An Interview With IESE Dean Jordi Canals

IESE Dean Jordi Canals

Shortly after becoming dean of IESE Graduate Business School in Barcelona in July of 2001, Jordi Canals began having weekly breakfasts with groups of MBA students. Back then, their concerns were largely focused on job placement and networking.  They worried about landing a high paying MBA job and how their careers might progress.

Today, his MBA students want to know how they can have an impact on the world, how they can live more meaningful lives, and how they can get the most from a global experience where they are studying with students from 56 nationalities.

The change has as much to do with generational differences as it has to do with the success of IESE as a global business school. Today, those MBA students can pretty much assume that an IESE diploma will come with a lucrative job and a valuable alumni network.


Under Canals, the University of Navarra’s IESE has emerged as a major global player in graduate business education. When he became dean, 60% of the students in the school’s full-time MBA program were from Spain. Despite controversy over a global strategy that would significantly diminish the number of Spaniards in the program, Canals forged ahead to globalize the school, aggressively recruiting both students and faculty from outside the country and opening executive centers in Brazil, Germany and New York.

Spanish enrollment in the MBA program fell to 20% from 60% and significant improvements were made in every area of the school, from the faculty and curriculum to admissions and career services. The school’s success in the rankings tracked those improvements. When Canals took over the deanship in 2001, The Financial Times ranked the school’s full-time MBA program 24th in the world, while Spanish rivals IE Business School was 31st and ESADE, 64th. In this year’s FT survey, Canals’ school placed seventh, its best showing ever, ahead of IE at 11th and ESADE at 22nd. Poets&Quants’ latest composite ranking places the school’s MBA program as the best third outside the U.S., behind only London Business School and INSEAD.

When he was first asked by the university president if he would become dean of the business school, Canals was initially reluctant. “I told the president you are making a mistake because I am a scholar. I enjoy teaching and research. I have a passion for education. So I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to work. So anytime you think that I am not doing a good job or if senior faculty thinks i’m doing a lousy job, tell me and I’ll step down.’ The guy has been keeping me for a number of years now.”


Now into his 12th year as dean, Canals is also something of a statesman for business education. An economist by training, he a tall man who wears dark blue conservative suits and has the lean frame of a marathon runner. He keeps in shape by running, swimming and playing tennis, but his true passions are history and philosophy. “When I step down as dean, I will go back to teaching and research,” says Canal whose latest four-year contract ends this year (he would not say if he intends to renew his contract). “I have plenty of history to learn and plenty of philosophy to think about.”

His comments are often peppered with ideas and quotations from historical figures, everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Aristotle, and he’s particularly fond of period of history that stirred the American Revolution. At a recent conference on fiscal and monetary policy in Frankfurt, Germany, he drew upon Alexander Hamilton’s thoughts on the assumption of state debt by the federal government, a reference that drew a quick rebuke from one listener who decried him as “too pro-American.”

  • Equivocation

    On the contrary. IESE has a reputation for having one of the most demanding workloads of any MBA. Ask exchange students, who have visited.

    Like all schools, placement will depend on your regional target. Fact is that MBA’s are not passports to the world, they most certainly are country/region specific.

    IESE has a pretty good network to place you in Europe and Latin America. If you are targeting the US, Africa or Asia, then you would be at the wrong school.

  • Seriously?

    Sorry to throw doubt on your detective skills Helene (word patterns…wtf??), but we’re not all the same person.

    I’d love to “disagree with the facts” but so far you haven’t given me any facts to disagree with. I presented a lot of data showing why your initial post was blatantly wrong, and now you’ve come back at me with more empty claims. So please enlighten us with your insight. On what actual measure (meaning something actually relevant and concrete rather than “why would you attend b-school in Spain”) do you think IESE has lost ground to HEC, Judge and Said? Certainly not employment data or rankings. Same goes for the student quality and job potential of US schools vs IESE.

    Give me the cold facts Helene… (or are you also Pink Penguin/Yakov?)

  • Hélène

    PinkPanther and Partyanimal,Seriously?,

    It is blatantly obvious based on word patterns that you are the same person posting in disguise of various usernames. You may disagree with the facts that IESE can’t offer the potential of top US schools when it comes to jobs and students. In recent years, it has even lost ground to EU peers such as HEC, Judge and Said. Who would attend a B-School in a Spanish economy on the brink of bankruptcy? The party is over.

  • party animal

    Soft on academics? We’ve got a reputation for being the exact opposite. On average each week a first year student studies 15 cases (around 30 hours of prep time), spends 25 hours in lectures and 10 hours in team meetings. Not many b-schools come close to this.

