IMD (Switzerland) implemented what they teach MBAs year after year. In 2020, in the face of Covid-19, they showed us how to put into action entrepreneurial ideas, embrace the digital era and, most of all, lead with humility and efficiency. But above all, they showed us what true crisis management looks like.

Save the date: Gain insight from IMD insiders at Premier EMBA Switzerland, 10 November 2020

Back in January, not a single one of my IMD 2020 MBA classmates could have imagined what would transpire during the course of this year. We all knew this year would be a challenge and an adventure, but it became even more than that. It gave us, as students of a school whose dictum is innovative leadership, the opportunity to embrace the digital area and to run with it.

Group work and leadership development

Covid-19 made its way around the world, and inevitably also to IMD, situated in Lausanne, Switzerland. This brought with it a multitude of problems that have been shared by many institutions and countries. The biggest problem faced by IMD, that centres its curriculum around group work and effective leadership, was how to ensure that its participants still got the learning required to be worthy of a global prestigious MBA. But also, the challenge was how to provide us with the once-in-a-lifetime experience that they truly felt we deserved.

I have learnt so much more this year than MBAs before me

As many will know or can imagine, MBA students spend day after day learning about topics ranging from how to build a strategic business and how to lead with fairness to how to become a resilient organisation. This is often mostly theoretical with some practical scenarios and then some ‘thrown into the deep-end’ real-life projects. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and IMD’s response to it, I feel I have learnt more this year than MBAs before me. I saw a strategy come to life, built around one of the core businesses, the MBA, and the courageous attempts to ensure that its core customers, the students, received the experience that we had signed up for.

The curriculum is built around four core pillars: Leadership, Digital, Entrepreneurial and Global. After two months IMD proved to us that it consists of world leaders who do not only teach these principles, but also live them. 

The world changed overnight

When Covid-19 first hit and the Swiss government started implementing certain restrictions on class sizes and movement, it was a shock. A disease that seemed so far away was here. This was taken on board by IMD’s emergency response team, internalised, and within eight hours a plan was put into action. We left school at 19:00 one evening, only to return at 7:30 AM the next day with the world entirely changed.

The immediate response

IMD had set up two lecture halls to split the class in half. This allowed a lecturer to teach in one, whilst the lecture was streamed via microphones and cameras to the other lecture hall. We could still interact and feel involved while on campus. It was admittedly not ideal, but to put this into context, we were learning of closures of business schools around the world and yet IMD was still forging ahead. The timetable was also masterfully manoeuvred, prioritising digital sessions for this period over ones that would benefit from a face-to-face experience. Our smaller class size allows for this flexibility.

Face-to-face distance learning

Eventually the risk analysis was done and IMD took the decision to close, to protect the class, employees and the wider society as a whole. This is when I truly saw the power of evolution to digital as the classes went online. ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real, but it certainly was not because of having to battle with constant problems with technology. We had one or two facilitators in every zoom session to ensure that the lecturer was looked after and could give us the lecture we required. He/she could concentrate on the important things whilst the practical administration side, which can be exhausting, was handled by a team. We were encouraged to remain active, and the age-old adage of ‘you get out what you put in’ was embodied through the face-to-face, yet distant interaction.

Syllabus updates

The syllabus also received a vast number of additions. We were continuously educated on the current state of the world and the challenges it faced, and some electives such as Leap and Ecosystems were made mandatory. This was done to ensure that we all received the most holistic and up-to-date education possible in a rapidly changing society. 

Honest and transparent leadership

Lastly – to address those who lead us. The leadership segment is highly esteemed as one of IMD’s top ranking features. The dean of MBA at IMD, Sean Meehan, and its president, Jean-François Manzoni, showed us what effective leadership truly is. They cared about us, ensuring every day that we were safe, whilst also daring us to embrace this new set of circumstances. We were in direct contact with Sean multiple times during the lockdown period to provide us with updates and the opportunity to ask any questions we felt necessary. Our questions were all answered and we felt intimately involved in the making of difficult decisions. This honesty and transparency gave us a huge amount of confidence. Jean-François also took time out of his extremely busy schedule to address us during town halls and even on occasion to be the guest speaker at some of our lectures. We learnt from two true leaders this year.

The value of resilience and perseverance

We experienced this lockdown period as a true test of patience, perseverance and resilience. During my life I have seen many organisations just throw their hands in the air, saying that they cannot rise up to the challenge ahead. At the beginning of the year we were told that during our MBA year, one of IMD’s priorities was for us to be nurtured and looked after and this really manifested in the way in which we were treated over the past few months.

Back on campus

And now we head back to class (as one of the first business schools in the entire world to open its doors to students again). Our global class is once again united on the shores of the serene Lac Leman in Lausanne. All we can do is to be thankful to the team that continued to fight for us throughout. We must also not forget to give ourselves a pat on the back – it was hard, there was disappointment and difficulty, but we are back and ready to stride confidently into the future. And as renowned child poet and peace activist Mattie J.T. Stepanek famously said, we must always ‘Remember to play after every storm’. Welcome back IMD MBA Class of 2020!