IMD: Where Leadership Ambitions Are Cultivated

For the fifth year in a row, IMD has found Switzerland to be the most attractive place for business talent, and the best at retaining it. IMD photo

Byrne: Are your students, given their slightly older age and the immersive experience you provide in a single year,  looking to achieve certain things that might be different than a traditional MBA student?

Meehan: I don’t think so. Many are using the program to switch careers. We have many triple switchers, so they’ll switch geographies, functions and industries, and they do that rather successfully. The recruiters are content with that. But you know, we don’t see that as why we exist. That’s not something that we designed around. Rather, it’s this leadership piece. We’re constantly looking for people who want to tackle the big subjects and are really concerned about the big challenges in the world. The benchmark for short-term success is will you get appointed to a senior position with clear meaningful responsibility where you’ll become a go-to person in your organization.

Meaning if there is a merger going on, then somebody will pull you aside. Even if you’re not on that team, they’ll say, you know, ‘this is in the works and I need your input. What do you think when we do all the implementation? Can you give some input on that?’ We see them involved in the big decisions. To us that, that means you have arrived in a position of meaningful responsibility with your employer company and we think that needs to happen by the time you’re 38. Those are the moments when you’re being really tested for the big jobs, the C-suite and the CEO positions, which if you’re successful, you’ll find yourself in, in your forties and fifties.

So given that you need to have made it to that testing round, all of our focus is on that period. So we ask ourselves, how is the world going to be different? What does leadership mean in eight years time? Who knows, right? I mean it’s, it’s, we can predict so much goes on what we can say reasonably with reasonable certainty. Technology has changed everything. It’s going to continue to be that way. Digitalization will increase in its pace and go into public places that we don’t fully understand yet. So you need to be very savvy and capable of handling those discussions, that environment and need to be savvy about what it means for an organization to be successful in that environment.

Our graduates will need to be more entrepreneurial and more agile and develop into leaders who can handle that entrepreneurial style in a large organization. So digitalization, entrepreneurship, and globalization are critical pillars of our MBA program. For all of the political rhetoric that goes on these days, businesses will find a way. Businesses have to be very adaptive in coping with the politics and the practicalities of globalization. Business will continue to be global and it will be increasingly global because it’s already gone that way. It’s actually pretty hard to decouple what is now already coupled.

Byrne: Sean, there’s a phrase that applies to globalization in today’s world: Once the genie is out of the bottle, you don’t put the genie back in. So for all the talk about nationalism these days, about Brexit, tariffs, and immigration, it’s going to be close to impossible to reverse what has largely proven to be good for the world.

Meehan:  Yeah. We think that students who come to us should be looking for that future. We’re not obsessed with preparing people for the consulting interview.

Byrne: So we’re doing this interview in the Bay Area and you are taking your students on an immersion in Silicon Valley. Explain what the students are experiencing here.

Meehan: We call it our discovery expedition. It’s a two-week tour away from IMD. W’ve chosen this year to visit some of the many cities that are very important in the development and implementation of tech around the world. We are visiting San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Shenzen, China, and Dublin for the European dimension. These are locations that have some of the world’s biggest and most significant players in tech. Some of the really interesting emerging technologies and companies and here in Silicon Valley.

We have some alumni who’ve been very successful in the Bay Area who are hosting us. We’ll meet some venture capitalists during the day, and the different companies in and around the Bay Area. We’ll visit companies that are engaged in big data, AI, and machine learning, just meet with those senior executives to find out what they’re working on next, where they think the industry is going, and what they look for in talent and people.

Byrne: And this your entire class of 90 students?

Meehan: Yes. We flew in yesterday from Switzerland and arrived at various moments because they weren’t all on the same flight. This is the life of an executive. It’s a little bit of a novelty for students maybe, but most of these guys already have done this and, you just gotta keep going for two weeks and then you have the summer to rest.

Byrne: So, Sean, there’s a lot of discussion right now about the future of the MBA and the value of the degree. Many programs have seen applications decline in recent years, particularly for two-year, full-time programs. What’s your view on all that?

Meehan: If you take the perspective of an analyst, you’d have to say that there’s something wrong with the industry. The industry is probably in need of more innovation and renovation and I imagine it will see it. I think the industry is strong, with strong, well-financed players and smart people with very active stakeholder groups. Unfortunately, I think our industry is cursed by the lack of speed. That’s a little bit of an advantage for us. We’re a private foundation. We don’t report to a board of governors and the university. We are a little bit smaller, with proudly fewer resources. But we’re pretty agile and nimble.

The first thing I tell the students is, you’re going to have a unique experience. And the main reason you’re having a unique experience is you’re the only ones doing the program this year. So when you talk to the guys last year, that was their experience. But we do change so many of the component blocks constantly. We’ve done really well on the whole application front. Our applications last year were up 60%, and this year were up 50%.

Byrne: That’s remarkable.

Meehan: It’s the result of a lot of work. We’ve  gone into the market to articulate the story, and you mark it very clearly and consistently on a theme. You find that there are people who are interested in that story. With only 90 students, I don’t need to have hundreds of applications. I need to have a choice. You know, I’m a marketing specialist. The clearer you are with your value proposition, the less noise you have to deal with.

Byrne: So what’s next for IMD in the MBA program?

Meehan: I think the vision I gave you is where do we need to be in eight years time? That’s a question we torture ourselves with every single year. What does that horizon look like? Tours like this enable me to get a better sense of where the future is going. And at IMD, we have a huge focus industry because we were founded by industry leaders.

Byrne: And most of your faculty are consultants as well, right?

Meehan: Sure. We work very closely with our clients. We advise the c-suites of these companies and that makes instruction more practical and less academic. We’re all trained academics with our PhDs. We value publishing research. We are like most tenured faculty of all the schools. We spend a lot of time working with companies and we bring that into the classrooms with us.

We have a colossal number of clients come visit or speak about their cases and who get input from the students. And we have this consulting project, where we have 15 clients who show up every year with a real problem to solve. My client, last year was a traditional industrial company. An MBA is an applied degree.

Byrne: So what’s your best advice for someone who’s interested in going for an MBA at IMD?

Meehan: Understand where that comes from, who you’ve admired in the past, and if you’re attracted by the glamour, the fame and the glory, then keep looking and try to understand what this is about a bit better. When we can feel your passion and craving for learning, you’ve got a tremendous chance. But you should be able to see it in yourself first. We shouldn’t be discovering it about you.

You need to convey it to us as best you can. We would like you to have great test scores because we want you to do well. We don’t want you to be struggling with what we consider the basics. We just expect you to breeze through that. So prepare well for it. Take the GMAT seriously. It will stand you in good stead.

Byrne: Sean, thank you so much.


About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.