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Imagine being a CEO or senior leader and having the opportunity to step out of the business for 4 months to travel and recuperate.

That’s exactly what Matthieu Hue, CEO of EDF Renewables is currently doing. But just before he left, Matthieu took the time to sit down with me to talk to me for the latest edition of the podcast.

In it, Matthieu explains what it’s been like creating an exceptional executive team that are up for the challenge of rapidly growing the business in a world that has finally realised that renewable energy is the way forward.

If you are in a high growth industry, this episode is not to be missed!

The organisational peak is a perilous environment. It is more complex and challenging than anything that has gone before. And consequently, both executive tenure and corporate longevity are decreasing. To survive and thrive at the perilous peak, executive leaders need to balance their functional leadership, a focus on execution with enterprise leadership, that is ensuring the organisation adapts in our new world. That is what we will be exploring in the Advanced Executive Leadership podcast. Welcome. I’m your host Jacqueline Conway. I’m the Founder and Managing Director of Walden Croft, a consulting practice dedicated to helping Executives and Executive teams anticipate, navigate and lead at the perilous peak.

In this episode of Advanced Executive Leadership, I speak with Matthieu Hue, who’s the Chief executive officer at EDF Renewables UK and Ireland. It was recorded ahead of Matthieu going on sabbatical, so I was particularly grateful for his time. I think we can all relate to the challenge of getting finished up for a two-week holiday whereas here was Matthieu finishing up for four months.
We make a number of references during the conversation about a program of work that we in Waldencroft, specifically my colleague Gordon, and I did with Matthieu and his team over an 8-month period last year. In particular, Matthieu mentions the work that he and the team did to clarify their purpose, to build trust and to use the changes in the team’s composition to really understand from an outsider’s point of view, what was hidden in plain sight for those members of the team who had been in it for some time. There were a few other bits of the conversation that I found particularly interesting. We heard that he and his executive team are leading an organisational change that’s mirrored in the wider market with exponential growth in renewables as we work globally towards net zero. Matthieu mentions, the structure and governance of the sector externally hasn’t been designed for renewables taking up such a high proportion of our overall energy needs, so some of the structural issues in the industry are having to be addressed whilst this growth in demand is actually happening. Against this backdrop of our rapidly changing marketplace inside the company, the growth trajectory has been phenomenal too with sharp and sustained growth. We talk a lot about how to lead in a high growth environment and specifically we talk about how to operate in an environment where you need to balance on one side, innovation and doing things differently in order to grow whilst maintaining on the other side those essential parts of the business that need to operate with high reliability and safety at the forefront.
Matthieu had a really unique insight into what the glue that holds all of that together is, and I’ll let you hear that in the interview itself. I really enjoyed the conversation and I hope that you do too.

Matthieu Hue (3:25)

I’m Matthieu Hue I am French, but I’ve been living in the UK for 21 years, I’ve spent all of that time in London. I’ve been working all of that time for EDF and the last 15 exclusively on renewables and the last six and a half as the CEO of EDF Renewables UK and Ireland. I studied economics in Paris and I graduated in 2000 with a masters and that’s when I made the choice to move to London. I had the opportunity to do a PHD but I made the choice to offer a change in lifestyle and start in the professional world and work for EDF.  I think if there is a pattern, if such things exist, in the 20 years of professional life or so, what I would say is I’m looking for something of interest, preferably that I can be passionate about and where I can apply my skills, learn new things, and be challenged and meet people of interest. Where I find John Berman quite supportive and challenging. When I moved to the UK working for EDF, it was the start of the liberalisation of the UK electricity market. There were profound changes, and I had the opportunity to do something I liked, and I was skilled for which was to modelist the market. Market demand, market prices, doing some pricing of assets. There was a great deal to learn about because I didn’t know anything about the electricity market, but I could apply something that I could do which was to use statistical tools to do some analysis and forecasts.
Then I would say the next big step for me was when I was first exposed to renewables, that was about five years later. I had the opportunity again to apply some skills that I had to price, a PPA for an offshore wind farm. It’s an aspect contract where you buy the output from a wind farm and it was one of the first offshore wind farms in the UK and then that’s where I did the shift to work exclusively on renewables and at the time the industry was very different to what it is today. Prices to generate electricity from renewables were not strictly competitive compared to market prices. The time was right to support investment to get some support mechanisms in the market. We will probably go there a little later in some of the challenges in the market.
I did renewables for five years, I really liked it. Then in 2008 was probably the next step in my career. I had the opportunity to change country and to move to Italy still working for EDF and this time I made the choice to stay. I went to Business School; I was fortunate enough to have EDF sponsoring me to do an MBA. I joined a very renowned Business School, London Business School in Columbia, in New York, and I did an executive program for two years and I learned a great deal and I think we’ll see what comes out of it. I think being under every service pressure academically and on the business side, because I was still doing a full-time job responsible for M&A and business development at EDF for renewables. I think I showed resilience there and gained a huge confidence that I could rise to challenges and find strategies to cope with stress to produce this piece of work in a in a short time frame. I did enjoy it and it was quite energising.

