- IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Leadership

Healthy stress and solid support: building leaders for life

April 2020

IMD Alumni Swati Dalal and Mathieu Pointeau reflect back on the crises their respective intakes faced during their MBA programs and how the experience, skills and insights they developed during the program seem more relevant now than ever.

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” – Warren Bennis

As organizational consultant and author Warren Bennis conveyed in the sentences above, when their abilities are fostered through dynamic engagement and deep support, leaders develop lifelong techniques and tools to meet the challenges of their roles.

And with anxiety and uncertainty sweeping across organizations, communities, nations and economies as they struggle to adapt to the current COVID-19 pandemic, it takes a certain quality of resolve to hold that role at this time.

As two alumni of IMD’s MBA program, both Swati Dalal (MBA 2019) and Mathieu Pointeau (MBA 2008) faced particular challenges while undertaking their respective learning programs. Their reflections on how they were supported as they learned to navigate these offer insight into how the course is structured around nurturing the leaders of tomorrow. More importantly, it conveys the lasting sense of personal self knowledge and empowerment it gave both these MBAs.

Mathieu, who is now Global HR Director for Honeywell Connected Plant, Cyber Security & Technology decided to pursue the course at IMD having worked for Veolia and Renault in a range of strategic roles. He wanted to accelerate his career and felt IMD offered a pathway of particular interest to him.

“MBAs are a way for ambitious and insecure overachievers to prove to themselves that they are worthy of a great professional future,” says Mathieu wryly, although he is not entirely joking. “The reason I chose IMD is that the program addresses it by showing every single one of their participants who they are, what they are made of and what it is that really makes them tick. The rationale behind the program is that you can only lead if you first know yourself. Which is what IMD is all about.”

Similarly, Swati, who took the role of Vice President, Strategic Deals at Genpact earlier this year, felt her decision to undertake an MBA program with IMD was also driven by an ambition to take her career to the next level.

“Professionally, I was hoping to get world class international experience along with a strong leadership stream. IMD, with its very well-designed leadership stream, was in line with my aspiration,” she says.

In addition, Swati has a young family and, and as she contemplated a daunting move overseas to undertake a course of study, she was assured by IMD’s support for families in pursuing their collective ambitions.

“As a mother of a five-year-old child, my concern about moving to Lausanne went beyond the choice of business school and involved making decisions concerning my daughter’s education as well. IMD was exceptional in the support and logistics provided, which ensured the transition for our family was seamless,” she says.

There were other challenges to face. As part of the 2008 cohort, Mathieu’s MBA took place the year of the global financial crisis. The backdrop of that deep recession, which lasted until 2013, could have negatively impacted his aspirations and hopes for a revitalized career path. Instead, he felt ready for anything.

“There was a deep realization that there is absolutely nothing I can’t do,” he says. “There are things I might be able to do better than others but there is nothing that you might throw at me that I cannot do.”

Swati’s 2019 experience mirrors Mathieu’s. Her cohort also faced the growing fears of another impending economic slowdown, but the program channeled this anxiety within the learning space to nurture self awareness and self belief.

“It was an intense experience. The program is designed to stress test candidates and I, like most of my colleagues, had some ups and downs along the way,” she says. “The exhaustive leadership approach helped me hone my leadership skills, especially during high-stress situations.”

The MBA’s Leadership Stream is specifically designed to develop the ability to thrive in an organizational environment and enable dynamic adaption to crisis. Interpersonal skills, group dynamics, negotiation and, underpinning them all, deep self awareness enables individuals to appreciate their full potential and that of others in their team.

“Reflection and feedback were a big part of our journey and we were constantly encouraged to go beneath the surface. With the help of my leadership coach and psycho-analysts, I not only came to identify my own strengths and weaknesses more acutely but also learned more about team dynamics,” recalls Swati.

For Mathieu, the development he engaged in continues to anchor his responses within an organization that is adjusting to the realities of the global pandemic.

“The learning and teachings I got from that year are still daily with me. I keep digesting and leveraging them,” he says. “With IMD, I became a cat: however high and awkwardly you might throw me in the air, I’ll always find a way to fall on my feet.”

As both Mathieu’s and Swati’s roles have changed over the weeks of lockdown restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus, the pair continue to not only acclimatize to the new rules, but are at the forefront of driving them to meet current and future opportunities.

“I am in human resources so I find my focus moving daily from the safety of our employees which is my number one priority, to motivation, the logistics of working from home, the ability to address any rising anxiety, up to and including cost control measures that we need to look at and assess as the situation evolves,” says Mathieu.

Swati, has seen her role shift to the virtual space and with it, acceleration has occurred that she views as positive for the business’s future.

“At an organizational level we have seen productivity increasing, with the adoption of digital technologies and I feel in the long term, this event will open our organization up to rethinking our way of working for good,” she says.

The collegiate bonds that were formed for the two alumni, during their time at IMD, continue to be a source of professional and personal support and joy for both. In fact, the global networks they are part of have proved invaluable for a variety of reasons.

For Swati, the network helped her during her search for her first post-MBA role, and while graduating during an economic slowdown was an intimidating prospect, she drew significant support from her IMD networks.

“I feel there are two things that can help you significantly during a slowdown – network and brand. IMD has a very active alumni network that is always willing and keen to support the MBAs. IMD’s stellar reputation also brings unique opportunities. I leveraged both these factors extensively when it came to my own job search and found it to be very rewarding,” she says.

Mathieu’s alumni network has been similarly supportive and really came into its own when the COVID-19 crisis struck.

“I can call on my IMD network whenever I need to, to understand and draw from the diversity of reactions and strategies, both personal and cultural. Furthermore, our classmates in China called for help when they needed supplies to cope with COVID-19. They are now helping Europe to cope with the challenges the old continent is facing,” says Mathieu.

As examples of what Warren Bennis meant when he referred to the active nurturing of leaders, both Swati and Mathieu are certain that their time at IMD was crucial to developing the resilience and fortitude the recent weeks have demanded of them.

“I would not be the person nor the leader I am today without IMD,” says Mathieu simply.

“IMD helped me identify my core values and my own leadership style, and that has been instrumental in successfully navigating the last few weeks,” says Swati in agreement.

This steady self knowledge in their own resilience continues to be key to their abilities to weather any storm and help their teams and organizations to do the same in a world where uncertainty is the new normal.