INSEAD Dean Talks B-School’s Past, Present, Future.
Times are good for the business school headquartered in the quaint French town of Fontainebleau.
INSEAD, which brushes up against a national forest about 70 kilometers southeast of Paris, is having a stellar year. Last November, it nabbed the top spot in Poets&Quants’ composite ranking of international schools. In January, INSEAD became the first school not named Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, or London Business School to claim number one in the Financial Times’ global ranking of MBA programs. What’s more, the school has more alumni giving and engagement than ever before, enjoys solid job placement rates despite offering a turbocharged 10-month full-time MBA, and is in the midst of planning a new curriculum that will roll out next September.
This past Saturday (Oct. 8), Poets&Quants had the opportunity to meet with INSEAD Dean Ilian Mihov in his Fontainebleau office during a massive alumni reunion weekend to discuss his first three years as dean and where he sees the school — and business education as a whole — going. When Mihov took over as dean, he did so with at least three objectives. He wanted to put greater resources into career development, increase fundraising, and build a new curriculum. Three years later, he’s done all three.
First, Mihov says, INSEAD doubled the budget for career services. This led to increased staff and a new career development center. Students now gain personal career coaches before even starting the program, and more than 180 companies a year trek from around the globe to INSEAD’s Fontainebleau or Singapore campuses. Next, efforts to increase alumni engagement and giving have paid off handsomely. Five years ago, INSEAD raised about €4.7 million ($5.2 million). This past academic year, the school set a goal of €16.5 million ($18.2 million)— and ended up with nearly €24 million ($26.4 million). Meanwhile, Mihov says, alumni attendance at events on campus is up 25%.
Finally, after a lengthy process that was spearheaded by a five-member faculty committee and included input from recruiters, alumni, and current students, the school will roll out a completely revised curriculum for next September’s incoming class. Highlights will include a personalized leadership development program, a cluster of required courses focused on business and society, and, Mihov says, deeper self-reflection and character building.
APPLICATIONS FROM THE U.S. SURGING
To keep the upward momentum moving, Mihov says INSEAD must continue to fundraise so it can compete for the best students and professors. Currently, about 20% of INSEAD students receive scholarships, well below the near 50% level at Harvard Business School where the average annual student grant is $37,000. Mihov wants to get closer to HBS’ 50%. “I think that everybody is fighting for two things. One is students, and the other is faculty,” he says. “So the toughest challenge for us is to keep INSEAD an attractive proposition in this competitive environment.”
To be sure, INSEAD has tapped into two of the most saturated markets for MBA applicants. For the past five years, the largest nationalities represented have been from the U.S. and India. Each country has comprised 9% to 12% of the school’s cohort, which is enough for the highest conglomerate from one country. The school regularly enrolls students from more than 80 countries each year and has an alumni base that spans 170 countries. According to Mihov, U.S. applicants are higher than ever before. But to break deeper into the robust U.S. applicant market, Mihov says INSEAD needs to continue to communicate the legitimacy of the one-year MBA — and it needs to innovate.
In a robust and broad-ranging interview, Mihov discusses in detail the process INSEAD went through to revamp its curriculum, future development of the school’s Abu Dhabi campus, improvements the school needs to make, and why the one-year model involves classroom time equal to or more than a two-year program — among many other topics.
You’ve now officially been dean for just over three years. What are some of your proudest accomplishments over that time?
I think there are several key things that we did. At the very beginning, we decided to completely revamp our career services and build a career development center. We more than doubled our budget. We provide the students now with personal career advisers. So when students come to INSEAD, they have somebody who helps them during the year figure out where they want to apply, figure out what they are going to do, preparing them for interviews, preparing them for submitting CVs, recommendation letters — all of these things. Those are some of the technical things, but they also help with the behavioral things like how you behave during the interview. And I think that has a very big impact on how the students feel and the success rates on the reports in terms of matching students with the right employers.
