Leila Guerra joined Imperial College Business School as the new associate dean of programs in March 2018 from Singapore Management University, where she was assistant dean for postgraduate programs. She brought with her to Imperial a wealth of experience in business education. She also has served as executive director for early-career programs at London Business School and as director of innovation at IE Business School in Madrid, from which she also holds an Executive MBA. A Spanish national, Guerra has lived in eight different countries and speaks four languages (English, German, Portuguese and Spanish).
At the CentreCourt MBA Festival in London’s Tate Modern art museum February 9, she engaged in a fireside chat about Imperial that was broadcast all over the world. Moderating the conversation was Matt Symonds, co-sponsor of the CentreCourt MBA Festival with Poets&Quants and a long-time observer of the business school scene.
Matt Symonds: What sort of difference does the convergence of business and technology make to the culture and learning opportunities at Imperial College Business School?
Leila Guerra: For many years there’s not been a significant change in the business school world and we’ve moved on. We evolved, but the world evolved quicker. What happened now, with technology coming in with more and more students and stakeholders demanding the flexibility across industries, across learning, is that we needed to take advantage of that and schools like Imperial College Business school were right in the front of where that actually could happen. We are a technology-driven institution. We are surrounded by STEM, and we are now in a place where we can offer our students not just the MBA learnings or the master’s learnings, which are still core, but also there are opportunities around technology and how that shapes their experience and how that transforms their careers later down the line.
Symonds: Now I’ve heard you use a phrase to describe this convergence at the STEM BA, and of course, whether it’s life sciences or technology, the school is innovating in many different ways. So how does that sort of feed into the full year experience in the MBA program?
Guerra: For many years business schools were trying to just define the same model and when we were trying to do it differently, it was all kind of very low radar and not being very bold about who you are. For me, it’s actually on the contrary. You need to be bold about who you are and what you are going to bring. So the STEM BA is a name that reflects that precise crossroad between the MBA world and the STEM environment that you can find at college. So you will definitely hear more about that. It will change the way we offer innovation. It changes how technology should not just be one product, a Mooc or an online degree, it actually needs to redesign completely our experience in higher education, and it will also address the leadership skills that are needed in today’s world.
Symonds: How does that reflect the changing ambitions of MBA students? Where do you think MBA graduates want to go in the next five or ten years with their careers?
Guerra: I think their ambitions have already changed and the recruiters’ ambitions have already changed. We used to talk about a career in finance or a career in consulting, but for the last five to ten years, you’re hearing about the jobs that don’t exist anymore in the future. Millennials are changing that perspective on jobs. So what we need to prepare them for is that flexibility, but also to have the skills that will be required for that journey. They’re going to have a hundred-year life. How can we have that lifelong learning experience and how we can bring technology to that need. So their career demands and their skill demands have changed. I think we need to be leading on that. We need to prepare them for that. If not, we’re potentially failing them.
Symonds: Now, if we all get to live to a hundred, there might be an opportunity for a post-exec MBA. You already offer an online master’s in business analytics, in international management, and an online MBA experience. What is your advice for how individuals can make the right choice among these options?
Guerra: I think there are actually two answers. There is a program for you at each career stage. We have the pre-experience programs now being a trend, even in the U.S. Even in Asia, they’re picking up, and that allows you to have this first track into your career. The MBA still makes very, very much sense as a transfer across industries, and then later down the line, you have the Executive MBA. In our case, there is a need to also offer different programs across the academic opportunities. You want to do business analytics, fintech, or strategic marketing. Instead of having just individual courses, it makes more sense to offer cross-program opportunities, cross-generational opportunities as well. You will go into a workplace where you’re working with a 20 year old and a 45 year old and a sixty year old. How can we prepare you for that?
I did a MIM and I did an executive MBA, and I’m thinking already, so what’s next? If you go into higher education, you just enjoy it so much. You build your networks, you build your academic excellence, you build your professional skills, that we need to offer something that can be longer and that’s where the lifelong learning comes in.
Symonds: You mentioned millennials and their choices, and perhaps the online MBA allows a digital native to more naturally learn when they want, where they want. What parts of the business education market do you think the online MBA will take? Will it challenge the full time MBA?
Guerra: No, we haven’t seen a challenge. Our online MBA is very successful and is one of our flagships. It has its own methodology and it benefits all of the other programs as well via their digital innovations. So particularly for us at Imperial College, we have not seen that. But actually if you look at the global markets, more and more students are looking for flexibility and they’re looking to adapt their careers to their educational needs. So in As,ia we’re seeing more and more students wanting to have these online programs, and the online MBA really suits them well. In Africa for us, in many, many countries, we are underrepresented. We would want to have more students from those regions and they are choosing the online MBA as a very viable option.
But there’s a second element to that, which is the online MBA is allowing us to be bolder about innovating, about introducing digital innovations that benefit all the other programs. We’re talking about millennials, but Gen Z, they’re already there and they are already asking us, “Look, I don’t want just one immersive experience. Digital needs to be in everything you do because that’s how I live my life. How can we prepare our programs so that, that happens?
Symonds: European schools have done very well in the last two or three years with the one-year program, and of course you’re the number one ranked one-year program in London. What is the appeal of one year versus two years? You’re investing in yourself, can you fit everything into that one year?
Guerra: The other question to ask yourself is this: Can you afford to be away from your professional or personal journey for two years? Today, more than ever, we’re living in the moment. For me, one year is a very immersive, very accelerated experience. It is designed in such a way that you are constantly doing things and that is definitely a fair point, but again, technology comes in. You now have online electives that get offered to you once you’re an alumni. So the one year MBA is becoming, in our case for at least, is something that can lead to more things later on. I was in the U.S. two weeks ago and you have many more of the U.S. schools now actually saying, “Maybe we should move to the one-year model and maybe, again Gen Z’s, millennials cannot anymore afford and actually they don’t need a two-year program.”
Symonds: Has digital learning meant that you can also shift classes on such basic things as discounted cash flow to a digital platform and then place more emphasis on experiential learning in the full time experience?
Guerra: Experiential learning started many years ago and at the beginning, I think it was more of a student experience part. Let’s do field trips, let’s do a project, but now we are going back to the flexibility that I keep mentioning, and it’s about bringing the environment into the classroom. In London, we’re surrounded by a vibrant financial city. How can we bring that into the classroom? And how can the academic content be enriched and how can I make your learning experience positively directed at your professional journey. So the experiential, in our case, shapes everything we do. It goes from working in entrepreneurial projects. It goes with working on consulting projects with the key companies that maybe later down the line will recruit you. It has a global element to it. You’ll still have your international field trips, But we’re also thinking about our learning and teaching strategies right now and the research shows that experiential is becoming the dominant way of teaching.