this: First, I had to obtain a very focused and reflected way of working: clear prioritization of topics, allocation of time to each topic, and then be fully in the moment to get the maximum out of it instead of the too often witnessed “firefighting” and “juggling everything in parallel” attitude.

Secondly, it was crucial that my beloved wife Julia strongly supported me during the EMBA time by not only being very understanding but also by filling the gaps I had to leave in various aspects of our private life. I’m deeply grateful for her backing me up.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Be fully committed, as the more you give, the more you get!

Be prepared to spend time, energy, and attention to the program, because this is the key to growth. If you don’t invest, you might get a title – but you won’t achieve sustainable personal growth! If you only want a title, there are easier ways!

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is that taking part in an executive MBA program is similar to any studies you may have had after school with regard to feeling as pupil, the pressure of having to learn, and test fright.

The truth is you are not the insecure, immature student anymore! By having gained a certain experience and by having achieved a certain track record, you come back to school with a more relaxed, more interested mindset (compared to a “I have to pass these studies” attitude). This allows for a completely different and thus much deeper learning experience. Furthermore, you are able to transfer the learning for your specific professional challenges, bringing a completely new spin to the learning experience as well as the learning benefit compared to earlier studies.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Even though I have invested a lot of time, energy and attention to my EMBA studies, I would have loved to participate in even more (voluntary) classes especially at other foreign partner universities within the Kellogg network. But it’s crucial to balance all aspects of life and thus make compromises!

Luckily, the Kellogg’s lifelong learning option allows me to participate in these courses also after my studies, which was also a key reason for me when deciding for Kellogg.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Clearly, it is David Kilburn. Besides his great courage, open-mindedness and willingness to learn – which was basis for mastering several secondments throughout the world (Germany, Japan) – I admire David first and foremost for his efforts, energy and actions, to make this world a better place!! When being in India on a business trip, David was deeply moved by the overall poverty, but especially the conditions which the poorest of the poorest faced – namely orphans. Having seen this, David decided to act and make a change by founding and from this moment on managing an Indian orphanage in parallel to his demanding job (www.hoina.org). I highly admire David’s values, his will and his energy to make this happen and I am still today deeply moved when writing or telling this story.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I witnessed the 2-year transformation of a close colleague when going through this program from a task-oriented business man to a strong and highly capable leader.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…an incomplete manager with many blind spots on the content-side as well as with regard to interpersonal topics.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My personal mission is to support people to get in the driver seats of their live and help them steer to happiness, however this may be individually defined.

This personal goal in mind, I want to form a company in which employees can grow by working on an offering that is meaningful to the world and makes a difference to personal lives of many people. This idea has always been my guiding star (e.g. when founding a start-up that aimed for building a platform to give control about personal data back to the people or when now leading a company that focuses on making green energy affordable for everyone).

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? The guiding principle of my professional life: “Vision without execution is hallucination” (Thomas Edison)

Favorite book: The Circle 

Favorite movie or television show: Inception and House of Cards

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

Scuba diving with sharks

Traveling through rural Africa

What made Hans-Martin such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Teaching in the field of entrepreneurship, the term poets and quants to me is an essential concept about important yet diverse personal characteristics needed to change the world. In my twenty-year career as a teacher, I have never come across an individual who can singularly represent the concept of poets and quants, until now. In my course Applied Entrepreneurship, in which teams perform a sprint format to develop and test new business models, I found that Hans-Martin Hellebrand is that person. He is a rare exception, certainly one of a kind.

Hans-Martin has worked in top management positions in very diverse functional areas such as CIO, CFO, and as a founder. Furthermore, he has led innovation and controlling departments. In the course and in my personal contact with him, I became aware of his broad yet deep functional expertise, which is exceptional. He is very analytic and quantitative, and at the same time creative and inspiring. He has the ability to come up with a great vision and has the skills to execute it.

Hans-Martin has not only worked for one of the largest German energy providers (RWE), but has also founded, scaled and successfully exited a tech-startup in Silicon Valley! Both settings and organizations are extremely different – the German energy market is probably one of the most challenging and dynamic fields for companies in the world today due to environmental and regulatory changes. Silicon Valley is undoubtedly the most dynamic and challenging place to be for founders. Building a startup is a major achievement. Hans-Martin is one of the rare individuals I have met so far who is able to perform both in the world of large corporates, as well as in the startup world. What a span of abilities that is!

Last, but not least, Hans-Martin is the most likeable, trustworthy, supportive, and also humorous person you could imagine! He positively influenced his team in situations of stress and despair and was able to improve their motivation and output. I would start a business with him any time. Summarizing, Hans-Martin, for me, is poets and quants in one person!”

Christoph Hienerth

Chair of Entrepreneurship and New Business Development

Professor of Entrepreneruship and Innovation

WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management




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