We also invested a lot in business development — that is, relationships with employers. Today we have more than 180 companies coming to campus recruiting, which is quite significant. That was the first thing I really thought was necessary to do.
The second thing that I’m very proud of is that we went through a long process of curriculum review. It’s always difficult to build consensus around something. One of our colleagues warned us — he was at another school before coming to INSEAD and was a tenured professor — and he said that there, they went through the same thing and at the end they went back to the same curriculum as before. But in our case, I’m happy that it went very well. We will be implementing the new curriculum for the class that starts in September of 2017.
We produced a leadership development program so that there is professional coaching, group coaching, and peer coaching during the entire year to make our students more aware about how they make decisions, how they have biases, how to correct those biases, how to behave in teams. It’s a standard coaching exercise. In addition to this, we produced a cluster of business and society courses in our third period. One is political analysis, one is more of a public policy — environmental, sustainability, inequality — all these issues that link business and society and have created some problems in recent years. And the third course is ethics. We had it before as a required course but it was between other courses. Now we put it together in this cluster.
So there are several changes that I think will improve the program and will make it more effective. We have the students develop not only competencies, but also build and further their character and understanding of themselves. That’s the second thing.
The third thing is the relationship with the alumni. Today the alumni engagement at INSEAD is the highest ever. In the last year we have seen a 25% increase in the number of alumni coming back for reunions. Last year, we had 3,200 alumni come back for reunion. This is very important. I think it creates a much stronger school in a sense that the students can benefit much more from this relationship with alumni. Our faculty benefit from the relationships and we are trying to build something for the alumni as well, like a platform for continued learning, so they will benefit as well.
On the fundraising front, we are doing very well. To me, this is one of the most important successes because we have an alumni network that spreads into 170 countries. We have more alumni in more countries than any other business school. So it’s a very powerful network and if we can activate this network and connect it to the school, we can do a lot of new and interesting things.
And a fourth thing that is also quite interesting is in the digitalization we have moved forward substantially. It’s more relevant for executive education, but we are trying to bring it to the MBA class.
The curriculum change is something you mentioned quite a bit when you first took over as dean. Can you share any more about what that process was like and any more detail on key improvements within the curriculum that you didn’t already mention?
Yeah, so, I think what I mentioned already are the most important changes, but I think the process was quite interesting because we did not want to change the curriculum just for the sake of changing it. We wanted to change it to make it relevant for the students and for the recruiters. So we created a committee of five faculty members and then benchmarked against other schools to see what other schools are doing and have been doing, which generated some interesting insights but also we realized, we are not very far from what other schools are doing in many ways.
Then we talked to students and asked what they expect to see at INSEAD. And there were demands for certain courses. At INSEAD, it is critical to do this every 10 or 15 years because INSEAD is different and our electives are a marketplace. At many other schools, the faculty decides these are the electives that we are going to run and people subscribe. Here, if an elective does not run well, we’ll kill it, and we have a very strict criteria for that. If the elective is successful, we launch a bunch of sections so more people can take it. So as we see the demand, we will change electives. But still, there were some, like digital marketing and media, all of these things we just introduced as a result of this.
Then we went and talked to alumni and asked what they thought was good and what they found useful over the years, and what they thought was not as good. We heard very clearly that they wished there was a bigger emphasis on leadership development, there was a bit more emphasis on decision making, on reflection, self-awareness, ethical dilemmas, and so on.
And then we went to recruiters and asked what they need from our students. I think today we are very fortunate that many recruiters are going after our students because of their global nature. So one of the things that they really valued a lot was the global mindset, the diversity of the students coming from all over the world, so they can go back to these countries. Many recruiters need people in Southeast Asia, in Africa, Latin America, and sometimes it’s difficult to convince students who have gone to a top U.S. or European school to go back to their countries. But our students, because of their mindsets, are willing to do that. Last year — the class that just graduated — are placed in 57 countries. And the other thing that recruiters said — and that’s why we introduced it: that they are quite happy with the development of the analytical skills. The program we have is rigorous and comparable to top schools. But they really wanted more emphasis on soft skills. So that’s why we have this leadership development program.
