CentreCourt London: Fireside Chat With IMD Dean Seán Meehan

Seán Meehan became dean of IMD’s MBA program on January 1 of 2018 and wasted no time in making a big difference at the Swiss school in Lausanne. Before the end of his first year as dean, he had revamped the MBA experience so that it put increased focus on business leaders’ impact in society, what Meehan called a recalibration to engage tomorrow’s leaders with “global perspectives, digital transformation opportunities, and positive societal impact.”

At a fireside chat at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in London’s Tate Modern art museum February 9, Meehan talked about the new focus of the program as well as major trends in business education. In a wide-ranging interview on with Matt Symonds, co-sponsor of CentreCourt with Poets&Quants, Meehan explained what IMD looks for in an ideal candidate and what students can expect from the intimate one-year MBA experience in a class of just 90 students. Here is an edited transcript of the interview broadcast live around the world.

Matt Symonds: You’ve had a great year. And if you look at the business school over the last 100 years, and European business schools, this has been your best year or two, so what have you seen at the school in terms of growth and demand?

Seán Meehan: For us, the program is a constant. We have a very clear strategy. We’re going for slightly more experienced students. We’re looking for people with an international mindset. We want to put together a very diverse class. People who come from all sorts of different industries, who really bring something special to the group. So, for us, the selection is a pretty involved process. We’re not looking for the 90 highest GMAT people. We start with a blank piece of paper, 90 empty seats, and with every seat, we fill we remove some degrees of freedom. So we’re looking for something extra from every individual candidate, and we end up with this tremendously eclectic group, which, thankfully, recruiters find very attractive and are willing to invest in.

We have made it very clear for years to focus on leadership. So, we tend to think of our program as a leadership development program. It is an MBA: you do everything you need to do to qualify as an MBA. But, if you haven’t got the talent, the track record, the potential and the desire to lead, it’s a legitimate choice to say we’re not really the right program for you.

So we’re looking for people who really have the will and the desire and they want to figure out what does it take to be an effective leader? What does it take to promote an agenda? What does it take to change people’s minds, to bring them with you? We gear our course around that, and that’s where the dynamism in the design comes in because we have to look at the world in which people are going to be leaders.

They spend one year with us, from the age of 30 to 31. They have around about eight years to make an impact on an organization. At that point, in the late 30s, I think, most organizations have said, “That’s the pool we’re going to draw our leadership from. Those are the 20 people, in a vast organization, that we’re going to rely on and put our bet on. We’re going to test them. We’re going to put them in great situations to stretch them further, and to see if they can really do it.” So we need to keep asking ourselves, “What’s the world going to look like in eight to 10 years?” We think that the world today is in the fourth industrial revolution, and it’s very important for all business schools to face up to this and to decide how to address it.

The world is an awful lot more digitalized than it was. And it will continue to become more digitalized. So corporations have to become more agile. People will have to behave and work and organize in a much more entrepreneurial way in large organizations, so the business world will be more entrepreneurial and it will be more global.

So the leader needs to be leading in a context which is much more digitalized, much more global, and much more entrepreneurial. And we’ve injected all of that into the program design in the last few years. And that’s resonated in the marketplace. We see a huge uptake in demand, and we’ve been blessed with tremendous numbers.

Symonds: At most business schools, only five percent of the MBA graduates become entrepreneurs out of school. So are you teaching entrepreneurship per se, or is it an intrapreneurial way of thinking for graduates who go into large organizations?

Meehan: It’s both. We injected entrepreneurship into the program 20 years’ ago, and the objective then was not to encourage people to start their own businesses, though some do. But rather it was, what does it take to be successful in any organization. Because at some point in your career and in your life, this is an opportunity you’re probably going to want to consider.

So a lot of the technical aspects that an entrepreneur needs to understand, about fundraising, rounds of financing, what it means to have partners, and term sheets needs to be known. The job of an entrepreneur is not merely to run the business, and that’s the dilemma for a lot of people. “I see an idea. I’ve got a big idea I want to do.’ But, actually, they’re going to spend most of their time dealing with lawyers and financiers.

