The case method is wrapped in mystery for many MBA candidates. It is this magical craft that trains students to become CEOs. In reality, it is the execution, as much as the methodology, that creates the alchemy.
On the surface, the case method involves dissecting business ‘stories,’ judging the strategies and fateful decisions that led to riches or ruin. In reality, it is a way of thinking that is reinforced with each reading and discussion. Think of the case classroom as high stakes armchair quarterbacking. Instead of venting, students are role-playing, wresting with the same contradictory data, ambiguous trends, agonizing tradeoffs, and risky alternatives as their c-suite protagonists. Here, diversity is paramount, as students with differing cultural and professional backgrounds often swing discussions in fresh and unexpected directions. In the process, case professors adopt a new role, going from a ‘sage on the stage’ to a guide who channels the passions and expertise of students – and a devil’s advocate who isn’t afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions.
IESE MBAs ANALYZE THREE CASES A DAY
“The approach is more centered on understanding how to first analyze a problem and second go to the different criteria used to solve the problem,” explains Julia Prats, the MBA Dean at IESE Business School in a 2018 interview with Poets&Quants. “You go through the scenarios and look at the alternatives before finally making a decision. After that, you reflect on the effects of these decisions on the people involved.”
Few MBA programs have embraced the case method like IESE Business School. By graduation, IESE students can expect to read over 600 case studies. This teaching method stems from the school’s heritage, when Harvard Business School partnered with the school to train faculty on the art of successfully implementing the secrets case method. Fast forward 50 years and Harvard Business School and IESE are neck-and-neck in teaching quality at the top of the latest Economist student survey (4.71 vs. 4.66 respectively on a 5.0 scale). Not surprisingly, both programs focus on general management, with the case method designed to simulate exactly what students will face once they graduate.
“We believe it trains people to do what general managers do all day long in that part of the job,” adds Prats. “It puts you in a real situation and asks you to play the role of the protagonist. I think it is very effective because, at the end, it is like you were in a small trial and you can learn how to act and react. It’s not just a story. It’s not something where you can play around and just give opinions. It is a very different thing that requires you to be well-prepared. It is something where people change their mindsets.”
SCHOOL KNOWN FOR ACADEMIC RIGOR AND PERSONAL ATTENTION
Indeed, the case method is one of IESE’s trademark experiences – one that drew Ali Alamein, an Australian asset planner, to Barcelona to join the Class of 2020. “I am a practical person and I believe I will learn best in a case-driven program where I can break down complex problems, prioritize what is important, and find the optimal solution,” he says. “I think it will be particularly interesting to see the diversity of opinions and learn from my classmates in the process.”
IESE is sometimes called the “Iberian Ivy,” a nod no doubt to its Catalonian setting and Harvard roots. Nestled in the hills of the University of Navarra and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, IESE is a bit of an educational throwback. Renowned for its academic rigor, the school boasts a jaw-dropping 4:1 student-to-faculty ratio – with 100% of MBA professors holding a Ph.D. The program also prides itself on its international flavor, which extends to a faculty hailing from 30 different nationalities. In addition, IESE is a far-flung enterprise, with locations in six locations outside Barcelona: Madrid, New York City, Sāo Paulo, Shanghai, Nairobi, and München (Germany) – a must for a school again ranked as the very best executive education program in the world.
Still, it is IESE’s teaching excellence that separates it from most business school. This stems from its apprenticeship culture, where senior faculty members lavish feedback and personal attention on their junior peers. This coaching culture doesn’t stop in the faculty offices, however. It is applied equally to IESE MBAs, with faculty devoting time and genuine interest in their students, creating a trickle-down camaraderie and compassion among classmates.
FROM IRAQI REFUGEE TO IESE MBA CANDIDATE
“These are very critical years for students,” Prats notes. They are changing careers, going from one country to the next, so there are many things going on. Having someone who is not just a pure teacher, but a mentor to help with their own careers and to understand themselves is very important. Our faculty does that. That’s why there is a sentiment here among the students that there is ‘Someone who cares about me.’”
That’s important in a truly international program like IESE, where 81% of the Class of 2020 comes from outside Spain. Overall, 55 nations are represented in the incoming class, with a third of the students being women. It also ranks among IESE’s most formidible classes ever, boasting a 686 average GMAT – up 16 points over the previous intake.
A class is far more than its numbers. That’s particularly true for 2020, whose members include a senior drug safety officer at Pfizer, a Brexit project manager from AIG, and the head of marketing and communications at Bitly. However, their stories are far more interesting than their titles. Take Ali Alamein, whose family left Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Now a father, Alamein looks back and realizes that he must step forward and pay forward his good fortune – and he plans to do it through his MBA.