    I’m sorry we party too much for you.

  • @yakov

    Yakov, I’m not sure which alum you spoke to, but you probably should have done the numbers yourself bro (useful lesson for going into an MBA…)

    IESE bats above its average in terms of number of clubs compared to top ranked business schools in the US. Despite its size, IESE has 59 student run clubs which is equal to the average number at the US schools making up the FT top 10 list (Yale: 47, Stern: 37, HBS: 76, Stanford: 67, Sloan: 59 & Booth: 71). All IESE’s student clubs run frequent events, seminars and international treks (Asia Business Club Trek to Singapore, Fashion and Luxury Goods Club trek to Milan, Pharma Club trek to Geneva, TMT Club Trek to Silicon Valley, Finance & Marketing Club Trek to London… etc).

    Also, you’re the first person I’ve ever heard use the words “hype” and “IESE” in the same sentence. I would wager my sign-on bonus that IESE spends a fraction of the marketing budget of any other school in the FT top 10 list. Rather than buying advertising space in the WSJ, it spends money investing in improving the MBA experience (and yes, developing centers in emerging markets).

  • PinkPanther

    Diverse environment of US B-Schools? NFL, NBA, fast food, and reality TV shows? How diverse can a school consisting of 40% international students be? The class focus on US b-schools is too american centered (student comments, professor experiences, etc.) By the way the term minority does not need to be used in schools such as IESE. A minority is only a minority when there is no diversity. IESE does not need to call its students a minority as it has diversity. And yes, there are LGBT students as well.

  • Seriously?

    Helene, you’ve made some pretty baseless statements above… not sure where to start.

    Not global? The student body at IESE is 80% international from 40+ countries. This is far greater than the average 30-40% international at US schools. You’re correct that it’s core curriculum has remained relatively consistent over the years, but a lot of that is due to the flexibility that is afforded in teaching using the case method.

    Your statements about recruitment are plain wrong. The big Spanish companies that have recruited at IESE have continued to do so despite of the crisis. Inditex, Mango etc have increased their recruitment this year. Most graduates have traditionally been placed out of Spain which isn’t a reflection of the Spanish economy, but rather a reflection on the international diversity of the student body. if you’re interested in facts (I suspect you’re not) check out the placement report:

    The rest of your comments (facilities, research, innovation, network etc) are rubbish, let alone your comment about workload… where did you get that from? The first-year workload at IESE is 30% greater than LBS and roughly the same as INSEAD (which is only a 9 month program).

  • Good luck 😉

  • PinkPenguin

    Incidentally, IESE is too conservative for some students and does not reach out to LGBT/minority students. I prefer the diverse environment of US B-Schools. IESE announces grand plans and rosy future, yet remains vague for value added career center services. The dean emphasizes IESE’s strength and does not assess its weaknesses. IESE still remains
    poor in its efforts to attract top talent. It is a local champion but is only second choice for
    most applicants.

  • Yakov

    I would take the IESE hype with a pinch of salt. I removed IESE from my short list
    after talking to alumni due to concerns over academic rigor and placement for international
    students. I also did not like the party school attitude and fewer student run clubs
    or events compared to US business schools. The recent shift to executive centers
    outside Spain has drained resources from its core MBA program. IESE is too much
    style over substance.

  • flubber

    I am applying to IESE, and if come September, this man is my dean, I will be able to trust him. Thats a good feeling!

  • Hélène

    Hi John,

    Thanks for this comprehensive IESE profile of a non US B-School, this should prove
    your critics wrong that PQ covers only H/S/W. I may respectfully disagree with
    some of IESE’s flattering position. It may have increased its international
    student intake from booming BRIC countries to piggyback on their strong
    economies. Yet, it does not make IESE really global. With regard to
    professional reach, academic work and influence, IESE still remains regional at
    best. Critics may describe IESE’s curriculum as soft and IESE has a reputation for
    Spain and South America centric.There has been little innovation in its curriculum with lack of influential research, IESE talks the leadership talk but it does not walk the
    walk. You correctly identified that within IESE’s alumni base and faculty, the internationalisation strategy remains controversial. The recent terrible Spanish economy has led to weaker recruitment of Spanish firms and the career office has not really followed up with adding more global positions. IESE still struggles to get global companies for recruitment.

    IESE is still way behind top US B-Schools in terms of career opportunities,
    networking and faculty research. It also provides less scholarship $ or
    financial aid to students given its expensive tuition fee. Facilities tend to
    be average at best. A lot needs to be done to reach IESE’s ambition and it is a
    long journey. Dean Canals is overselling IESE.