Christèle Galpin: Navigating life, learning and career

As part of the PWN Global series of ‘Inspirational Stories’ that feature on our website and in our newsletters, we interviewed Christèle Galpin, a fearless alumnus of the INSEAD Executive Master in Change.

To find out more about the INSEAD Executive Master in Change, click here.

Christèle Galpin, INSEAD Master of Change Alumnus

Christèle, thanks for taking the time to tell us your inspiring story. Let’s start with your career:

The first year of my career was unpaid, yet critical from a human standpoint. Having graduated from an MBA programme at Lehigh University in 1994, and despite interesting job offers from several US firms, I made the decision to return to my home in Normandy, France, to take care of my 20-year-old sister whose glioblastoma had entered its terminal phase. I still consider this first year, post-MBA, as impactful on my career - not because it delayed my official working time, but because it gave me an important lesson in life: taking care of people. 

My sister entered the palliative stage of her care at home, and I took care of her, day and night, until she passed away in 1995. 

As I started to reconstruct my life, I took a sales manager role at DBX, a subsidiary of the Éditions Lefèvre, in Lyon, France. After 6 months, I realised that neither the role nor the company were aligned with my expectations.  Needless to say, I left the role. 

INSEAD Executive Master in Change

In 1997 I relocated to Paris with a short-term contract as a Business Analyst for Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). My role was to launch a program of purchasing rationalization in logistics and professional training, while setting up strategic relationships with selected partners in Europe. Having successfully demonstrated my impact, I was awarded a permanent employment contract and relocated shortly after to Princeton, NJ, in the US, to pursue a similar role at a global level. 

Over the next 10 years, I was consistently promoted into stretch assignments that gave me the opportunity to work on a truly international basis, in many continents, and hone my skills as a supply chain leader with direct access to the CEO on some strategic parts of my roles. 

After 11 years in the US, I returned once more to Europe – this time I was in Rome, Italy, as part of the very restricted divestiture team of a first manufacturing plant and then as the Site Supply Chain director on a second manufacturing plant. 

After 3 years in Italy, I decided to return to France so my daughters could experience living in France before graduating high school. I was responsible for distribution in the EMEA and Asia Pacific region before focusing on the EMEA and Indian operations while taking on the lead on the Global Logistics strategy at a worldwide level in 2014. 

I’m proud to say that while in this role, I launched and led the global transformation of BMS distribution with the initiative called the Global Network Implementation (GNI).

After closing the European offices in Paris and the possibility to relocate to the US, I wanted to offer geographical stability to my family and decided to remain in France. 

In parallel to my professional contributions, I have enjoyed being active in a pro-bono capacity, working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). I worked on the design phase of a study on the distribution of modern contraceptives in Sub-Sahara Africa, a project which afforded me the opportunity to join the United Nations in Rome, Italy, within the World Food Programme (WFP) and a mandate to implement the designed strategy. 

While based in Paris and commuting to Rome when needed, I worked as a Senior Supply Chain consultant on the ground in Ghana, Tanzania, and Senegal, where I relentlessly made sure the public sector and the private sector communicated and collaborated, effectively. 

Were you close to burn out? What gave you the energy to drive yourself so hard ?

At this stage, I was exhausted from my ‘day-job’ and astonished by the immense dedication of the WFP team in the United Nations. 

I finally made a decision to stop working in 2018, with the intention to focus on my family and my INSEAD studies. 

In 2019, I created Alfalfaz, a coaching and consulting practice with Olivier Guerinault, and took on the President position. 

Olivier and I had been working together at BMS, so we made a conscious decision to continue to work together as we are complementary in terms of leadership. 

In setting up my own business, I was committed to realigning my professional path with my personal values, specifically to spend 20% of my working time on a pro-bono activity. In 2020, to make good on my pro-bono promise, I designed a coaching program for individuals and groups for the Philanthro-Lab, the first European philanthropic incubator. In parallel with my private executive coaching clients, I currently coach at this social impact incubator. 