Speaking of recruiters, you all have students coming from all over the world, many of whom are trying to jump industries, functions, and/or countries and have no traditional internship like in a two-year program, yet you all still have impressive job placement stats. Is this because of the increased resources and communication with recruiters?
Yeah, we can do this because now we have focused on career development even before they come to INSEAD. It is a 10-month program, there are no internships, but at the same time, even before they come, we have online courses for building their CV and all kinds of videos on how to prepare for career development. And during the year, there are personal career advisers and group career advisers focused on industries. Everybody understands it’s a very short period of time and we really have to do things very quickly. We enlarged the number of advisers because we realized if we want to do it right, it’s not going to happen with the numbers we had before.
It is impressive how many people switch functions and industry and geography. But obviously the people we take in are very high-quality and the willingness they have to be global and move around is very valuable and valued by companies.
The other big news coming out of INSEAD recently is obviously the Financial Times ranking. How does getting that number one spot feel and how much do you value rankings?
I think rankings matter. Rankings are very good feedback for facts and what things are working well and not working well. And the community is really energized by this number-one spot. I think what we learned from the rankings is that because we are placing students in emerging markets, our salaries are growing faster. Or they are going into industries that have high salaries. But on the salary side, INSEAD has been improving.
The second positive thing that we learned, which was very good, is that our research ranking has increased significantly. To me, this is very important because the school shifted towards research in the 1990s. It was under Dean António Borges. And it was difficult to integrate it into cultures.
INSEAD was a teaching place. We emphasized teaching quality, I would say more than most of the other schools. And here, it’s not that the dean of faculty says you have to be a good teacher, professors feel the pressure. You have to be good in the classroom. Our students are a little bit older, the average age is 29. They also put more pressure on the faculty to be good in the classroom. So integrating these two cultures was sometimes painful. But today we have the best teachers and many of them are also great researchers. We have created a culture where the research and teaching goes hand-in-hand.
The reason I think it is very important is because if you think about the disruptions and the biggest threat coming from online, it is famous professors from top schools delivering high-quality material that is basically distributed for free. And right now of course there are issues with MOOCs. But eventually things will improve. The only way we can stay relevant in an environment like this is if you have a school where professors are at the forefront of research in management sciences and so on. So when you go into the classroom, you are not reading the textbook, which you can get on a video or MOOC, but also you are engaging in a discussion where professors are bringing the latest insights from various empirical studies and theories. And that makes a big difference, and I have seen it in many classes at INSEAD. That students and executives realize they learn something they can’t get easily from the video or newspapers.
For example, I am a macroeconomist and I have had several talks in the past about the economic drought and inequality. And what I was bringing in the classroom were inequality studies that people have published in top academic journals. And sometimes the conclusions from these studies, with the data, was contrary to what you would see in newspapers. And then you realize that you are learning something you cannot learn otherwise. To me, this maintains the competitive edge to the school.
I think it is very easy to see where we are also weak, in terms of the rankings. We want to increase female participation at INSEAD in the number of MBAs. We have 30% women today, which is still big progress to 10 years ago. But, again, it’s not where we want to be. We have looked into this issue. We are trying to analyze why this is happening. And it is, to a large degree, our geographical distribution of applicants. From the U.S. students, we have 45% of women like most of the U.S. schools. From China, we have 60% women. But from Europe, we have 12% and that’s where we are putting emphasis, in trying to change this.
So, to me, this is what rankings give. You can try to understand where the investment has paid off — and where we are still weak and need to improve.
One of the things you mentioned in your interview with Poets&Quants in 2014 was putting a significant emphasis on fundraising. Can you give us some updates on how that is going?