Jacqueline Conway (7:20)

That’s really interesting, thank you for that. Let’s just turn our attention now to the challenges because you’ve been chief executive for six and a half years, the last two years have seen enormous disruption with Covid and it’s also been a period of intense growth in renewables, as everyone focuses now towards the renewable sector. Can you speak a little bit about the business challenges that either EDF renewables or the industry structurally is facing that you are concerned with as your leading?

Matthieu Hue (7:56)

I mean from my perspective and I would say in my lifetime, what we see is probably a time of unprecedented changes. There is an imperative for societies which is to achieve net zero and not being dependent on fossil fuels in our economies. It wasn’t quite the case that the challenges we’re confronted with wasn’t there when renewables started to grow 10 years ago, 15 years ago even. At the time it was a new industry people were willing to support it and support investments, and it could perfectly go alongside other investment in in the power sector. I think what we see today now that renewables are competitive, there is no question about whether it’s competitive it is probably the most affordable way for generating electricity, so there is no question about that. We can’t afford to have coal plants or gas plants, so the entire electricity system needs to be decarbonised and even further, we need to electrify through increasing the amount of energy that comes from electricity and low carbon electricity that is.
Infrastructures or policies or regulations they were not designed for this amount of change, we need to have change in the infrastructure, change in design and policy and bring a huge amount of investment to make this transaction happen.
It certainly brings a lot of challenges; we are in a place where we need to constantly find new solutions, to innovate with technology, innovate with operating models, innovate with policy and regulation, innovate with the organization we have so it is certainly very exciting.
But it means that there are lots of moving parts, you need to be on many fronts at the same time. We try to help thinking about the entire system and how to drive policy and regulation to enable this transition.
Think about how your own organisation can set some long-term strategies, knowing that there are many unknowns, you probably know where you want to be, but you don’t know how you will get there. You need to construct a bit of a road map and be very dynamic in adapting to the changes, constant changes that come with it. You need to build an organisation that is capable of looking at the long term vision, putting a strategy that is quite dynamic and adaptable, and create an organisation that is resilient enough to go through many changes. So that’s quite exciting, but it’s also very demanding on the people who are involved.

Jacqueline Conway (10:51)

And of course, in a high reliability organisation to have both innovation and processes that are well locked down doesn’t often sit well together. How does your renewables business manage that tension between being agile and responsive and being change ready, and at the same time being a high reliability organisation?

Matthieu Hue (11:19)

That’s a very good point, which is exactly what we’re confronted with. We put the system and process in place and are able to respond to the demand of today’s business, knowing that in two- or three-years’ time the same system process and people would be able to respond to the demand of the business in the future. It’s a bit of a change in mindset, and it’s not easy because as soon as you’ve done something and put great effort into achieving that over change in the in the organisation or completing a project you’ve got to start a fresh. Or not a fresh, but you need to build the next step. I think what is important is to rely on very strong principles. It can be around your purpose, your mission, your values, so people will feel that there is something they can relate to which will not change over that period. There are some skills, some ways of working the environment that you create that do not change either.
We’re speaking about the agility, about learning, at goals, so you need to build these fundamentals then then we’ll give you sufficient grounds to people adapting in an environment that feels safe and quite supportive and exciting. It is putting a huge emphasis on the organisation and the power within organisations to adapt, and to be resilient.

Jacqueline Conway (12:51)

That’s fascinating Matthieu, because what I’m hearing you say is that culture, the less tangible aspects of the organisation become really important as a glue that holds the organisation steady when everything else is changeable.

Matthieu Hue (13:09)

We need to find something we have in common that give us the assurances that we will be able to refer to something even that is intangible. It becomes tangible because that becomes what defined us as an organisation defined people and supports a way of doing things inside, intangible becomes a tangible. I don’t know if any of that makes much sense that this is the constant.