Your professional experience is incredible! What a career? Can you share a little about your educational background? 

After a 2-year HEC preparatory program, I obtained in 1993 a DESCAF (French equivalent of a BA in Business Administration) at ESC Poitiers. Courtesy of a collaboration with Nene College in the UK and Sherbrooke University in Canada during my DESCAF, I majored in International Management. 

I completed my MBA at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, US, in 1994. 

I loved learning! I have this insatiable thirst to discover and be curious. I continuously pursued learning opportunities: a certificate in Supply Chain Leadership at Penn State University in 2000; a certificate in Management Skills from the American Management Association in 2004; the CSCP (Certified Supply Chain Professional) title from APICS in 2008; a certificate in Leadership for Women from Columbia University Graduate School of Business in 2016. 

In 2017, I joined INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, and graduated two years later with a Master’s in Coaching and Consulting for Change, integrating the psychology of organisations. Impassioned by this new topic, I obtained my Leadership Coaching Certification from the Tavistock Institute in London in 2020, and trained in group coaching with the Kets de Vries Institute (KDVI), in London in 2021. 

Finally, I also added two advanced certificates from the Pacifica Graduate Institute, in California, US to my qualification list: Ecopsychology, and Ecotherapy. 

Climate, biodiversity, and social justice represent strategic pillars that I integrate into my coaching services, at both individual and group levels. My current study time is spent deepening my knowledge on Dr. Carl Jung’s work with Laurence Barrett on how Jungian theory can be bought into modern-day coaching and consultancy practises.

 Why did you choose to study with INSEAD for your executive education? 

I had been leading global transformations for years at BMS (Bristol-Myers Squibb) and had assessed that there was always “something” that would slow down or derail the well-thought-of strategies and implementation plans. Specifically, I was running a global transformation project and, despite extensive stakeholder management, it was suffering from misalignment of some functions that were resisting the new business model. 

It was clear to me that “something” did not belong to the rational sphere, and I needed new insights. As I searched for change management education, I liked that the INSEAD Executive Master of Coaching and Consulting for Change (EMCCC) had a specific angle that other programs did not have: the psychodynamic lens approaching individuals, teams, and organisations. 

I was intrigued by the 15 essays that were required to submit the application: the 15 prompt questions were enticing me to think deeper, to reflect on my life, and to go below the surface. Adding to the attractive curriculum, there were many other factors that swayed me, including: the fact that INSEAD was a globally renowned graduate school with an exceptional international faculty; the EMCCC studying language was English; the 36-participant cohort was very international and diversified; and the residential modules in Fontainebleau, near the forest. 

INSEAD did not disappoint. It lived up to all my expectations. 

Listening to your story so far, I can see that you have had your fair share of successes and challenges. What are the ones that have been most transformative, and how did you manage them? 

In my career, challenges fall into two buckets: personal and professional. 

On the personal side, my choice to care for my sister delayed the start of my career, which was not always seen positively by recruiters. Whenever I sensed judgment from potential recruiters on this point, I would stop the interaction and move on. I saw their judgemental behaviour as a sign of a toxic company culture, which was a ‘no go’ for me. 

I was proud of having been able to take care of my sister. 

As I reflect, I can say that my personal challenges have been numerous: Getting pregnant as I started a new job in a new country; being diagnosed with stage 2 lymphoma when my daughters were 1 and 3 year-olds; getting divorced, leaving me with two young children to care for, alone in another foreign country. From each of these challenges, I learned a lot, however, the one that springs most to mind is my first pregnancy. 

My pregnancies were amazing times for me as my husband and I were told we could not have children together. I first become pregnant two months after arriving in the US, far away from my family or any familiar support network. I was having to prove my worth in this new professional environment, and my husband did not have a work permit. I was so afraid my high-stake projects would be taken away from me that I hid my pregnancy until my 5th month. 

I went on to work until my due date, in order to keep my 6-week ‘short-term disability leave’ (Yes! That’s what it’s called in the US) for after my daughter’s birth. My delivery was by an urgent C-section, so I went back to work after 8 weeks. 