It’s going very, very well. This data is in the reports, so it’s publicly available, but the new one we are still preparing. If you look at fundraising about five years ago, we raised €4.7 million. But it’s been increasing and the last academic year that we just finished, our objective was to raise €16.5 million. And we ended up with close to €24 million. So we exceeded the target by more than 45%. I think that’s where the school can be, and even higher. Most of the money we raise is for scholarships.
We also raise money for research. We raise money for career services. The career development center was funded by donations from alumni because they understand this. So it is still a priority. Because, for me, fundraising is about investing in the future of the school — building a better school, ensuring the quality of the students. And that’s certainly working well.
We’re still not where we want to be in terms of scholarships. We want to go more than double the amount we currently give for scholarships. It’s a very important objective. But things have changed dramatically.
In that interview you also mentioned INSEAD being the most complicated business school in the world and a logistical nightmare moving students across two or three campuses in a year. Do you still feel that way?
It is still the most complicated. I said it today at the reunion. Because we are the biggest MBA program in terms of number of students that we put on the market every year. On campus some U.S. schools have more students, but what really matters is how many students you have to help in finding jobs and it’s quite significant. Still, 75% move between campuses. And now we introduced another complication by offering a period in Abu Dhabi. But at the same time, I think that it is worth doing this. This complication is not for its own sake. I think the students that do move between campuses see firsthand the different environment’s globalization. And some of them go to Wharton. So it’s Fontainebleau, Singapore, and Wharton with the Wharton exchange.
I don’t know if I said this in the previous interview, but I think that if we had not gone to Singapore, INSEAD would not be where it is today.
Why do you think that?
Because I think that today we offer a unique opportunity for people who want to think about the world and to experience the two campuses. And we have developed expertise on Asia and Asian companies that otherwise, I don’t think would have developed. It’s very difficult to build cases on China or India or Singapore or Indonesia by sitting in Fontainebleau. You can do it, but it’s not as insightful as when you’re there. Even when you read the newspaper, you see all of the news coming in and you can integrate it into the teaching. I think our students get information about Asia and Europe more than anybody else among the top schools, just because they are in this environment. Of course you teach a lot of other things like globalization and the U.S. and so on, but it’s the environment. We have speakers, forums, field trips, that help them understand the culture and the way people do business in these countries.
What are some of the most important differences between campuses?
Let me first start with Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is still in the process of development. We are going to possibly build a new campus in Abu Dhabi. Right now we only have our executive MBA there, which works quite well. And we have executive education. Only one of the MBA classes can go there for two months. We want to develop this going forward with getting more periods in Abu Dhabi. So it’s a very different campus compared to Fontainebleau and Singapore.
In terms of culture among the students, I think there is no difference between Singapore and Fontainebleau. The composition of the class is the same. It’s true, we have about 200 in Singapore and 300 in Fontainebleau, but the mix of nationalities is very similar. Of course Singapore is an urban campus, so it’s slightly different and people are in the city. Here there is a potential in getting closer to each other because everybody is in Fontainebleau and there is not much else there unless they decide to go to Paris. It’s a very good environment for studying for one year.
So I think there are slight differences because of this, but at the same time, in terms of culture, students move seamlessly between the two campuses. I have not seen any problems or people from Fontainebleau or Singapore behaving differently.
How do you think applicants from the U.S. view INSEAD and what would you change about that, if anything?
That’s a very interesting question because in the last few years, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of applications from the U.S. In fact, today, the biggest group on campus are Americans — 9% of the new class that we just admitted. In the past five years it has been Indians and Americans as the largest groups, but still a minority like everybody else.
We see now a big increase in applications. I think the number-one ranking has helped people become aware. But I still think it is difficult for some applicants to see the benefit of INSEAD compared to other schools. And there is still skepticism to the one-year program. Academically, there is almost no difference. Because in the U.S., two years is four semesters of three and a half months — so 14 months. And very often you have a day free during the week for career and job search and networking. So basically you have 20% less, so it’s about 11 months of academic work. And at INSEAD, the 10 months are including classes on Saturday. So from an academic point of view, in terms of what you get in the classroom, you get the same thing that you get at other schools. Now, I think that more and more applicants see the one-year MBA as a viable and strong product. I think it was the GMAT data that said more people applied for one-year programs.