Jacqueline Conway (13:39)

Of course, the work that we’ve been doing, and the hint is in the title of this podcast Advanced Executive Leadership. My perspective on that is, what’s the role of the executive team in both the change readiness of the organisation, the cultural piece, but also the ability to keep the things steady that need to stay steady and keep the things moving that need to be agile and responsive to a changing marketplace.

Matthieu Hue (14:09)

In an organisation like it ours we have grown very, very rapidly and we are very different to what we were ten years ago where we were focusing on onshore wind in UK. Now we focus on onshore wind, offshore wind, on storage and solar and now hydrogen, we cover the UK but also Ireland and there are different markets. We have seen even in the business itself more dimensions to it, so it adds to the complexity. We will see the scope of the organisation will continue to evolve somewhat,
It’s more its environment that will change and the need to innovate that will bring a lot of changes in the organisation. We will continue to grow very rapidly, we were six years ago around a 100 people organisation and after next year there will be 500 other people, so that’s a lot of people to come join a business and contribute to that growth.
I think the first rule of an exec with the complexity of the business we have is to be a team and to realise what it means to be a team. We all have functions, a role that we will naturally focus on, but there are a lot of interdependencies and opportunities for synergistic working together. You will believe that you know technical capability being in finance, in legal or the many disciplines that we cover will bring something constant to the different market activities that we have across these different technologies in different markets. It makes sense to make sure that we can provide a steady baseline to all activities, and then we’ve got markets which are specific where the success depends on understanding the requirement or even more pre-empting what the requirements will be.
There are different positions, different strategies for each of the markets to be successful, and that’s where the powerful team that already exists shows we are able to work together to provide some common ways of doing things, of planning activities together of providing that environment. People Join us because they have a passion but also because they want to grow, they want to achieve things in an environment that is supportive. You really have to co-create that as an organisation and understand that choices that you make in one function, with technical functions, will have an impact on all of the activities we cover. There is really a need to have a common understanding of what the business needs are of the direction we want to set and then they can understand that together, we can best answer to the challenges we’ve got.

Jacqueline Conway (17:09)

Matthieu a couple of years ago you increased, and you changed the composition of your executive team, and you doubled the amount of people in it. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about that change and why you made that change to your executive team?

Matthieu Hue (17:26)

Changes to the team were really based on the needs of the business and the scope of the business so I mentioned, a few years ago we had a big presence in onshore wind in the UK but no solar business, no battery business, limited presence in North Shore and no presence in UK and Ireland. When we started to grow, we identified that to be successful, we needed to be really focused on our market segment and to do that it needed some people that had the leadership to see the challenges of the market and to drive the team, to lead the team to adapt and find the right path. To apply the right visions to these specific markets. It was needed in an organisation that was growing, so we needed it.
For example, when we thought let’s have some HR functions, people facilitating recruitment or reward we appreciated that these to work in the organisation but what we had to do was much more profound than that. there was need for new functions, and that’s how we basically put a team together which was able to focus on each of these key markets, so we call them verticals responsible for the P&L in this different segment, as well as some transverse functions which we call horizontal, supporting with technical capabilities in engineering and finance and market analysis, strategy, legal etc. The people function supporting all of these markets and that’s how we ended up with a matrix structure. Before we made these changes 5 people worked in exec, today we are nine people, it provides a lot more firepower. Sometimes when you’ve got the fire, it provides difficult to manage and to make the most of it. It’s like driving a super-fast car and not being used to being behind the wheel of very powerful car.
So it needs a bit of work to really see how to make the most of the of the new capacity you’ve got and certainly we’ve seen very early on that the course that we were able to secure in these different market was substantial.
Very quickly after the changes that we made, we were able to go very fast for battery business with the acquisition of different power that is fully integrated now into business in solar. We very quickly took a market leading position when we had no presence at all in solar. It proved to be successful, but it also has brought some challenges and that’s where the overlaps are so important, which is not to leave some issues unaddressed as that could become a real burden for business going forward. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult because you know the visibility you get is as good as the feedback that each of us can provide to each other, hence this importance to work in an environment where people trust each other and can provide data helpful, constructive feedback having big trust within the exact team to be able to achieve this discussion that will surface the priorities of the business with these key areas that we need to put together to address the challenges we can see.

Jacqueline Conway (20:56)

And I know that you’ve been spending a lot of time on building that trust within the executive team. How has that been going and are you there or not quite?

