Inside INSEAD’s 24/7 Culture Of Conflict

The Financial Times ranks INSEAD’s full-time program first for two straight years


Repeat No. 1 placements in the most highly regarded ranking in Europe and Asia makes sense for a school with royalty roots. Founded in 1957 by Harvard professor and venture capitalist Georges Doriot, alongside Claude Janssen and Olivier Giscard d’Eastaing, INSEAD first sat in the Palace of Fontainebleau, or Château de Fontainebleau. For those unfamiliar, the palace has been housing French monarchs since the 16th century, and, yes, that includes Napoleon. It wasn’t until 1967 when INSEAD moved about a kilometer down the road to where it sits now against the forest.

Some MBAs spend time at the Middle East campus, but the majority still split their time between Singapore and France — a major draw to the program. Another major draw is the potential of the alumni network. “If I ever have a question about any sort of industry or geography, there is someone I can phone,” says Byron Ascott-Evans, a current student at INSEAD. The South African says he now enjoys a lifelong network of people across broad geographical and industry areas. And it starts with the small teams to which students are assigned and required to work with in all core courses during the first four-month session.

“You go to class the first day and here are the four to five people you are going to be working with on everything for the next four months,” the former McKinsey employee continues. “And it’s crazy because of the composition of the mix.” On Ascott-Evans’ team was an Indian, Italian, Singaporean, Brazilian, and himself, a native of South Africa.


“Groups are meant to maximize conflict and this is how we learn to deal with conflicts through life,” adds Mark Dimal, a Filipino student who says his groups surprisingly did not experience much conflict. Peyer, who oversaw the curriculum revamp that will roll out this coming fall, confirmed the groups are strategically chosen by the school to “maximize diversity and create friction in a sense by learning from the differences in the group.” Ascott-Evans agreed his group had some of the “good confirmation” both Mihov and Peyer spoke of. “You have to re-test the assumptions you’ve built up about business,” Ascott-Evans adds.

For Peyer, the move is akin to his earlier days flying in the Swiss Air Force — something he still lights up about while reflecting. “Things aren’t linear. So many things in business models are linear,” Peyer insists. “Because nature influences things. And you see that heavily in aviation. While you can plan for things, nature interferes. Here we have the composition of the groups, which you can’t always plan. And the outcome of such group dynamics are very hard to predict. Business is very similar.”


From the get-go, teams are assigned to create a contract. The constitution of sorts is meant to guide how they approach assignments and projects throughout the first four-month period. “It’s the first big group exercise you have to do. And the whole crux of it is around what’s the working model,” Ascott-Evans says. The process of team contracts and peer feedback sessions are part of the greater Personal Leadership Development model that Peyer says will continue to be a “pillar” of the new curriculum. It’s a means for group members to really get to know one another from the beginning–and a significant part of their Organizational Behavior 1 course.

“So, to be completely honest,” Ascott-Evans adds, “what’s important to you in terms of academics, lifestyle, experience, what’s the best way to communicate with you, what makes you excited, what doesn’t work for you, how do you deal with conflict, how do you make decisions. And it counts as a significant part of your grade, which is great because it is taken seriously.”

Projects like this — as well as the first team project, which is an Everest simulation during which student teams outline plans to summit the world’s highest mountain — are important pieces to the overall curriculum. Mihov set the process of a curriculum review in motion three years ago when he took over as dean. MBA program overhauls can, of course, be incredibly painstaking processes, and one that Mihov admits he was expecting to be worse than what it ended up being. The school first created a five-member faculty committee to “benchmark” INSEAD’s curriculum against other elite B-schools. Once the committee concluded a lot of their curriculum was very similar to other schools, they reached out to students, alums, and recruiters for feedback. And the alums and recruiters both communicated a strong message: They were looking for stronger leadership development.


“We heard very clearly that they (alumni) wished there was a bigger emphasis on leadership development,” Mihov says. “That there was a bit more emphasis on decision making, on reflection, self-awareness, ethical dilemmas, and so on.”

Among such other things as strong analytical skills and a further strengthening of students’ global mindset, Mihov says recruiters were looking for graduates with more effective soft skills. “So that’s why we have this leadership development program,” Mihov says.

Now, more than 150 coaches are available for students through the INSEAD Global Leadership Center, Peyer explains. Every student receives a personal coach as well as group and peer coaching. Mihov says those coaches help students with everything from decision making skills to understanding biases within themselves to behaving in teams — something highlighted by the intensive team nature of the program.

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