My husband had finally received a sponsor for his work permit, and I was able to I juggle my professional responsibilities and my new role as a mum, in an unknown country. Two years later, my second daughter was born, also by C-section. On the run up to the delivery, I was in the middle of an important discussion regarding a promotion. My management reassured me that my short-term absence would have no impact on the selection process. When I returned to work, I was disappointed to see that the role had been fulfilled by an external male candidate, a friend of my manager. 

I decided to apply for another position in a different department. I do not do well with injustice!

On the professional side, I have often been the only woman “at the table”. For years, I have suppressed my empathic tendency to melt into my male working environment. I even adopted the dress code: trousers became my daily uniform, even if I could not resist the colourful Hermès scarves or coloured nail polish as a touch of feminine resistance. Whenever I approached the topic of soft skills with some of my male counterparts, I was inevitably told to ‘leave aside these feminine tendencies’… as if they were witchcraft. 

I decided to adopt my own feminine leadership style with my own team. Since performance was continuously delivered, I was able to develop my own leadership style, showing that it was impactful. My main success was being able to live my life as I wished, despite the many challenges I already described. 

I was able to be an active, engaged mother for my children while handling more and more responsibilities, and extensive professional travel thanks to an on-site BMS day-care facility where I was based in NJ, then before-school programs at my daughters’ schools as well as a nanny in my home for after school hours. 

Achieving balance in creating a rich personal life and rewarding professional life has been my main success. 

When BMS started to enter the field of biologics medicine (large molecules as opposed to small molecules), I was one of the first to understand the complex nature of this new form of R&D process developing and manufacturing that required a whole new approach to sourcing and planning at BMS. Through extensive collaboration with R&D, I set up the first biologics planning team with new probability-based processes circling back to SAP processes. This new approach was the data and insight basis for the successful negotiation of a USD 250-million CMO contract in South Korea and the building of a brand new BMS facility near Boston, US. 

One of my latest achievements at BMS was to close the European office in Paris according to my management timing and my own approach. I have chosen to hold continuous courageous conversations along the entire process with all the impacted employees as well as provide human connections and support during the 8 months between the legal information session and the ending of the employment contracts. 

This took the form of on-site weekly meditation sessions, off-site cooking classes, on-site mandala colouring to destress, off-site sports outings, unscheduled and scheduled talking circles in the on-site kitchen/lounge, celebrations of personal life moments, quarterly off-site diners, etc. This personalized support made the difficult situation less tough to go through as we shared our emotions, our stress and expectations. 

From the potential impact on my career, the most difficult decision was probably when I had to deliver a critical Biologics Supply Chain presentation to the president of the Technical Operations. My team and I had been preparing for this extensive and high-stake presentation for many weeks. One hour before the start time of the meeting, my daughter’s day-care centre called me to inform me that my daughter had a fever and that I had to promptly come to pick her up. 

I managed to assign my leading role to someone in my team and went to inform the president of the reason for my absence. He fully supported my decision. While preparing to leave, I inform the head of Global Supply Chain, a woman and mother, about my need to pick up my daughter and the fact that the president was informed. She then told me that this was unacceptable and would be considered professional misconduct, implying I could lose my job. She ordered me to attend the meeting. I respectfully told her that I was going to go pick up my daughter, that the project was in good hands (nobody is irreplaceable in my mind), and that there would be no impact on the project. While I knew I was doing the right thing by prioritizing my daughter’s health, it was difficult to believe a higher-ranked mother would say such words to another working mother. I did not lose my job but this leader resented me until she left the company

You recently became a member of PWN. What do you hope to gain from your membership and what do you hope to contribute? 

I was awarded a membership with PWN, thanks to the global corporate partnership arrangement that INSEAD has with PWN Global. I am looking forward to joining events and discussions soon. 

With such stellar career progression, I’m curious to know what networks are you part of and how have they played a role in your professional growth and development? 

