Hélène Echevin is the Executive Chairperson of C-Care (Mauritius) Ltd. and the Chief Executive Officer & Director of CIEL Healthcare Ltd. She holds a degree in Food Sciences and Technology from Polytech Engineering School, Montpellier, France and followed Management Executive Program at INSEAD. Her main mission consists in supporting the consolidation and growth of CIEL’s global operations through the deployment of new principles and tools of operational excellence across the group. She is also heading the Healthcare cluster of the group.
Can you tell us about your background?
I’m Mauritian, although I have a European background. While I was born and bred in Mauritius, I left for France when I was 18 – that’s the reason for my French accent and English mistakes. I spent five years in France and attended school there. Then, I went to McGill University in Canada. While I was there, I received a Ph.D. proposal for a research program. However, I felt I would have a stronger, more visible impact if I came back home. So, I did that.
As a technician by training – I’m a food expert – I got a job in a company that manufactured animal feed. It was a man’s world, with lots of heavy machinery, including silos and trucks. However, I eventually came to enjoy it.
Also, I have three siblings and we are all female.
What made you interested in that industry? Did your family influence you in some way?
I’ve always been interested in the true pillars that uphold our society, like science and agronomy. In fact, I wanted to be a veterinarian while growing up. So, there is that factor. Also, we had women who were interested in such fields in my family. I think that played a role, too.
Sometimes, I ask myself if things would have been different if we had a brother. Would our parents have educated us differently in such a scenario? I will never be able to answer those questions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed working in that field. I liked working with the people on the ground, whether during training or in the factory.
Did you have a mentor who provided guidance during the early years of your career?
Some people have said I’m ambitious but I don’t think so. However, I am curious and passionate about learning. If I don’t feel like I’m learning or challenged by something, I would switch and do something different. When I began my career, I didn’t plan to become a CEO. However, it happened all the same. So, I would say it’s more of that than having a mentor.
Obviously, I’ve met several people and the chairman of the company where I worked before I moved into healthcare readily comes to mind. He inspired me a lot. Also, I think the strong and proud women in my life, like my mother and aunt, played a part. They had can-do attitudes and that probably influenced who I am today.
How did you move from the animal feed sector to the healthcare sector?
I think I had it in mind to work in the healthcare sector since I was a teenager. And after 17 years at my former company, I wanted to do something different. One day, the CEO of CIEL called me. He told me they were acquiring a new hospital. At the time, they already had one in Africa. He asked if I would like to join. At that point, I didn’t have any clue about healthcare and I told him as much. He said it’s fine and I’ll learn. I found the opportunity to learn and be challenged exciting. So, I decided to join.
Having said that, I think I created the chance. I have three daughters and each time I was on maternity leave, I came up with business plans that revolved around healthcare. However, I lacked the courage to pursue these plans. And then this opportunity came and I thought it was great.
I found the healthcare industry to be a different environment. It’s tough because it’s full of emotions and also because it is technically and operationally difficult. So, you are bound to face a lot of difficulties. However, there’s something that sets it apart from other industries, too, which is that it has a real sense of purpose. Besides, the company ticked all my boxes. I like the group and its values. And that has made working there an amazing experience.
What are the core management skills you developed that enabled you to step into the role at CIEL?
First, I would say I developed a true understanding of what operations means. It’s not easy to understand the real pillars around the processes. Also, an understanding of people is necessary. And finally, an understanding of the equipment I encountered.
I think when you work in different companies, you will have a good understanding of the basics necessary to run a good operation and put a good management structure in place. In fact, the more you climb the ladder, the more it’s about organization, structuring, and discipline. Also, the ability to provide clarification is key. You have to learn to explain what you have in mind to others and guide them with clarity. During the early days of my career, I was embarrassed to ask for what I needed, because I didn’t want to appear bossy. However, I learnt to be clear on company objectives and the communication top down.
I would say these are the tools and techniques I brought along.
One of the things that has come up in these discussions is the importance of understanding finance as an executive, among others. How did you develop these skills given you have a technical and not a financial background? How can others do the same?
First, I think you need to be interested in profit making. I think that’s crucial. Sometimes, when I participate in recruitment exercises, I ask people if they like making money. I like when people say yes because it means they are excited. I think it is important to have a competitive spirit.
Also, you have to be logical. It is very important.
Next is who your colleagues are. Who do you have around you? If you are a young manager, who will support and guide you? If you are a CEO, who do you have on your team? Who will compensate for your weaknesses? Nobody is perfect, so you need someone who can fill those gaps you have. Furthermore, you should be curious and want to understand the things that surround you, whether it’s what you studied or not. Alongside that curiosity, you should have the confidence to ask questions to gain that understanding.
Finally, you should enroll in programs that can provide you with the tools and training you need to perform optimally.
What challenges do you face as one of the few female CEOs in Mauritius?
I don’t think the challenges I faced are limited to Mauritius. I think they are the same everywhere. That being said, I believe the first limitation is yourself. We have a tendency to limit ourselves, which means we do not give ourselves the chance to be who we can be. However, with time and maturity, most of us learn about and overcome that.
Secondly, I’m a young CEO as well as a mother of three young children. This is a common challenge most women face that we can’t hide from. And it is a difficult one, too. Also, the desire to be like men is a big problem sometimes. The reason is that there are numerous men in top positions which makes them the primary example for the rest of us. However, it’s not always who we are. I think we are a bit different. But because we are surrounded by men, we will sometimes have the tendency to manage and lead as we have witnessed them do, even though it’s not our true way of leading.
As a young CEO with young children, how do you manage your work-life balance?
