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The Business School Putting Sustainability At The Center Of Its MBA

·10 min read

IMD

In a new world changed forever by coronavirus, one leading European business school is embracing radical change. Starting January 2022, sustainability will be woven into the entire MBA curriculum at the International Institute of Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

As the pandemic goes into its second year, organizations are feeling the pressure from consumers to become more socially and ecologically responsible, says Omar Toulan, the incoming dean of IMD’s MBA. These issues, Toulan says, are becoming increasingly important to MBA students and graduates; most are seeking roles in companies that take a stand on issues that are in line with their values. That’s why — just in time for the program’s 50th anniversary — Toulan is leading such a major revamp.

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Toulan talks about how his leadership-focused program is undergoing changes to develop future leaders who are also competent in dealing with matters of sustainability — not only as climate change continues to accelerate, but also as social issues come to the forefront in the wake of covid-19. “Our vision is to develop leaders who transform organizations and contribute to society,” he says. “Traditionally, we’ve been more focused on transforming organizations. But you can’t ignore the impact you have on society. We want to make sure we’re balancing both sides of the equation; transforming organizations, but also impacting society. Sustainability is at the center of that.”

MEET OMAR TOULAN

Omar Toulan. Courtesy photo

Toulan has been a professor at IMD for five years. He will become dean of the MBA program January 1, 2022, taking over from Seán Meehan, who is becoming the dean of faculty. Toulan’s most excited by the potential of making an impact on participants’ lives through a leadership-focused program emphasizing sustainability. “An MBA has the potential to be a transformative and life-changing experience, ” he says.

Toulan brings a rich business background to the IMD MBA; he spent 19 years at McGill University in Montréal, Canada as both a tenured professor of strategy and associate dean of its MBA program. Plus, he served as a visiting professor at some of the biggest business schools around the world, including London Business School, INSEAD, Imperial College, and Stockholm School of Economics. Additionally, he’s worked at McKinsey & Company and the White House.

He’s hopeful about how this MBA revamp will open participants’ minds to new opportunities; the upcoming 2022 class is made up of candidates from 39 nationalities, and only 2% are local to Switzerland. This year’s class will have the largest number of women in the program’s history, as well as the largest representation from Africa to date. “It’s rewarding to provide participants with opportunities that they wouldn’t have exposure to otherwise,” he says. “This program gives you a snapshot of the world in 11 months.”

Mostly, though, Toulan believes that this sustainability-focused education will help MBA candidates become purposeful leaders.

‘WE ALL WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE’

Not only does the MBA program at IMD have a new roster of sustainability-minded professors, it’s also developed a strategic partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an organization of over 200 leading companies that share a vision for a world in which more than 9 billion people are able to live well, within planetary boundaries, by 2050. “The goal is not to become the next green MBA, where people only study at IMD if they want to work in the sustainability department of a company,” continues Toulan. “The goal is to give people the skills that they’ll need not just in their first job, but five or ten years down the road.”

Now more than ever, he believes that MBA graduates are looking for meaning and purpose.

“Purpose plays a huge role when participants choose which organization to work for,” he says. “People don’t only want to earn a decent salary; they want to have an impact. At the end of the day, we all want to make a difference.”

He says that this program will help to create reflective and responsible leaders who create impact. “What defines a leader is somebody who can make difficult decisions,” explains Toulan. “We want to give students the opportunity to practice making difficult decisions that take the environment and society into consideration. When designing policy, you have to think about how to satisfy both.”

Along with welcoming the most diverse class in 2022, it will also be the biggest. In past years, the school has capped the class at 90 students. This year, it will grow to 105. This is thanks to IMD’s increased outreach efforts and scholarship efforts to welcome more students of varying backgrounds.

The goal of IMD’s sustainability shift “is not to become the next green MBA, where people only study at IMD if they want to work in the sustainability department of a company,” says incoming Dean Omar Toulan. “The goal is to give people the skills that they’ll need not just in their first job, but five or ten years down the road”

10 KEY SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE

When it came to redesigning the program, Toulan’s team first did an audit of the current curriculum. From there, it did a series of iterations to develop 10 key skills that allMBA graduates need in order to tackle sustainability issues upon graduation. These skills will help students learn how to define challenges, critically analyze them from various perspectives, collaborate with others, and develop impactful solutions.

Some of these skills include sustainable finance and risk management, building resilient and adaptive organizations, impact measurement, responsible consumption, and sustainable growth. Each skill is integrated into the program’s framework and core courses, and cover four themes: climate and nature, equity and society, governance, and pandemic recovery.

