An Interview With IESE Dean Jordi Canals


If you want to have an impact on the business world and society, you cannot just do it at the local or regional level. You want to do it at a global level, especially in a world that is becoming more integrated and more global. We cannot have an inspiration to have an impact on this world without a global program with students from Asia, Africa, North America and the rest of the world.

But I built upon a fantastic legacy. Back in 2002, we had a strategy meeting with our executive committee and senior faculty members. We asked how would we like to see the school 15 or 20 years down the road. We said we wanted to have a school with a strong sense of mission and a more global school that would serve the needs of students in different geographies. We needed to improve the quality of the MBA program from admissions to career services and we needed to make it global.

So we made it a goal to move from 40% international students to 85% within five years. When we reached the target of 1,600 applications, we’ll think about having four sections of students. Before that we wanted to improve everything from the educational experience and the curriculum to career services. We reached our target in 2008 and we grew the program.

Was there ever any controversy over this strategy? By design, you are taking fewer domestic students and even capping their representation in your MBA program?

It was controversial with some senior faculty members who believed that strategy would put the school at risk. When you do things like this, you never know if you are right. But you need to engage people and persuade them. I remember that the alumni chapter in Spain kept telling me that we needed to enroll more people from Spain. I told them that we will continue to grow the Executive MBA program and executive education. We are not going to forget about Spain. The only thing is that recruiters and students in the MBA program are looking for a global experience. Unless we provide it, we will not be relevant. People were skeptical but today it is accepted.

How did you get to 85%? There’s no doubt that having that large a percentage of international students requires the school to cast a broader admissions net and to work much harder at career development and placement.

We have learned a few things. One of our secrets is that together with the MBA program, we decided to globalize executive education at the same time. My first faculty meeting was Sept. 12 in 2001. I told the faculty, ‘I don’t know what the world will look like in ten years, but let’s think we are going to get the best out of our nature and that the world will recover from this.’ Some of them said, ‘Jordi, this could be the beginning of the third world war. This may mean that globalization will be in retreat.’ So it was a challenging time.

But if the world was becoming more global, we needed to work in executive education with companies all over the world. At that time, our executive education revenues were about 20 million euros and mostly in Spain. Today executive education is a 45 million euro global business, without the Executive MBA. We set up an executive center in Brazil with 11 people where we also have an Executive MBA program in Sao Paulo. We’re doing about 6.5 million euros in Brazil. The second bet was Germany in Munich where we have 13 people in an executive center. And in New York, we have 18 to 20 people.

How does the university affiliation with Opus Dei impact the business school and the people who graduate from IESE?

I think the product comes out in the context of a school that has a mission which is broadly shared by most faculty members and staff members. We have 30 different nationalities who work on campus in Barcelona. The purpose of the school is to create a learning context for entrepreneurs, senior executives and MBA students where they can think about how they can have a deep, lasting impact on people, organizations and society. They do that through professional excellence, integrity and service.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Catholic or a Muslim. We are not going to ask you about that and we don’t care about that.

How did the school rise in the rankings? Because like it or not, a lot of the school’s visibility has come from its success in The Financial Times’ and The Economist’s rankings.

All together, rankings somehow highlight 90% of the issues that most deans and companies think are relevant. The only thing that rankings can’t measure is the quality of the education and the long-term effect of the MBA on careers.

So you do what you can do with rankings. If you globalize your student body and your faculty, if you give your students better opportunities in terms of career placement, those things are reflected in the rankings. If you make improvements over time in those areas, you will see an improvement in your ranking. This is the way we look at it. Would we do those things if rankings weren’t important? I think people in education need to do those things, to globalize and to improve career opportunities.

One single ranking may not tell you the whole truth, but together they may get you closer to the truth. Today when we go to places like China and India people obviously do their research on the schools. In China, people are obsessed with rankings. It is a hurdle you have to pass. Once you pass this hurdle, you need to make sure the value proposition is good enough.

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