When potential students begin their search for master’s in management programs, the first place many come across is the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. The reason is simple: for the past nine years, the Swiss university has topped the Financial Times’ list of MiMs, above such stellar players as Paris’s HEC and London Business School. Not bad for a program run by a small university in a sleepy town of just 80,000 that is barely known outside the German-speaking world.
What is so special about the program and how has St Gallen’s School of Management won top honors from the FT for so many years? Will new competition from such big brand schools as INSEAD and IESE Business School take the crown from the Swiss school?
At first glance, many of the top MiMs look pretty similar (see P&Q’s Specialized Master’s Directory). They are one-year general management programs for those with little or no experience — up to two years in the workplace — meaning that the average age is 20 to 22, about five less than an MBA. Slightly confusingly, these programs can have different names. St. Gallen’s is called an MA in Strategy and International Management and is known as the SIM, or sometimes the SIM-HSG. Other leading programs can be called Masters in International Management, while others go by the acronym MScs. Although the nomenclature is not standardized, the FT classes all of these as MiMs (and so do we).
ST. GALLEN: ‘RUNNING A TOP-RANKED PROGRAM IS LIKE BEING IN A JAZZ COMBO’
Because they are all trying to do the same job — give people a kick-start at the beginning of their career — MiMs tend to a pretty similar suite of courses, giving students a grounding in such core business subjects as marketing, microeconomics, strategic leadership, and organizational behavior and change.
If that sounds prosaic, it certainly doesn’t when the SIM’s founding managing director, Omid Aschari, talks about the program that he has helped evolve over the past 16 years. “Running a top-ranked program is like being in a jazz combo, with an intuitive sense of working together at a high level,” says Aschari, a professor of strategic management who founded the program in 2004. “Everyone involved has to feel connected by what they want to achieve and working together to do it.”
Aschari — who could be seen as the Miles Davis of European business education — says that the program “aspires to generate exceptional value for its students, employers, and society at large. We want to enable talented and eager individuals to cope with complex managerial challenges.”
A PROGRAM WHERE STUDENTS ARE COLLABORATORS
St Gallen, which rejects roughly 75% of those who apply to the program, doesn’t see its SIM as simply imparting useful information. “Developing the whole person has always been part of the philosophy,” says Aschari. The aim is not just to produce people who have a set of marketable skills, but ones who can “be of service to humankind.” Another guiding idea is that participants are not passive; instead, they “co-create the learning experience.” “That was my pre-condition for starting it, that the students were not just participants or consumers, they were and are collaborators.”
Simmies, as St. Gallen’s students and alumni are known, take part in the SIMagination Challenge, a course to develop leadership capacity by involving students in social projects around the globe. A recent group, for example, traveled to South Africa and helped workers develop better financial awareness.
A new element to the program, entirely taught in English, is reflection sessions. Aschari explains: “Students periodically reflect about their personal development in the past semester and share with each other how they can advance in the semester to come. They discuss such questions as: ‘What kind of experiences do they want to go through? What are the challenges ahead? What kind of challenges are we doing together, and which are individual?’ The idea is that in order to become more knowledgeable and assume greater responsibility, people first need to learn to be responsible towards themselves.”
‘THE DIFFERENCES STEM FROM THE WAY THE LEARNING PROCESSES ARE ORGANIZED’
What does Aschari make of the SIM’s rankings success? Is it really the best? “The air is very thin up there. The first three positions are really close. We think the differences stem from the way the learning processes are organized, the way people collaborate; in short, the culture,” says Aschari. The school has never chased rankings glory, he says, but its success is rather a side benefit of working to create an excellent program. Some of the things now measured by the FT, such as gender parity among students and professors, were standard for St. Gallen before they counted towards the rankings.
It is also worth noting that the largest element in the FT’s MiM ranking is graduates’ salary increase over three years, which might be expected to benefit St. Gallen, as many of its alumni find jobs in high-paying Switzerland, or other Germanic countries, though the school points out that the FT’s use of purchasing power parity to adjust for local prices works against it. The school’s alums see a 53% boost to their salaries and report making $111,015 a year three years after graduation.
The million-dollar question, though is: does the degree help you get a good job? The data shows it does. Some 98% of the students are employed within three months of graduation, and the FT survey ranks the school’s career management office first in the world. Roughly half the graduates go into consulting, with significant numbers in consumer products, banking and finance.