IMD: Where Leadership Ambitions Are Cultivated

Diversity has become something of a buzzword for MBA programs. Just about every business school attempts to craft a diverse class of students to ensure a wide range of perspectives in the classroom. Some are more successful than others in crafting classes with an ideal mix of industry backgrounds and cultural experiences as well as by gender and race.

Sean Meehan, dean of IMD’s one-year MBA program in Lausanne, Switzerland, claims to have the most diverse MBA class on the planet. The 90 students who annually enroll in the program hail from 32 countries and 43 nationalities. Unlike some European schools where finance or consulting tend to dominate, IMD students come from a wide range of industries as well.

“It’s probably the most diverse program of any,” says Meehan in an interview with Poets&Quants. “Last year, we had 43 nationalities represented among our 90 students. And our students are actual residents of 32 countries this year.  When we say they’re Chinese, they are actually Chinese from Chinese parents.”

Yet, what most distinguishes IMD’s MBA program is its focus on leadership.

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Meehan talks about the school’s core mission–to cultivate the leadership ambitions of young professionals–, explains what makes IMD unique, and why the school’s MBA applications rose by 60% last year when most schools reported declines.

The interview was held on Meehan’s recent swing with his students to the Bay Area in June.

John A. Byrne: So a lot of people might not really know IMD that well, particularly in North America. It’s a school that originally started in the 1950s with executive education and then launched the actual full-time program and for MBAs in the 1970s. Ever since then, IMD has always been thought of as one of a handful of the premier European MBAs. How is the MBA program different from what most people might expect elsewhere?

Sean Meehan: First of all, it’s a one-year program, and it has only one section – 90 students. The average age is 30 and a half, with 75% of our students between 28 and 32. About 40% comes from manufacturing; about, 20% come from consulting and the rest, from financial services and other fields. They come from all around the world. It’s highly diverse. It’s probably the most diverse program of any. Last year, we had 43 nationalities represented among 90 students. And this year we have students who are residents of 32 countries. They are genuinely international. When we say they’re Chinese, they are actually Chinese with Chinese parents. So, so I think all of those things together are important structural components of the program. And like any of these one-year programs, there’s a lot to fit in. Therefore it’s intense. We’re in the business of leadership development and that’s the critical thing I’d like people to focus on. We exist to foster leadership and to cultivate the leadership ambitions of young students

Byrne: And most of your students bring to the classroom the experience of already having led others.

Meehan: Yeah, because they have that experience already. We’re looking for that in the admissions process. We’re looking for people who have demonstrated that they have the appetite to take responsibility. Leadership is about taking a lot of responsibility. And it’s not about having the big job and the big car, it’s really about taking responsibility for moving organizations, for moving people, for caring for them and bringing that organization or that team to a new position and readying them for in most cases uncertain futures. And we need to find people who can deal with those situations, deal with ambiguity, deal with pressure, and have demonstrated some of that. So we look for that experience before we admit them. It’s not a question of age or maturity, it’s a question of miles on the road. Have you seen enough to realize why what we’re doing is important?

Byrne: Does IMD have a specific approach or philosophy to leadership development?

Meehan: I’d say very much so. First of all, as the program is about 30% experiential, and we assign coaches across all of them, it doesn’t matter what the activity is. We had a one-week immersion on innovation and we had leadership present during that week to watch how the teams worked. Those are the coaches that work with different configurations of people in teams from the start of the year. So they really understand their group dynamics. And they give them a lot of feedback on how they contributed, what they thought they were doing, what they’re actually doing, and how it was perceived in the heat of the moment.

We have so many different contexts for examining leadership behavior and team participation behavior. We do it clinically with qualified and experienced people. We give feedback. We expect people to find that feedback useful.  They work on leadership papers. On top of all of this, there are explicit leadership development sessions and feedback on activities we have in parallel to the course, something we call the personal development elective. We have personal development analysts who work with students one on one. Every student can work with an analyst for 2025 sessions a year, 45-minutes at a time. I think it’s important in leadership development for the leader to know thyself. You really need to understand what your triggers are and why you behave the way you do.

And it’s not all explainable in the context of what’s going on in the moment. In business. your behavior is rooted deeply somewhere. Biases have been created, routines have been created, reactions have been created, tendencies exist for reasons and unless you can understand where these come from, it’s hard to deal with situations and see them coming. And I think one of the challenges of a leader is that you will be under a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pressure and you’ll have a lot of opposition to deal with. Unless one can really see that the possibility for explosions or triggers can subvert them. So you need to prepare for them and diffuse them ahead of time and greatly.

People have complex motivations. Everyone has something different that they’re obsessed with or interested in and they need time and space to explore that for them. This is one of the most formative years of their development as leaders. The opportunity for reflection and for safe discussion is important. I wouldn’t know any of the analysts who work with our students. I would recognize them if I met them on the street. I don’t want to know. I know the person who hires them and who checks in with them. If there are issues, that person will come to me. Everything is private, in a safe space.

Byrne: So clearly there’s a lot of emphasis on personal development. If you had to separate basics like accounting, finance, strategy, and marketing from the personal development side, how much personal development is there in this MBA program?

Meehan: I’m inclined to say to you it’s all personal development. I have said on the record that our MBA program is a leadership development program during which you earn an MBA. You need to be able to do this stuff. You need to be on top of the stuff. You need to master it, and you need to have confidence in dealing with it. But you know when the board of directors is sitting down to promote its next head of marketing or its next head of India, they’re not going ask themselves who’s the best accountant at the table.

Or the best operations guy or the best strategy person. They expect all of that stuff. From my point of view, when you really look ahead, if your objective is to help students get the very best next job, this may not be the absolute best program. If the objective is to get you to where a company needs great people to be in eight years time, then it’s the right program. By then,  companies are assessing your ability to move people to work with complexity. It’s not about your technical ability. That’s not how you separate yourself from the pack.

Byrne: And when you ask graduates to name the highlights of the program, what do they typically identify?

Meehan: The personal development elective and the leadership string. They often point to the work they did with their teams, usually the very first team that they worked with until four o’clock in the morning and, they were just praying to get the next deadline out of the way in the heat of that first difficult module.

Byrne: And that’s an important part of the bonding experience. I imagine with only 90 students those bonds have to really be tight.

Meehan: You know with only 90 people you’re going to meet people who will be friends with you for the rest of your life. They’re great people and they bring great expertise into the program. You’ll know who the go-to person is for X, Y, or Z very quickly.

So there’s the friendship side, but then there’s the practical support side and brotherhood that they have, which a nice thing. It’s an important bonding experience. By the end of the program, you know who you really want to spend time with and that’s a great thing.

Byrne: And in your admissions process you really get to know your candidates at a level that is unusal. Can you describe the process for us?

Meehan: We have two entry tracks. In the main entry track that accounts for more than 90% of the admitted students. we spend a full day with them. We ask them to come to Lausanne. We run a few assessments away from Lausanne in Singapore and elsewhere. We put them through presentation and project case work, group work, with an individual interview and presentation. We feel we get the measure of someone that way and it’s very important for us. It’s much more involved than a typical MBA admissions process. It’s mainly because we’re going to spend so much time together with 45 people on the faculty and 90 students.

We’re going to spend a lot of time with these people. We want to identify people for whom we know we can make a difference and who we feel we know will respond to what we’re trying to achieve with them. I don’t think we could do that by just reviewing the papers and the references. It’s just not enough.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.