Specifically, from the U.S., we obviously have several things that work against us. The first one is the language requirement. On entry, you need two languages spoken and written at a high level. And on exit, you need a third language. Many students come with three languages already but there are also others that do not. In Europe, most people do have these languages. The education system is different where almost everybody starts with a second language in middle school and a third language by the time you go to university.
The other thing is that the U.S. has a lot of other great schools, so there are other opportunities. Many applicants are considering the U.S. schools. And the value of INSEAD, we sometimes don’t communicate properly enough. For us, we think that if somebody is looking for having a career in a global economy, working with teams that are very diverse, then INSEAD has a lot to offer — more than most of the U.S. schools. We have today 86 nationalities on campus. We create teams of people that sometimes are from countries that are at war with each other. Because we want to make sure that during this year they learn how to interact in teams with somebody that you may not like. But you still have to work on that team. So we’re trying to develop them as managers or leaders or entrepreneurs with a global perspective. Again, the two-year schools are excellent of course, but still, most people look for jobs in the U.S. Most people end up with jobs in the U.S. It’s still the biggest economy. But it’s just a different position, competitively. We just have to make our story heard, and if somebody wants to have a global perspective, then hopefully they apply to INSEAD.
Can you give any examples of what you think applicants fail to see about INSEAD?
I think it’s the global perspective. What is different about INSEAD? Well, the one-year program is obviously different than a two-year program. That’s easy to see. But it’s difficult, for example, to see that, from an academic point of view, it doesn’t make any difference. Because people don’t do the calculation and they see two years as two years, but actually, academically, it’s the same duration.
We look at the number of hours we have in the classroom and it’s very similar to the top U.S.
schools. With some we have more, and with others we have less. I have heard this before, that you cannot teach these things in one year. Well, actually you can. And I think that we do. But at the end of the day, the ultimate test is whether students get jobs or not. And our students are placed at top companies around the world. So I think it’s difficult to see that you are not losing anything academically, but you’re gaining this global perspective — this diversity, which is becoming more and more important. It’s difficult to communicate this message sometimes.
This clearly hasn’t had much influence on job placements, but what can you say for students who are considering INSEAD but are also looking for an internship? The internship is an important aspect for many students entering the two-year model.
That’s true, but we also take older students. I think for younger students it’s more important that for ones that are at a different level. We have increased the age to 29 for two key reasons. One is that because of the lack of internship, they have to be able to get that job with just the academic side. The second reason is when they come with more experience and knowledge, we give them academically 90% or 100% of what American schools give them. It’s very intensive. And if you have not heard of strategy and you have not done things in business sufficiently for a long period of time, it could be quite confusing. That’s how we’ve tried to compensate with a lack of internship.
What is the best advice you have for applicants considering INSEAD and other top schools?
I think the advice is, think about your aspirations, your career, what you want to do. Schools in the U.S., again, have their strengths. We have our strengths. INSEAD has not only the global, which we have discussed, but INSEAD has always been entrepreneurial and has been more so in recent years. If you look at the PitchBook ranking that came out a few weeks back, it’s interesting that our alumni — many of them are outside the U.S. — have managed funds that are comparable to what the top U.S. schools have raised in the past five years. INSEAD is becoming more and more focused on entrepreneurship. But what I think is really important is this self-awareness and leadership development, which will be a thing that is helpful to them throughout their careers. It’s not just about getting a job.
What are some of the toughest challenges you anticipate facing in the next few years?