We had a reunion this year, and I think it was a 30-year reunion, and they were retiring at that stage of their careers. And someone asked, “How many are entrepreneurs?” At least 80% of them, raised their hands. The reason we put it in the program is not actually for that. It’s the intrapreneurialism that is the key leadership development issue that we’re trying to deal with because it is evident that the old command-and-control organizational forms are history, and they’re not coming back.

Symonds: IMD, in common with many European business schools, has a one-year MBA program, while most students take the MBA in two years. What’s the main attraction of a one year experience?

Meehan: I think society should have a point of view on this. You’ve got some of the highest potential people, aged 30 years’ of age. Why would you take them out of industry, society and commerce for two years when you can do an MBA in one year? So the issue is what are you going to do in one year? What can you do? And if you don’t really radically redesign, rethink what an MBA needs to be, if you just try to shrink the two-year model, it can’t work. I think you’ve got to make some choices.

One of the things that get dropped is a lot of time off. You don’t have every afternoon free. You do two classes a day, not one. And that’s how you get things done in one year. You still have to qualify as an MBA. People come in with arts’ backgrounds, they don’t know the first thing about accounting and finance. You can’t give them an MBA until they do. So it’s really hard work.

Now, I just happen to think it’s worth it. If you really want to lead, if you want to make an impact in life, then what are you doing spending another two years at a school for? You’ve done a four-year degree, you’ve gone into the workforce, you’ve learned some stuff, you’ve had experiences. I think the cost to the individual and the cost to society is too high, and I think they’ll be more one-year programs, for sure.

Symonds: This generation of students are often described as “digital natives” who grew up with computers and the Internet. What are you seeing in terms of the role that technology plays in delivering education where and when you want it, and within that full-time program format?

Meehan: I tend to think of development, rather than education, per se. I think people need to develop themselves, and development is a lifelong endeavor. I think you do have to have a good grounding, and you have to have a good understanding of where you stand relative to others. So I think the classroom has a role to play: the interaction, and the spontaneous interaction. Questions that occur to you in a discussion, don’t necessarily occur to you sitting at home and multi-tasking. Because a lot of digital natives, when they are on their own, they are multi-tasking. When I say “on their own” I mean, on their own physically, but they’re connected with people and things, and multiple people and things, simultaneously. It’s pretty hard to focus, reflect, and develop, in that context, I think.

It does have a role. There are lots of technical tools, there are lots of things that students will want to dig into. They’ll want examples, and they just want to know more. So they come out of class and check out a TED talk on human-centered design or go to the video blog of a great behavioral economist. Those are all good things to do.

When you’re doing a one-year program, you don’t have much time for this. All of the schools represented here today, they understand how to put a curriculum together. There’s an awful lot to get through, and they work out how students should be spending their time, from Monday morning to Sunday evening. Sticking with that program, given the amount of money it’s going to cost the individual student, is probably a good idea.

I don’t think that digital replication of the MBA experience is an enormous threat to programs like ours. They are in the market. I think it’s a great thing that they are in the market. Some of them are extraordinary, and they will find their niche. There’ll be a student body that it’s just very suitable for, and that’s a good thing. The more students that can be educated and developed in the area of business, the better it is for all of us.

Digitalization has a huge huge impact on us, nevertheless. You hardly ever see paper now. All the platforms, all the course materials are delivered electronically. All the communications are on a central platform. You know, high schools have this, so universities and business schools have this as well. And that’s important. It’s easier to connect with classes outside of class. It’s easier to address issues that classes are raising, so that everyone can learn from them, and to keep the learning alive. Or if there’s a problem area that students are struggling with after class, I think that’s important to clarify. Instead of one student going to a professor’s office and one student benefiting from that interaction, there can be a much wider interaction: that’s a good thing. So, digitalization, has really helped us.


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