A Force for Good - IEDP
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A Force for Good

A Conversation with Ilian Mihov, the Dean of INSEAD


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The core belief underpinning everything that INSEAD does and plans for the future is that business can be and largely is a force for good. Business and its ability to stimulate economic growth is, according to Dean Ilian Mihov, a force much stronger than governments, NGOs, or philanthropists, and is the best hope we have in finding solutions to the world’s myriad problems from poverty to climate change.

Anyone doubting this should consider the experience of China. Between1981 and 2008, the proportion of China's population living on less than $1.25/day is estimated to have fallen from 85% to 13.1%, meaning that roughly 600 million people were taken out of poverty. This was only achieved through economic reform and allowing business and commerce the freedom to thrive. Harnessing the power of business is the key to social advancement and developing the leaders to make this happen is the ultimate mission of the business school.

As an economist by training, Mihov is well placed to have this high-level perspective. Prior to his appointment as Dean in October 2013, Professor Mihov was Deputy Dean of Faculty and Research at INSEAD. His own research related to monetary policy, fiscal policy, and economic growth. He has also been Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research (London), an advisor to the Banque de France and the Bulgarian National Bank, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Fiscal Crisis.

The Dean emphasises another fundamental INSEAD principle - its global outlook. Many business schools boast of their international connections, but INSEAD from its inception was founded as an international school; albeit that in its early days a decade after the Second World War the key objective was to use business collaboration as a means to bring European nations together. In recent years INSEAD has been a pioneer in establishing a multi-campus presence and now runs three fully integrated campuses; at Fontainebleau near Paris, and in Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

Although the school is unlikely to establish further physical campuses in future, it will continue to connect to other parts of the world through collaborations with other schools. It has bi-lateral collaborations with Wharton in the US, Fundação Dom Cabral in Brazil, and CEIBS and Tsinghua University in China, and is about to run its popular Transition to General Management Program in San Francisco.

The cross-cultural vision set by INSEAD’s founders is encapsulated in its famous strap line ‘The Business School of the World’. To maintain this vision the school guarantees the global outlook of its faculty, students and curriculum, by ensuring there is no dominant culture. Its 151 faculty comes from 34 countries. There are no dominant cultures within the participants who come from 90 different countries.  This plays well to one of the pillars of the INSEAD learning approach –‘diversity’. Mihov believes that the first characteristic needed by leaders in future, and certainly in 20 years’ time, will be the ability to operate globally and manage cross-cultural teams. Diversity should therefore play a big role in executive learning initiatives providing invaluable experience to both students and executives destined for a future global role, and faculty undertaking research to underpin these initiatives.

Furthermore, as the Dean points out, diversity is proven to be a key driver of innovation and creativity, which links it to ‘entrepreneurship’, another pillar of the INSEAD approach. Entrepreneurship has long been championed by the school, both as a way of connecting to the real commercial world and because the entrepreneurial mindset forces people to “think new.” The school currently hosts 40 entrepreneurs in residence who not only support it through funding but also by teaching and mentoring students, would-be entrepreneurs, and potential ‘intrapreneurs’ at large organizations. INSEAD based entrepreneurs raised $1.2bn between 2009 and 2014 – during a difficult time for raising capital – and INSEAD is the only non-US business school ranked in the Pitch Book top 10.

Another area in which the school excels is in custom programs. Management development units were started at the school in the 1960s and developing custom/company specific programs is in the INSEAD DNA. The exchange works both ways not only is the school able to assist companies in their business and talent development, but the close exchange with companies, providing solutions to their real issues, gives invaluable context from which faculty can develop teaching and research. Customized programs run for specific companies are delivered around the world. For example a program being run for the US giant United Technologies takes place partly in Fontainebleau and partly from hotel venues in the States.

