Managing business through challenging times

MBA focus: Swiss business school places focus on leadership in a rapidly changing world

Despite an upsurge in nationalist politics and the recent spread of the corona virus and their potential impact on global trade, the established intricacies of an inter-connected business world cannot be done away with easily.

It is a state of affairs that sits comfortably with Professor Seán Meehan, dean of an MBA programme at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) which attaches critical importance to the ability to lead organisations through any challenge.

Their world is more digital and entrepreneurial in style than ever before - “It’s not a political issue, it’s a structural issue,” says Meehan explaining his confidence in consistency. “Supply chains are so dramatically connected.”

He offers the ongoing spread of the corona virus and its ability to affect supply chains as the most contemporary example of this structural imperative.


“We can’t just imagine that away.”

This concrete mentality, an immovable appraisal of a self-contained business world is perhaps why IMD and its staff are so confident in their programme, and why it is in such demand despite its cost and competition. Last year 493 people applied for 90 places, a probability of about one in five, or 18 per cent.

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland and in Singapore, IMD was established by business, not by academia. Its professors are not tenured academics although they are well compensated PhD researchers. It is run, unsurprisingly, like a firm, with a fixation on annual budgets and results.

Education is approached through a combination of teaching, research, coaching and organisational development activities.

“Challenging what is, and inspiring what could be, we are the trusted learning partner of choice for ambitious individuals and organisations,” the institution declares on its website.

IMD also takes pride in its record - top five ranking for executive education worldwide for the last 15 years and top three for the last eight. It holds what it refers to as the “coveted triple crown” of accreditation from AACSB, EFMD EQUIS and AMBA.

Prospective students will pay 90,000 Swiss francs (about €84,525) for the course. The overall MBA price covers the program itself as well as project related expenses, assistance in securing a Swiss visa, project travel and visas, personal coaching, books and access to fitness facilities.

A demanding interview process includes having to spend a day with staff and other potential classmates, where they will engage in one-on-one and group exercises.

Those who are ultimately accepted will face other sacrifices - they will give up their jobs and live in Switzerland where living costs for the year will typically amount to between €25,000 and €30,000 (about €28,171). Success, one might say, comes at a cost.

"These are the sort of people who have a passion for business," says Meehan, who is originally from Co Donegal. He joined IMD in 1997 and speaks with a heavy European accent. "You are looking for vocationalists and people need to be prepared to pay a price for that. That's what we are looking for...[the ability to] take a risk."

The course itself teaches a combination of modules - economics, business, finance, marketing, operations - but it is first and foremost about leadership development, according to Meehan.

“We absolutely cover the fundamentals that are required. Many of the students that come in have the skills, it’s not that we are teaching them from scratch but it’s about being able to deal with anything that is thrown at them,” he says.

The student body is made up of about 40 nationalities. The vast majority of MBA classes are aged between 28 and 32, most have lived outside their country of origin and, tellingly in a world driven by achievement, speak an average of four languages.

The character of the individual is also important. Meehan explains they are not looking for people who simply want a qualification that opens career doors and elicits salary bumps. They want people with vision.

And although the course is expensive, it comes with built-in trips to other corners of the business world - last year's students went to Dublin, Shenzhen in China and California's Silicon Valley.

“We are looking for people who have an understanding of the importance of the connectivity of our society today. Globalists if you like. People who appreciate different cultures.”

Students also meet with Jungian analysts over 40 sessions throughout the programme.

The Jungian analysts are trained at the CG Jung Institute or the International School of Analytical Psychology Zurich. Their confidential sessions with students probe professional and personal histories, and include dream interpretation and word association among a range of therapies.

From experience, many of those who take the course ultimately set up in business on their own, but most will return to employment first. Companies know what they are getting in the finished product, says Meehan, and this is usually a rounded candidate who fits seamlessly into senior roles without the need for training. At a typical age of 30, students here are playing the long game, priming themselves for the ripe career advancement age which the school places at about 38.

According to IMD, its record in teaching has seen half of its alumni secure senior management rolls and 30 per cent progress to board level. And of considerable value too is the business network past students gain access to.

“What [companies] really want is potential. What they are asking themselves is how do we fill our leadership pipeline?” says Meehan.

“We want people to think. We want people who are consequential. That is not the same thing as attracting someone who [just] wants a piece of paper.”