Matthieu Hue (21:08)

As soon as you think you are there,  I think you’ve lost the plot you it’s never permanent, it’s always temporary. I definitely think there is more trust and more understanding of what trust I mean, how we can identify or see when discussions are going well where people share appropriately, but we always have to challenge ourselves. What I can tell is I think everyone now recognises what it means to have a team where trust is present, and I think everybody is committed. I think we all have to do some personal work as well as, collective work to build that trust and maintain it.

Jacqueline Conway (21:54)

Obviously, what you’ve been referring to is the horsepower or the firepower that is then in the team. When you’ve got all of those people in the executive team representing different parts of the business but working collectively towards enterprise solutions, but that is quite a big number. How you manage a team of nine direct reports is different from how a team meeting goes, where there are four or five, I call those things, process losses where you have to account for or make provision for a much larger team for everybody to feel included, to give everyone the space to contribute what’s that been like? Particularly as you made that change, and then we almost immediately went into lockdown. The team meetings at the time where you were trying to build relationships, everything went online, can you say a little bit about what that process has been like?

Matthieu Hue (22:57)

I think that it has been different elements to we have developed together with you, Jacqueline and Gordon. I think what has been very helpful is to have that baseline, and that common purpose to the team. What is the meaning of that team? What is it there to do? What is it there for? And to formalise that, I think has been very helpful because when we appreciate it, OK, we’ve got much more to bring to this organisation than just leading our own function. Actually, we can lead the strategy together. We can lead and manage the key stakeholders so that this organisation has worked to develop a relationship with. There was a obviously the element of the performance where we need to have a steady baseline for performance and expectation. Last but not least, you know building this organisation together because of the dependencies between functions, it’s got to be done on an enterprise wider basis, but that has been very helpful.

Jacqueline Conway (24:02)

Can I just say for the benefit of the listeners, your argument without going into the actual specifics, what you agreed as an executive team that your purpose sat in four areas, one was around people and culture, one was around strategy, one was around stakeholders and managing the stakeholder relationships and the other was about monitoring performance. You saw your core purpose as an executive team in those four areas and then on top of that you developed a team commitment which was working for the success of one another which spoke to those interdependencies that you’re just referring to there that the team was kind of stronger collectively working towards these enterprise wide problems than it was working in functional silos or vertical silos. Sorry to cut across early, but I just thought that was perhaps a helpful thing for the listener.

Matthieu Hue (24:59)

That’s very, very important for the listeners to appreciate fully. This purpose is the area that we will be focusing on it also means that we don’t want to dive into details which are not covered by our purpose. We really want to focus in the right area for example the second element, which is that commitment to work for each other’s success is really easy. Appreciation that actually we are not there to defend the interests of our function. We are here to make the overlap stronger and appreciate that, whoever you are in the organisation you can help and support and understanding from other members of the executive. That has been very important to make this commitment visible and I think it is then it’s a question of practicing your purpose you have. You refer back to your purpose, you refer back to your commitment and you see how it’s evolving and working, which is important. There are some very practical elements in this organisation we started with which this organisation evolved, we have process and system forums or communities that existed and if you don’t keep track of what they are and whether those are still adapted to the business needs of today, you end up with part of the organisation looking like Frankenstein. It’s a bit disjointed it’s not very efficient, it creates some friction, and it creates some difficult appreciation of where decisions are made, who is to be involved, etc. It really provides a basis on which we will assess ourselves and then we can target our area of work to get the organisation in the right place with the ambitions we’ve got. The good thing with our businesses is we started with a very clear base for our strategy and our ambitions. So, it was a lot easier than to define. I really want to focus on this and what it means to work well with each other as one team and then we can look at the organisation and say OK, Here I see opportunities to make a gain, I can see there is a problem which we need to collectively address.

Jacqueline Conway (27:17)

And during the process of that work, with the executive team, there was some changes in your exec wasn’t there. The team that we started with was not the team that we ended with do you have any views about this work? Work with executive teams helping to bring people in and get them up to speed faster or do you think that they would have been socialised into the team just as well had we not been doing that work?

Matthieu Hue (27:44)

It’s a natural thing for teams to change people to come in, or to leave. The good thing about people joining during that process was actually, there was an invitation for the new people join. Again, to basically share, the experiences they had before and tell us where they can see you know from their fresh perspective you know as part of that team. So actually, it was very helpful to see that dynamic through that process of new people joining in and it’s really now an invitation for all of us. You say, oh? Here is a new perspective of fresh perspective let’s learn from it as well as you know, make sure that the new people joining in learn from us. What has brought us in? What is our journey we’ve been focusing on and why?
I was quite pleased to have some changes in the executive model once we weren’t doing that work.