Perhaps the key message from Dean Mihov is one that applies to all of the school’s teaching across all three campuses and to both open and custom programs. INSEAD no longer sees its role to being a repository of knowledge to be downloaded to students. Rather it aims to be a builder of leadership capability and awareness, preparing current and would-be leaders to operate effectively in complex global business environments. It aims to develop the skills and outlook to allow them to resolve ethical dilemmas, be comfortable managing paradoxes, and build long-term sustainable enterprises. To this end a key component of its programs is a focus on reflection, challenging assumptions and honing judgement to help make better decisions.

Personal leadership skills: the ability to communicate well, listen, provide feedback, motivate and inspire – are not skills that can easily be taught. They are not dependent on a simple transfer of knowledge. Consequently coaching has increasingly become a key part of all of INSEAD’s programs.

Turning to the future, Dean Mihov first mentioned the challenges he saw ahead. The first of these will be the need to stay relevant in a fast changing world. In years past the top electives chosen by students related to acquiring technical skills – marketing was popular. Today the popular electives are around soft skills such as creativity. The challenge for the school is to understand what the needs of the future will be. This is intensified because a student at the school today needs the skills that will be appropriate in 20 or 30 years’ time.  Thus part of the challenge is for the school to develop a platform for life-long learning.

INSEAD is a private institution and unlike many of its peers is not linked to a university and does not benefit from any form of state funding or endowment. This is an advantage in that it ensures the school’s total independence and intellectual freedom, and puts its future in its own hands. It does however mean the school needs to remain commercially agile attracting revenues from both teaching and fund raising. It also places further emphasis on building close relationship with companies and an obsession with customization.

The lack of a university connection also means that special care is needed in seeking input from engineers, scientists and other external ‘thinkers’ to enrich its research and teaching.

Digital technologies also present a major challenge but at the same time a major opportunity. The challenge is to find the right balance between online and face-to-face delivery and to create engaging impactful blended programs. The opportunity which is huge is the potential to spread learning deeper into organizations and broader to a global audience and perhaps also to a new constituency of smaller and mid-sized organizations. The school has already gained significant experience in this area delivering several online programs to Sberbank in Russia with Russian professors from INSEAD and being currently contracted to deliver online training to Microsoft.

Dean Mihov does not see the rise of MOOCs as a threat. They are essentially another form of knowledge dump and cannot compete at the level of sophisticated leadership development offered by the top business schools. Furthermore INSEAD places a lot of emphasis on research. Its world-renowned research informs the school’s teaching and program development, keeping its ‘thinking’ well ahead and enabling its teaching staff to deliver state-of-the-art business and management programs.

Another related opportunity for INSEAD comes out of its ‘people’ focus. Whereas in the past companies were preoccupied with customers, today they realize that people and their ability to deliver strategy and engage customers is the key to success. Employee engagement leading to greater performance is seen as a critical factor and this opens the prospect that the school can assist in spreading learning deeper into organizations, particularly with the help of new online tools to assist in the delivery and in building learning communities.

Finally the big opportunity is a global one. The pressures of globalization and the economic reforms that have swept across emerging economies have had a positive impact on the demand for business education from the developed world, and Mihov emphasises that no business school is better placed than INSEAD to take advantage of this. From its three campuses and with its long established focus on diversity and cross-cultural engagement, INSEAD’s ability to build business in emerging markets and to serve global and multi-national organizations is undoubted.  The school is currently launching the Emerging Market Institute in Singapore.

Another reason for wanting to build a truly global presence must be the uncertainty surrounding economic recovery in Europe. As an economist Mihov’s view on the shaky state of the European economies is clear and salutary. He believes the current economic paralysis is down to politicians who do not understand business and how business is the fundamental driver of economic growth. European politicians and government bureaucrats would undoubtedly benefit from an INSEAD education, and Dean Mihov might even be prepared to waive the fees.

INSEAD trained 11,000+ participants in Executive Education in 2013-2014 from more than 2,000 companies and from 125 countries.

This article first apperared in Developing Leaders Issue 17

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