“Australia gave us a second chance at life and we have all done our best not to waste this opportunity,” he writes. “Well, now I realize that I can start giving back, not just as a role-model, but as someone who dedicates their career to improving the world. The sacrifices my family and I made can’t compare with the sacrifices the Iraqi people have made to destroy evil, like ISIS. For years, Saddam murdered and terrorized many intellectuals and people with a vision for the nation, leaving a leadership vacuum in Iraq. I believe an MBA at IESE will help me become one of the leaders Iraq needs to re-build.”
FROM WANDERING THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK TO PRAYING WITH THE DALAI LAMA
Then there is Eta Yu. After graduation, she plans to launch an enterprise in China that fosters cultural connection through tourism. In college, her first venture was helping people with leprosy find work. To do this, she relied on Canton mythology – and making handicrafts that represented its rich culture.
“In three months, we visited everywhere in the fabric market, trying to find the right materials and an experienced Canton embroidery master,” she explains. “We contacted numerous NGOs seeking help in exporting those handicrafts. This project helped solve the patients’ financial problems. This experience made me realize the beauty of business and the possible positive impact that business can bring to people.”
Like that story? Well, Yu has plenty more. “Having visited over 50 countries, I’ve accumulated a lifetime of experiences,” she says. “I drove across the Australian outback, dived in the Similan islands, and prayed in Dharamshala with the Dalai Lama. Not every experience was joyous. In Beirut as bombs went off, I was stunned by how normal the locals reacted. In Gansu, I saw real water scarcity meeting people who trekked many miles just to shower. In Kolkata volunteering at a charity, I felt helpless to assuage their pain of the dying, only able to offer words as they passed from this world. All experiences changed the way I see the world, made me understand, respect and appreciate diverse cultures.”
“THE HUMAN LABRADOR” BRINGS JOY TO BARCELONA
Yu isn’t alone in visiting over 50 countries. That honor also belongs to Tetsuya Hasuoka, a self-described “passionate samurai” who was previously a CFO of Japan’s fifth largest general trading company that houses over 39,000 employees. His claim to fame? He was born on the same month, day, and year as his wife! In Australia, Ali Alamein was a chess champion – a skill he learned from a man in Indonesia even though they couldn’t speak each other’s language. Leila Areff, a banking executive from South Africa, can recite the lyrics – and break out the dance moves – from every 1980s pop song. How did Karina Kleissl get the nickname, “The human Labrador?” “I always get very excited with the smallest and most simple things,” gushes the Brazil native.
These students also carry a distinct – and consistent – description of their classmates. Kleissl has been struck by the “family feel,” a cohort where the “general mentality is that we are all in this together and we want every one of us to succeed.” Indeed, this ‘Us vs. Them’ Outlook has been replaced by a surprising receptiveness…even candor at times, says Tetsuya Hasuoka.
“The classmates I met have a bigger picture,” he observes. “They are very open-minded, willing to learn from different countries and cultures, as well as wanting to tell the worldwide classmates what they had experienced, sometimes failed, in their professional life.”
PUTTING YOURSELF IN THE SHOES…OF 40 DIFFERNT CULTURES
“Open-mindedness” is just one of the terms that Gintare Petrauskaite uses to describe her classmates. The others? “Humility, fun, professionalism, excellence, [and] diversity.” Among the Class of 2020, “diversity” is a word that repeatedly pops up in a word cloud. It is a homage to what motivated many students – past and present – to come to IESE in the first place: Learning how to navigate an increasingly globalized world.
“Being a business school in Spain, IESE’s internationality and amplitude of diverse perspectives is underestimated,” writes Adelina Gerteis, a P&Q MBA To Watch from IESE’s Class of 2018. “I was personally surprised by how far many of my classmates traveled to be part of IESE. My core team of nine people, for example, came from Malaysia, Philippines, Brazil, Peru, Romania, Germany, Spain and Australia. Just imagine our discussions and intercultural experiences. I really learned to think outside the box and put myself in at least 40 culturally different shoes.”
Academically, the Class of 2020 features a broad range of undergraduate majors, including Business (42%), Engineering (33%), Humanities (15%), and Sciences (10%). It is an equally diverse mix in terms of career choices, with 61% of the class working outside the financial services (20%), consulting (13%), and public service (6%) sectors. That said, the IESE vision of diversity goes beyond careers, cultural backgrounds, and long-term goals. It also encompasses what Julian Becker calls “diversity of thought.”