Jacqueline Conway (28:42)

And of course, there is another change coming up isn’t there from next week, do you want to explain what that is?

Matthieu Hue (28:50)

Yes indeed, after some preparation but there’s some consideration as well. From next Monday I will be off for four months sabbatical. I will be spending time with my family, I’ve got two young children, four and six. My wife and I are going to take some time off together where work will start. I won’t be spending any time at all on the business for four months, which is very exciting. The good thing is I had time to think about it because the decision to take a sabbatical was taken two years ago and it was postponed because of the pandemic. It was meant to start a year ago.
So, you could see already when I took the decision, I knew it would take some time, but that means I had plenty of time to share the news. Some people were saying, are you still taking your sabbatical or not? It’s been very nice to hear people being so supportive and to see that actually it’s a good sign if members of the exec are able to take time off and to be supported to do so. It will be new for the exec but I think they are confident with the arrangements that we’ve made. I’m very confident myself that they will do a great job during the four months and decisions will be made. The business will change and they will make the changes needed to adapt our business to the opportunities and challenges we are confronted with so it’s certainly not going to be a situation where the business stops.
We just do business as usual now that there is a common group dynamic even if one person is not there, it won’t stop the team being a team and driving the business.

Jacqueline Conway (30:54)

I think it’s going to be a fascinating experiment about how a team adapts and evolves when the leader of the team steps out and therefore a bit like musical chairs, there will inevitably be movement and we don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like. I thought one of the things that was really interesting in their conversations about that was that someone had said, well, Matthieu is only going for four months. You’ll step back in and everything will be exactly the same, and if you remember my comment on that was, well, no, it won’t be. You never step in the same river twice. You will be going and so the four months will change you, but it will also change the executive team because they will get used to working in a different way without the team leader there. When you come back, they will inevitably have found different ways of working. Something interesting will happen from the 1st of May when you step back. We can’t necessarily see what that is, but things will be different. I wonder if you are prepared to say anything about what either you’re excited about or nervous about when that re-entry back into the organisation come May.

Matthieu Hue (32:12)

I haven’t it to be fair I’m more looking into OK what will happen in the four months than what will happen when I come back. If you remember what I am looking forward to is the experience. You don’t want to come into something with a set of expectations that are very rigid and fixed. Things are always moving, so my expectation is obviously that I would not have been here for four months. People would have been working without me, and I’m convinced that very good things will come out of it and they will be learning on both sides. I will bring the fresh perspective, which is time to take a step back from the business. I’m sure that my mind would wander and think about it, so maybe I may have some new ideas that I’d be willing to or interested to test or share with the exec, and I’m sure the exact will come with this fresh perspective on the role of this view and how we can bring more value to the team.
These new experiences are always on reaching with the right mindset. If you’re not afraid of the challenges they will bring, because of course changes bring challenges but also putting this out with the right mind. I think people will probably are more likely to make the most, but it changes further than being afraid and stuck wondering what is happening and what I need to be next. So, I can’t say as you rightly pointed out, what will happen. I have a few ideas of the topic that the exec. will be working on because we are preparing for 2022 and we’re doing it together. We will certainly discuss what is this area that we would like to work on as a team, but it will be for them without me to form what the team believes is the right answer. If I would have been there I would have expressed my views as I’m never shy to provide my views people might wonder what would Matthieu do? They will bring their own ideas and own views and debate them.
I think the process of it, as you said, the experiment would be fascinating and, I’m really looking forward to when I come back for them to share what our performance has been like, within the exec.

Jacqueline Conway (34:27)

Yeah, fantastic, well formally in front of an audience I would just like to say good luck with that because it’s a really wonderful thing to be able to have the opportunity and to take the opportunity to step out and have four months to reflect and see a different part of the world and take off the chief executive hat and then when you put it back on and see how it fits.

Matthieu Hue (34:53)

Yes, it would be a great experience for sure. I can say that work will prove its worth many times over during that time?

Jacqueline Conway (35:04)

I’m sure it will Matthieu, thank you very much indeed for coming onto the podcast I really appreciate it.

Matthieu Hue (35:10)

Great thank you, Jacqueline

Jacqueline Conway (35:12)

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.