While in the US, I used to belong to the Healthcare Businesswomen Association (HBA) which enabled me to gather with healthcare women leaders over themes one evening held on the premises of healthcare providers every semester.

I personally did not pursue this avenue for too long as it was not open to fully integrating men in the mission. I strongly believe we can only advance women’s professional paths together, men and women. 

Since my INSEAD graduation, I am an active member of the INSEAD alumni network. Since my partner graduated from HEC, I also benefit from his network. The INSEAD and HEC alumni networks provide us with many opportunities to join online or in-person programs, conferences, or social networking events, according to our aspirations and interests. These networks allow me to continue to learn from diverse sources, stay connected to the current issues in the workplace and meet new interested people. When you run your own business, it is important to maintain an outside view. 

You have clearly become a master juggler where work/life balance is concerned. How do you manage it all? 

I always give priority to my personal life: my professional life will tend to take more time and space than I want, while my personal life does not usually impinge on my professional activities. 

To counterbalance this natural tendency, I prioritize my personal life. Concretely, it means taking the time at the beginning of the calendar year to schedule personal life moments throughout the upcoming year, and most importantly, to make sure they are respected. 

It also means getting organised, and communicating your planned absences, so you can really benefit from your personal time: setting up vacation messages; alerting people we are not available over a defined period of time; not responding to emails during that time (even if sometimes we check emails as business owners are rarely off the hook completely). 

In a discussion with my late grandmother (who had worked before having children), I was sharing a difficult professional situation. She told me that at her age (in her 80s) she does not remember all the names of the very important people she worked with, but she does remember all the important life moments that she missed. Her wisdom, my sister’s cancer, and my own cancer, are good reminders that personal life is the basis of life. 

How does that play out for me? I tend to have flexible agendas – never filling them more than 80% (as opposed to my 100% fill rate at the beginning of my career). This gives me wriggle room for unplanned elements, much-needed reflection time as a leader, or simply creative breaks. 

At Alfalfaz, our schedules are flexible and adapt to the needs of our clients, especially time zones. If I have to work with a client based in the US, my workday starts at noon and the morning is for personal time. 

My work location is also flexible. Two of our 4 children live overseas (Montreal and San Francisco) so we like to work from their locations when we can. 

Meditation is a daily practice, usually first thing in the morning. This helps me to properly balance the mental demands on both sides, personal and professional. 

My Alfalfaz partner is also my life partner. We practice meditation together, and active listening, to make sure we hear each other as individuals, beyond the professional partnership. 

Your story is a truly inspiring one Christèle. As we close, I’m sure our readers would love to your your three top tips for being a great leader? 

There are so many things I’d like to share, but here are my top three!

  • Keep learning, exposing yourself to new avenues, contents, people all throughout your career and life. Training and acquiring knowledge are lifelong skills. 
  • Raise your hands when you want something. Nobody is in your head. You need to express what you want and expect. Then plan how to get to what you want. 
  • Manage energies and expectations, not time, within your team. This allows for a trust-based leadership and empower people. Open doors for your team members. Provide real-time feedback and celebrate successes as they materialize.

Any advice/recommendation you want to leave our members who wish to improve their leadership competences? 

Be diligent in seeking diverse thinking – not just sources that confirm what you already know/believe. 

Good leadership stems from a combination of hands-on experience and formal education. Educate yourself in leading teams, and get to work with the awareness that you have an impact on the business outcomes as well as on the lives of your team members. 

For me, the results and the ways to get to the results are equally important. Leaders operate within a system (organisation, department, culture, country, etc.) with interdependencies: one’s leadership must incorporate the awareness of the environment one operates in and the understanding that it is constantly in motion. 

Individuals who do not feel balanced between their private and professional lives have difficulties focusing on their professional objectives as they may be preoccupied, or tired, or because their personal priorities are not respected. Taking the time to understand what is needed to align our professional aspirations with our personal needs is a critical step toward improved leadership.



Date: April 2023
Authors: Christèle Galpin and Rebecca Fountain

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