I think that everybody is fighting for two things. One is students and the other is faculty. So the toughest challenge for us is to keep INSEAD an attractive proposition in this competitive environment. To show that the school is continuously innovating and helping students get their jobs. For us, the big issue is that in terms of the amount of money you have to pay for the MBA, we’re still probably the cheapest school in the top 10 — but the amount is still substantial, and the U.S. schools are competing with more scholarships. To me, this is a very big challenge. We are focusing on building a very robust scholarship program. Today 20% of the students receive some form of financial aid. But the idea is to get to 50% at least. And that’s very tough.
And then for faculty, I don’t think we have that much trouble with maintaining faculty. We have professors that are very productive and engaging. In academic journals, they’ve published more than many of the other top schools. We do have the environment but one of the big risks is if this environment changes and we start losing some of the professors. We’re not there yet, it’s more like a risk, and hopefully we’ll never be there.
If I think about another risk, obviously digitalization can be something that can come up. And probably some schools are suffering from the availability of online courses. For us, digitalization is a huge benefit. Because now we can take some of the material out and use it as a digital offering before they come to INSEAD, which is what we’re doing with the new curriculum. So we can free up some more time during the year. For us, it will allow us to do things that are value-adding and good for the students. But for challenges, not in the near future, but in the medium turn, it could be companies or organizations that offer some courses or building out a portfolio of courses that will not necessarily replicate an MBA but that could be viewed as a certificate program with five or six courses at the job that I want. That’s possible.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as dean?
I think the number-one lesson is, communication is key. I think communication is key in moments when you need to change something. People need to understand why you are doing it. And the second reason communication is key is, in our case, spreading the word of INSEAD is not where it should be. It’s so interesting that today, even at the reunion when we had 500 people in the room — people that are obviously passionate about their school and are coming back and love the school — but when I show them what the school has done in the last 10 years or so, they are very surprised. If you go year after year surprising people in a positive way, it means, on average, the information you have is not out there. People don’t know what is happening in the school. And that’s something that I’ve learned is very valuable. So we’re focusing now on brand awareness, branding exercises, communication, (and) we’ve started an alumni magazine that gives stories about the school and alumni.
And it’s interesting that what I’ve learned is, if you try to understand the demands of the students and alumni, if you try to understand what they’re after when they come to INSEAD or when they reconnect to the school, I think you can achieve a lot of great things. I think that we see some of these things happening. And sometimes it’s difficult, what they want. Sometimes it’s not possible. But when you engage in a conversation, then you either convince them it’s not possible or they convince you it is possible. So engaging in conversations and listening is very valuable.
If you could change one thing about graduate business education, what would it be and why?
I don’t want to continue to sell our curriculum change, but I think we need to continue to focus more on personal development. About the emotional component in working with other people. About psychological issues. About building character and being aware of what your values are and how you align your decisions with your values. If you build these things at this stage, you will see fewer corporate scandals and fewer issues. Because they will be able to check themselves. I think today, most of the business schools are providing excellent quality in terms of competence building and analytical skills. We have created so many exercises — cases, simulations, and so on — that help them develop these skills, and they are absolutely crucial. They have to be there, no doubt.
But now I think we also have to increase our focus on character building, awareness, and reflection. And I think that’s not only true for the MBAs. This is something that we learn from executives and now we are bringing it to the MBAs. We see executives make a decision, start implementing, practice, and move on. You never have the time to stop and reflect and look back and say, “OK, I made this decision, we implemented this, that was wrong, that was right, now let me think about how to do the next one to avoid these mistakes.” This reflection on the practice you have had in the past is still a muscle that many people do not train enough.
Any other final thoughts?
I would add that to the American applicants that are considering business education, probably the most important thing in the process of decision making is to talk to alumni from different schools. To see how this alum talks about the school. What is positive about the school? This is key. Most alumni will be selling their school, of course, but you have to have the filter to figure out what part of the sales pitch is relevant for you. So I would encourage them to find INSEAD alumni in the U.S. and learn what INSEAD gives.
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