Olivier Kazandjian, MBA '04

The Tauber Insitute’s global reputation for operations excellence lured French citizen Olivier Kazandjian across the Atlantic to the Great Lakes State to earn his MBA in 2003. Today, that pivotal decision continues to shape his career as Head of Transformation at Maersk Line, where he leads transformation programs and reports to the Northern Europe Chief Executive.

Q: Why did you choose U-M and the Tauber Institute? 

A: This was not a difficult choice. When I started to consider an MBA, I was working in IT and was looking for a career change in Operation and Process improvement. In addition, as I was considering a two-year break to do so, my wife and I discussed the best locations. As it became clear it would not be in France, I asked myself where it would be the most valuable in term of learning and experience. An American MBA became very quickly my choice as I also wanted to work in the US. Considering the time and money commitment, I only focused on the Top 10 US MBA programs with heavy focus on operations. Two programs came out on top: MMM in Northwestern and TMI (Tauber Institute) in Michigan. After visiting, Michigan had my preference from a campus and family life perspective. I applied and chose Michigan. In retrospect, it was a very logical decision that I never regretted. I had two fantastic years, met wonderful people and had a son born in Ann Arbor.

Q: Can you name a Tauber experience that stands out as being influential in shaping your career?

A: The Tauber experience shaped me in a lot of ways, but a few stand out. First, I had the opportunity to add a master in engineering that helped me hone my six-sigma skills. I have used them in several projects ever since. Even though I’m not using them directly anymore, it helps me daily when I interact in the field with six-sigma professionals to understand their results and sometimes challenge them.

Tauber also really shaped my understanding of business by keeping it real. There can be a tendency during an MBA to talk about theoretical problems or discuss long term strategic solution forgetting that the real world is not a university. By having the right mix of classes focused on long-term thinking as well as an internship and other courses focused on operational issues, you have a fantastic balance to really prepare you for the outside world.

Finally, I had an internship that was fully focused the topic I was looking for: Operations. In 2003, the economic situation was not fantastic and knowing that I would have an internship in my field of choice (especially as I was changing careers) was fantastic.  This opportunity really pushed me as the project we were working on was challenging and far beyond my expectation in term of deliverables and exposure. Our project was sponsored by a Division VP for Cummins and had us working in both the US and Mexico. This experience also led to my first position post-MBA in Dallas as our sponsor became the Brinks President and contacted me to start a Process Improvement group in one of their businesses.

Q: What is your management style or philosophy?

A: That is a great question but not an easy one to answer briefly. I think some principles stayed identical during the years but I also realized some may have changed as I progressed in my career. There are three main principles that I will always applied in term of management.

The first one is that you need a plan but you also need to be ready to adapt it. At the end of the day, only the objective does not change. This sounds cliché but you would be surprised by the number of large projects which fail on that level. In addition (and stating the obvious), it really is easier to manage a team when everybody knows what to do and when.

The second is that we only speak with data. As my responsibility is on change management for large transformation projects, the number of perceived issues that we are facing during a project lifespan can be quite daunting and sometimes can mask the real problems. By asking data, I’m ensuring that I gather all the facts for my own understanding and ensure proper prioritization. The positive side effect is that my team members based in various countries are now forcing their organization to come with numbers to validate issues. As such, it decreases the number perceived problems and facilitates change management.

The third one that I learned in the last 12 years is that management is not only managing down but also managing up. To do so, I had to learn something that is not very easy for a French person: be concise and precise. Very senior managers have an extremely small amount of time to devote to you. You need to make the most of it. I was very fortunate to have very good coaches in my former and current boss to unlearn my “French verbosity”.

However, as I reflect on my various positions, I realized that I changed my style as I transitioned from managing projects to managing teams which are managing projects. I’m currently more a coach and use questions rather than direct statements. Asking questions is one of the best management tools that you can have. It forces you to really think about the question you want to ask and why you need to ask it. In turn, it challenges your team to think about the answers, preferably with data. This was not an easy transition as I have tendency to be impatient and to move back to a more direct approach when things are not progressing as planned but once again, I had several coaches that helped me on that aspect.

As I’m writing it, I realize that a lot of those principles can be found in any good management/leadership books, but I have to say that I really had the opportunity to experience firsthand their effectiveness.

Q: Is there something about you that most people wouldn't know?

A: My friends know that I talk too much about what I’m really passionate about. Classical piano and reading are few of my favorite pastimes. I also have a passion for mechanical watches. I love the engineering, the complexity of the object as well as the fact that, in the end, this is an outdated craft in a modern electronic world. I find that extremely romantic.

People would maybe be surprised that I just started karate lessons at 46 but I have to admit that is a lot of fun (except maybe the morning after the class). Finally, I have passion for American politics. I found its complexity and challenges absolutely fascinating and I have to say the current primary process is really keeping me awake at night (and not only because of the time difference).

Olivier is the General Manager leading Maersk transformation programs for NEU.
Olivier Kazandjian (MBA '04) and family on the Brooklyn Bridge.