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INSEAD Dean Talks B-School’s Past, Present, Future


Can you give any examples of what you think applicants fail to see about INSEAD?

I think it’s the global perspective. What is different about INSEAD? Well, the one-year program is obviously different than a two-year program. That’s easy to see. But it’s difficult, for example, to see that, from an academic point of view, it doesn’t make any difference. Because people don’t do the calculation and they see two years as two years, but actually, academically, it’s the same duration. We look at the number of hours we have in the classroom and it’s very similar to the top U.S. schools. With some we have more, and with others we have less. I have heard this before, that you cannot teach these things in one year. Well, actually you can. And I think that we do. But at the end of the day, the ultimate test is whether students get jobs or not. And our students are placed at top companies around the world. So I think it’s difficult to see that you are not losing anything academically, but you’re gaining this global perspective — this diversity, which is becoming more and more important. It’s difficult to communicate this message sometimes.

This clearly hasn’t had much influence on job placements, but what can you say for students who are considering INSEAD but are also looking for an internship? The internship is an important aspect for many students entering the two-year model.

That’s true, but we also take older students. I think for younger students it’s more important that for ones that are at a different level. We have increased the age to 29 for two key reasons. One is that because of the lack of internship, they have to be able to get that job with just the academic side. The second reason is when they come with more experience and knowledge, we give them academically 90% or 100% of what American schools give them. It’s very intensive. And if you have not heard of strategy and you have not done things in business sufficiently for a long period of time, it could be quite confusing. That’s how we’ve tried to compensate with a lack of internship.

What is the best advice you have for applicants considering INSEAD and other top schools?

I think the advice is, think about your aspirations, your career, what you want to do. Schools in the U.S., again, have their strengths. We have our strengths. INSEAD has not only the global, which we have discussed, but INSEAD has always been entrepreneurial and has been more so in recent years. If you look at the PitchBook ranking that came out a few weeks back, it’s interesting that our alumni — many of them are outside the U.S. — have managed funds that are comparable to what the top U.S. schools have raised in the past five years. INSEAD is becoming more and more focused on entrepreneurship. But what I think is really important is this self-awareness and leadership development, which will be a thing that is helpful to them throughout their careers. It’s not just about getting a job.

What are some of the toughest challenges you anticipate facing in the next few years?

I think that everybody is fighting for two things. One is students and the other is faculty. So the toughest challenge for us is to keep INSEAD an attractive proposition in this competitive environment. To show that the school is continuously innovating and helping students get their jobs. For us, the big issue is that in terms of the amount of money you have to pay for the MBA, we’re still probably the cheapest school in the top 10 — but the amount is still substantial, and the U.S. schools are competing with more scholarships. To me, this is a very big challenge. We are focusing on building a very robust scholarship program. Today 20% of the students receive some form of financial aid. But the idea is to get to 50% at least. And that’s very tough.

And then for faculty, I don’t think we have that much trouble with maintaining faculty. We have professors that are very productive and engaging. In academic journals, they’ve published more than many of the other top schools. We do have the environment but one of the big risks is if this environment changes and we start losing some of the professors. We’re not there yet, it’s more like a risk, and hopefully we’ll never be there.

If I think about another risk, obviously digitalization can be something that can come up. And probably some schools are suffering from the availability of online courses. For us, digitalization is a huge benefit. Because now we can take some of the material out and use it as a digital offering before they come to INSEAD, which is what we’re doing with the new curriculum. So we can free up some more time during the year. For us, it will allow us to do things that are value-adding and good for the students. But for challenges, not in the near future, but in the medium turn, it could be companies or organizations that offer some courses or building out a portfolio of courses that will not necessarily replicate an MBA but that could be viewed as a certificate program with five or six courses at the job that I want. That’s possible.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as dean?

I think the number-one lesson is, communication is key. I think communication is key in moments when you need to change something. People need to understand why you are doing it. And the second reason communication is key is, in our case, spreading the word of INSEAD is not where it should be. It’s so interesting that today, even at the reunion when we had 500 people in the room — people that are obviously passionate about their school and are coming back and love the school — but when I show them what the school has done in the last 10 years or so, they are very surprised. If you go year after year surprising people in a positive way, it means, on average, the information you have is not out there. People don’t know what is happening in the school. And that’s something that I’ve learned is very valuable. So we’re focusing now on brand awareness, branding exercises, communication, (and) we’ve started an alumni magazine that gives stories about the school and alumni.

And it’s interesting that what I’ve learned is, if you try to understand the demands of the students and alumni, if you try to understand what they’re after when they come to INSEAD or when they reconnect to the school, I think you can achieve a lot of great things. I think that we see some of these things happening. And sometimes it’s difficult, what they want. Sometimes it’s not possible. But when you engage in a conversation, then you either convince them it’s not possible or they convince you it is possible. So engaging in conversations and listening is very valuable.

If you could change one thing about graduate business education, what would it be and why?

I don’t want to continue to sell our curriculum change, but I think we need to continue to focus more on personal development. About the emotional component in working with other people. About psychological issues. About building character and being aware of what your values are and how you align your decisions with your values. If you build these things at this stage, you will see fewer corporate scandals and fewer issues. Because they will be able to check themselves. I think today, most of the business schools are providing excellent quality in terms of competence building and analytical skills. We have created so many exercises — cases, simulations, and so on — that help them develop these skills, and they are absolutely crucial. They have to be there, no doubt.

But now I think we also have to increase our focus on character building, awareness, and reflection. And I think that’s not only true for the MBAs. This is something that we learn from executives and now we are bringing it to the MBAs. We see executives make a decision, start implementing, practice, and move on. You never have the time to stop and reflect and look back and say, “OK, I made this decision, we implemented this, that was wrong, that was right, now let me think about how to do the next one to avoid these mistakes.” This reflection on the practice you have had in the past is still a muscle that many people do not train enough.

Any other final thoughts?

I would add that to the American applicants that are considering business education, probably the most important thing in the process of decision making is to talk to alumni from different schools. To see how this alum talks about the school. What is positive about the school? This is key. Most alumni will be selling their school, of course, but you have to have the filter to figure out what part of the sales pitch is relevant for you. So I would encourage them to find INSEAD alumni in the U.S. and learn what INSEAD gives.