Andrea Masini doesn’t think the two big political temblors of 2016, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, will drive business school talent out of the U.K. and U.S., respectively. But the head of HEC Paris’s MBA program — and the designer of what is being styled a “MBA super program” — does expect those two events to put a new spotlight on B-schools in continental Europe.
What those schools choose to do with the increased attention is up to them, Masini says. He sees it as a great opportunity.
“In a context where we see a lot of countries almost being afraid of getting exposed to free trade, to international challenges, it is important to keep saying, ‘We have the responsibility for training leaders of tomorrow who can help us, and those who would build barriers are wrong and they have to be overcome,’” Masini tells Poets&Quants. “Brexit and the American election even reinforces that a program like this has to be open to international diversity.”
It is a common belief that in the wake of Brexit, the June 2016 vote by Britain to leave the European Union, and in fear of a Trump administration, prospective MBA students and top faculty may have second thoughts about going to schools in the UK and U.S. Masini doesn’t buy it. But he does expect more attention to be paid to schools like HEC Paris, where he took over the MBA program in January of a very eventful 2016.
“I don’t think there will be any major shift of talent,” Masini says. “What I see is even greater attention for quality in the program, and I think that if you develop a super program you should have an excellent school with great courses, great leadership, great opportunity for your students.”
SUPER PROGRAM: A DASH OF HARVARD, A SPLASH OF STANFORD …
What goes into developing a so-called MBA “super program?” Masini, a management professor for more than five years at HEC Paris before taking on his current role and a professor at London Business School and INSEAD before that, looks to the great global programs for inspiration. He says the ideal program will emulate the best attributes of each. That means the leadership of Harvard, the entrepreneurial flair of Stanford GSB, the academic rigor of Chicago Booth, and the specializations of Wharton — along with the collaboration of Kellogg, the business acumen of Columbia, and the innovation of MIT Sloan — all on one campus.
“To pursue that super program, first of all you need academic quality,” Masini says, pointing to HEC Paris faculty’s research “and the application of that knowledge in the context of the MBA class.” Also key, he says, is having a relatively small class size, ideally around 250 students — which “implies that there is constant contact between the research professors and the students.”
“It is almost taken for granted,” Masini says, “that this is not a place you can get in if your academic standards are not outstanding. But that’s really not enough. We live in a complex world in which the boundaries between functions and industries are increasingly blurred, and that requires unique leadership skills in a multicultural context. So the other element that we inject into the program is leadership developed and taught by doing things on the job.”
CRITICAL THINKING ON THE FLY
Masini cites an example. Some HEC Paris students were working on a project in Tanzania, Africa, in collaboration with an NGO to develop a distribution system for solar panels. The project was driven by a mission to increase access to energy for people in rural areas and involved social innovation and the application of theories from operations management, marketing, and the design of a distribution channel.
“So our students went there equipped with that knowledge, and they immediately realized that things there, in the context in which they were operating, were changing not every day but every minute,” Masini says. “And they had to revise their assumptions. They had to understand how those models and principles could or could not be applied to the context in which they operated and come up with a different plan. It was a fascinating experience.”
And a successful one. As a result of their work, most of the students in the Tanzania group found jobs at multinational organizations, Masini says, including Infiniti and Phillip Morris. “And they all say, ‘The project we did was the experience that enabled us to be credible as leaders, because the companies who hired us said, ‘These participants are able to be extremely adaptable, to be able to understand the complexity of the decision-making process in the context in which they operated.'”
FROM THEORETICAL TO PRACTICAL
HEC Paris, ranked 15th in 2016 by the Financial Times (as well as first in a FT ranking of master’s of finance programs) and fifth in P&Q’s 2015 global ranking, derives much of its strength from its international composition, Masini says.
“It is one of the great strengths of the program, the fact that we have so many different nationalities, backgrounds, competencies, skills,” he says, “that every single project we run, every single course our students do, requires an application of those rigorous theories and frameworks to a context which is always changing every day.” The level of international diversity at HEC Paris pushes students to apply the various theories and models and frameworks they learn in class to the different contexts they encounter, Masini adds. “The contexts are always changing, are never completely known at the outset, which implies that they have to think on their feet and be able to apply that knowledge and that has tremendous value.”
The school, Masini says, develops leadership uniquely through activities that “imply a better understanding of the limits, strengths, and weaknesses of the individual student, followed by an application of intangibles for leading teams composed of diverse participants. Activities,” Masini says, “where students themselves reflect on who they are, on optimal behaviors, weaknesses, and use that in collaboration with very senior leaders of multinational organizations who give us their time for free.”
Things go from theoretical to practical very quickly, he says. “We have activities that are much more practical, where students engage in very tough exercises, in an environment that requires exposing their limits and engaging in groups where they can apply some of the ideas and principles that they study into a highly practical context, when they have to make decisions quickly under pressure together with other colleagues.”