Frankly, not very well. I leave home at 7 a.m. and get back between 7 and 8 p.m. Sometimes, I have Zoom meetings to attend after getting home. It never ends. Besides, I’m in healthcare, an industry that requires you to be available 24/7. When there’s a crisis, you can’t say, “Oh sorry, it’s the weekend, I’ll attend to it on Monday”. So, I can’t say I manage my work-life balance very well.
Having said that, after a few years ago, I decided to make my peace with it. I won’t be the perfect mom, but that’s okay. I have three daughters so it makes it easier to tell them that life is not easy and they should prioritize their development and training while they are young. Also, my husband is very helpful. We both put in 50/50. In this part of the world, that is not always the case. In my case, though, there’s a good equilibrium at home, so it works. Is it easy? No! Would I like it if it was easy? I’m not sure. In any case, I try to surmount the challenges I face. It’s my work. People face challenges everywhere, whether they work in sports, art, or culture.
Sometimes, people ask me what I’m passionate about apart from work? And when I tell them work is what I like to do, some say I don’t take time for myself. However, it’s my decision to work. So, I won’t complain about it. I made the decision to live with it and if, one day, I find that decision inconvenient, I’ll make another one.
Is there any advantage to being a female CEO?
Sometimes, yes. In the current world, let’s say the past 10 years, it has been easier to be a female CEO. First, it’s an advantage in some negotiations and when you need to interact in an area where there could be ego games. When you are a woman, you won’t be perceived as dangerous. So, it makes it easier to get things done.
Also, if there’s a tense situation, the reverence men feel in women’s presence will ensure the situation is contained. So, I feel being a female CEO amongst male counterparts leads to more harmony and calm in meetings. As a result, it lessens the possibility of aggressive confrontations.
Finally, I shouldn’t say this, but I sometimes ask myself if I’m on a particular board because I’m a woman or because I’m excellent. And I think it’s a bit of both.
Many female executives report that they battle impostor syndrome. Can you comment on that?
Yeah, I’ve read about it and heard many submissions on the subject. Many women are scared they are not at the level they supposedly are. So, they constantly strive to be perfect. They prepare rigorously for board meetings, read and reread documents, and take numerous notes. However, many of us don’t do those kinds of things. Instead, they show up half prepared.
I over-prepared all the time and it made me tense, which wasn’t good. Someone once told me that women only attend job interviews when they meet at least 70% of the qualifications, while men attend these same interviews with only 50% qualification and sell themselves. So, we women tend to over-prepare ourselves. We spend more time than is required preparing for things because we don’t think we are good enough. As a result, we are too tired to do other things like networking.
Why do you think there aren’t more female CEOs in Mauritius and Africa?
Because it’s tough. That’s true for men, too. Sometimes, when the stress gets overwhelming, I ask myself why I continue. The answer is that it’s my passion and, in the end, I enjoy doing it. However, I’m not sure everyone can cope with the pressure, be it from work, family, or society, among others. Earlier in my career, when my kids attended birthday parties, I had to arrange the gifts they’ll take along myself. Now, I’m organized and can delegate it to other people. So, there is a lot of pressure from different angles.
Also, like I’ve mentioned, I think women limit themselves. I don’t think men impose this limit because, as a leader, when you have a good employee who delivers, you don’t ask whether they are a man or a woman. You are simply happy to have effective employees who deliver and will give them more responsibilities. So I feel that sometimes, it’s more of women limiting themselves.
I was talking to a friend of mine one day about having help at home. In the earlier days of your career, you can combine your professional work with housework and get by just fine. However, at some point, you will find that you cannot manage your workload and take care of the house like you used to. In such an instance, you should hire help. I remember this friend – he was a man – saying it’s very expensive. However, you can’t look at it like that. You have to see it as an investment in the future. If you don’t spend that money, you will not be able to free up time for your work.
If I have one piece of advice to give young women, it is to hire help at home. Yes, it will cost money. However, if you like your job, it will pay off.
In these discussions, many female CEOs say it’s sometimes lonely at the top, as it’s not easy to connect with their contemporaries who understand what they are going through. What do you think can be done about that?
I would say that sharing amongst ourselves (female CEOs) is quite rare. In a room of 12 or 15 CEOs, only one or two of us might be women. Because of this, we will resist the urge to stay together, because we don’t want to give the impression we are gluing to the only other woman in the room. However, if there were more of us and it was a more relaxed environment, such pressure would decrease. That would be helpful for female CEOs.
Also, let’s face it, if we are where we are, it’s because we have been stars in our careers. For some, it is hard to share the spotlight with other women. However, we need to learn to accept there are other stars. While a competitive streak is important to get where we are – we probably would have avoided the responsibility and stress that comes with our positions, otherwise – it can get in the way. So, I would say women should relax and be more willing to share their spotlight with other women. I think doing these things will really help us.
What do you think can be done to increase the pipeline of women who aspire to the top spots in Africa?
We have been talking about imposter syndrome. This is all about self-confidence, alignment, and honesty. I think if, early on, we get an explanation of the stress involved, how to recognize its signals, and so on, things will be better. I was not told any of this until later. However, if we do this early in women’s careers, they can detect where they are not performing and align their goals with their actions. That will certainly help with their self-awareness and self-confidence.
Next, women have more logistics issues than men. We have to take care of the kids and our home, alongside delivering at work. Things are changing but it still throws up some problems. However, if we can help women understand that they can delegate some of these responsibilities to their PAs, like buying birthday gifts for their daughters’ friends, it will fix some of these logistics problems. As a result, they will have more time and energy for their career.
Finally, I’m guilty of this, too, but women should take things easy. It’s okay to play golf, get a manicure, and engage in fun activities. I have a dream that one day, we can have a world where five female CEOs can sit for a pedicure, while discussing business. Maybe that happens in Europe and North America, but I am yet to witness such in Africa.