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Follow in my footsteps: Shadowing Umicore’s CEO


You never know where an idea might take you. When Amaury van Trappen de Buggenoms, a young renewable energy entrepreneur, reached out Umicore’s CEO Mathias Miedreich with a proposal to shadow him for a week, he was surprised to receive a quick ‘yes’ to his bold idea. Just very recently, in January, the plan took shape, as Amaury joined Umicore employee, Abby Mao, in a one-off experience that allowed both individuals to shadow Mathias and our Management Board.

In a packed five-day schedule, Amaury and Abby joined Mathias in executive meetings, observed his working routine, and talked with other leaders and colleagues about their work and careers. At the end of the week, they were invited to share their first learnings with Mathias and even suggested areas for improvement on a next meeting to the full Management Board. Reflecting on this unique experience, Amaury and Abby tell us how it came about and what they learned.

Amaury and Abby - tell us about yourselves

Abby: “I work at Umicore’s Automotive Catalyst (AC) plant in Suzhou, China. I’ve been with the company for 14 years, beginning as a Financial and Planning Analysis Manager, before spending about three years at our AC headquarters in Germany. I then returned to China to be the Finance Controller for AC, overseeing the Suzhou and Tianjin sites.”

Amaury: “I’m originally from Belgium so I’ve known about Umicore from a young age, since it’s one of our country’s biggest corporations. I moved to the UK for my university studies, first at the University of Bath to study Mechanical Engineering, then at Cambridge where I studied Management. After some experience working in Rolls-Royce’s aerospace defence division, I launched my own start-up: A&B Smart Materials. We develop technology that increases the efficiency of photovoltaic panels, with labs at the University of Oxford.”

How did this shadowing week at Umicore come about? 

Amaury: “I embrace self-initiative and ownership which, I have learned, is a hallmark of Mathias’s career as well. I reached out with an email detailing my keen interest in observing his successful leadership at Umicore and to see first-hand how he brings scientific innovation to the market. To my delight, I received a response, which led to a call, which led to a week of shadowing! 

“One of my potential long-term ambitions is to reach the executive level of a large corporation primarily involved in engineering or science and driven by the desire to make a substantial environmental impact on the world. Umicore was therefore a perfect match. But I also wanted to get a better sense of what it’s like to be a CEO of a multinational corporation: the responsibilities, the challenges, the day-to-day work. I also thought that Mathias could be a great role model, something that proved to be true.” 

Abby: “This was an opportunity that came to me through our business group leaders, who approached me and asked if I’d be interested in shadowing Mathias – to which I immediately said yes! It’s not often you get the chance to spend a week in such close proximity to the senior management team, with the sole intention of listening, learning and even sharing our own ideas to them. Who would say no to that?!”

Why do you think Mathias agreed to the idea? 

Amaury: “Obviously there are plenty of benefits for me and Abby in this experience.  But I believe that Mathias saw the value of incorporating our outsider perspectives, for as he himself said, it’s important to foster talent both within and outside the organization – and who knows, our paths might cross again one day. The shadowing exercise itself also provided a platform to help the Management Board also reflect on their own leadership style and approach. 

Abby: “The Management Board often have to deal with the ‘macro’ view of the business, but because my work at the manufacturing plant is comparatively ‘micro’ I could offer a point of view that is very much grounded in Umicore’s day-to-day operations. I think it’s really important we maintain that connection between the daily work we all do and the big ambitions that drive our organisation forward.”

What did your week of shadowing involve on a practical level?

Abby: “We joined some of Mathias’s meetings with the other Management Board members. Our CTO, Geert Olbrechts, took us on a tour of the Specialty Materials plant in Bruges and explained how it fits into our business strategy. We were also able to speak one-on-one with the rest of the management team and other Umicore colleagues, who were very generous in their time and advice, taking us through their career paths and their vision for Umicore’s development. It was great to see them all in real life and realise that they’re just like us!”

Was there anything that surprised you about the experience? 

Amaury: “I didn’t expect to meet so many of Umicore’s top executives, but more than that, I was impressed by just how approachable they were. Despite me not being an employee, they were quick to dive into their personal journeys and the key traits that have brought them to where they are. They were candid about their challenges and learning moments, which I saw as a powerful demonstration of authentic leadership, which is a sign of strength. Witnessing this level of sincerity and openness illustrated the strong caring culture at Umicore.

“From the outside, Umicore is like a fast car on a smooth road, heading in an exciting direction. During this incredible week, I was able to have an in-depth look under the hood and understand how the senior management are fine-tuning different parts of this well-oiled engine. As I’ve always been intrigued in the operational implementation of business and management, it was truly fascinating.”

Was there anything anyone said that stuck with you?

Abby: “I remember Mathias saying that you have to take risks in life and seize every opportunity you can. That advice will stay with me, I’m sure.”

Amaury: “He also said that you shouldn’t be afraid to jump in the cold water, as you will get warmer by swimming. So, if an opportunity presents itself but you’re uncertain of your abilities, don’t restrain yourself. You can learn quickly, and you’ll only know once you try.”