To develop these 10 skills, the team did their research; they looked at what sustainability employers were looking for, read academic literature on sustainability, dove into findings from the WBCSD, and looked at what other schools were offering in regards to sustainability education. Then, the team sought professor insights to develop the final 10 skills and determine how to best incorporate them into the core courses.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING IN THE ALPS

On top of redesigning the class content to focus on solving problems in sustainability,
Toulan is also adding further experiential learning opportunities, such as kicking off the MBA with a Mountain Experience workshop in the Alps.

This workshop is all about the sustainability agenda. Day one is held on campus January 7, and includes a keynote speech by Peter Bakker, president of the WBCSD, followed by a panel of professors and alumni.

Then, January 9 the students head to the Alps for two days of bonding and learning activities. There, several professors will speak about the importance of purpose and resilience, and one of the authors of WBCSD’s upcoming book, Vision 2050, will present to the class.

VISION 2050: TIME TO TRANSFORM

While the original Vision 2050 book was published in 2010, the updated version is scheduled to be published March 2022 and is integral to the program’s teachings, specifically at the Mountain Experience.

The newest Vision 2050 provides the business community with a framework to collectively move beyond business as usual and make real, lasting change for a better world. It lays out nine actionable steps for companies, and covers all areas of business activities that are essential to society. These pathways include energy, transportation and mobility, living spaces, products and materials, financial products and services, connectivity, health and wellbeing, water and sanitization, and food. Each pathway aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the Paris Agreement. Plus, each emphasizes the importance of collaboration, which is an integral factor in creating transformation by 2050.

NON-TRADITIONAL LEARNING ACTIVITIES

Aside from the Mountain Experience to kick off the program, the redesigned IMD MBA also gives students the opportunity to participate in other learning activities — out of the classroom.

In March, there will be a two-day workshop led by one of IMD’s professors — who is also a member of the WBCSD — on the science of sustainability. “We want to make sure we actually get to the hard core science; we don’t just want to talk about policy; but rather we want to dive into and understand the science behind it,” says Toulan.

In May there will be an innovation week which focuses on design thinking when solving sustainability problems. Then, in June, students will have the opportunity to leverage those skills in a two-day, company-based sustainability challenge.

All participants will also complete a Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) certification as part of the core finance course to give them a leg up in their sustainability careers.

IMD’s incoming dean: “Compared to the other schools, we are still probably the smallest one and may always be”

A GROWING, DIVERSE PROGRAM

While the class of 2022 will be the biggest yet, Toulan emphasizes how it will still remain boutique in nature. “Compared to the other schools, we are still probably the smallest one and may always be,” he says.

Toulan says despite more participants in the program in the new year, it will still feel personalized to each candidate. “Personalization is a huge part of the program; each candidate will still get a personal leadership coach, a psychoanalyst’s services provided, and the dean will still be part of all assessment days and will individually follow up with each candidate after their admission,” he explains.

While this is the first year with more students in the program, Toulan says the plan is to continue to slowly grow it. For the first time ever, the program is offering a Young Leaders Scholarship series. By offering grants of up to $54,000 USD, the purpose is to attract younger students who have less savings than those who are older. “Many people attribute leadership with age,” he continues. “But for me, what’s more important than age is maturity and the leadership traits and capabilities that go with it. That’s why we’ve opened up specific scholarships for leaders aged 28 and under.”

TACKLING POST-PANDEMIC RECOVERY

Perhaps the most timely theme covered in the IMD MBA curriculum is pandemic recovery. With a larger class in 2022, Toulan is hopeful that there will be more brainpower to create solutions. “If you look at how the pandemic is impacting different parts of the world, the recovery is not going to be the same,” says Toulan. “This highlights how sustainability is not only about the environment, it’s also about society. We have to be cognizant about those trade-offs when we are making choices and decisions.”

When asked for his advice for graduates beginning to tackle sustainability issues post-pandemic, he answered, “You have to have resilience out there. We will try to provide you with all of the skills that you need, but what we see is that the world is not all on the same page yet. You will have to fight and stand by your values and what you believe in order to confront the challenges out there.”

“It’s not going to be a piece of cake. Expect resistance.”

DON’T MISS IN SWEEPING REPORT, EUROPE’S TOP B-SCHOOLS URGE BUSINESS TO ACT ON CLIMATE CHANGE and MEET IMD BUSINESS SCHOOL’S MBA CLASS OF 2021

The post The Business School Putting Sustainability At The Center Of Its MBA appeared first on Poets&Quants.