- IMD Business School
News Stories · Leadership

Sessions on stress, sustainability and a 'Smoke on the Water’ performance mark 50 years of IMD’s MBA program

IMD celebrated 50 years of its MBA program by bringing together alumni, former deans, current faculty and students for lively discussions on the future of leadership in an uncertain world.
October 2022

“We are extraordinarily proud and happy, grateful and humbled to gather representatives of 51 years – because we have here representatives from the class of ’72 and the class of 2022,” said IMD President Jean-François Manzoni as he kicked off a weekend of celebrations to mark 50 years of IMD’s MBA program which has its roots in the programs introduced at predecessor institutions IMEDE in 1972 and CEI/IMI in 1978.

“Our purpose is to develop leaders who transform organizations and contribute to society. And you are those leaders, and we feel very grateful that every day you are out there doing your best to contribute to a more prosperous, sustainable and inclusive world,” he added.

As alumni, some of whom had travelled from as far away as Australia, South Africa and California to attend the celebration, mingled with current faculty and students, the life-long bonds of friendship forged during an intense year together were palpable.

The highlight of the evening event was a live performance from the MBA band, The White Horses, named after the students’ favorite Lausanne pub, with Professor Arturo Bris making a guest appearance on the bass guitar.

Fresh from their victory in the Battle of the Bands at the HEC Paris MBA Tournament in May, the White Horses played a lively set featuring crowd pleasers from Guns N’ Roses, Jon Bon Jovi, Leonard Cohen and The Beatles. To close the night, the band’s drummer, MBA candidate Sei Kawashima from Japan, performed a soulful rendition of “Smoke on the Water” – a song by the English rock group Deep Purple that was inspired by a casino fire down the road in Montreux.

Managing stress

On the second day of the celebrations, participants heard engaging sessions from IMD faculty on topics ranging from wellbeing to the sustainable business case and the future of education.

“One of the big challenges we are facing in the post-pandemic world is a mental health crisis,” said Professor Alyson Meister in her opening talk on Bouncing back: Optimizing your stress recovery plan.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began productivity has increased, but it’s come at the expense of mental health. Just 21% of employees globally are engaged at work, she explained. Part of the problem is that the pandemic blurred the boundaries between work and home life and made it harder for us to disconnect.

“97% of people check their smartphone every single time they take a break,” she said.

Building in downtime, as well as psychologically detaching from work was important to bounce back from stress, said Meister. She advised learning a new hobby, taking microbreaks in the day to recharge, and spending time in nature as helpful ways to optimize your recovery from stress.

“Stress is trainable,” she concluded. “We just need to have better conversations about it.”

Securing a sustainable future

It’s not just people who are under stress but also the planet, said Professor Julia Binder, citing rising pollution from chemicals and plastics and massive biodiversity loss. At the same time, societal issues have become “the neglected middle child,” she added.

While rich countries may score well on social issues, they have transgressed biophysical boundaries, she explained. “We need to understand sustainability in its context. There is no one size fits all solution.”

Binder spoke of the need for companies to shift their mindset around sustainability from a cost to an opportunity. To encourage greater action, we also need to move the narrative around climate change away from “negative tipping points” such as melting icebergs and the loss of coral reefs, to “positive tipping points,” she said. Examples of these include the falling cost of renewable energy and technological maturity such as better battery storage and green hydrogen.

“How can we create a narrative where people feel they want to be part of co-creating this future?” asked Binder, citing the American essayist, lecturer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who said: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

Maintaining values in changing times

In the afternoon, participants attended custom sessions with faculty and distinguished alumni, and had the chance to experience virtual reality leadership training.

Professor Jennifer Jordan, who runs the leadership stream in the current MBA program, discussed how to be a values-based leader with Marie-France Tschudin, (MBA 2000), President Innovative Medicines International and Chief Commercial Officer at Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis.

It’s not just financial incentives that influence our behavior, but also social factors, such as recognition from your peers and your boss, explained Jordan.

To make sure your short-term behavior doesn’t compromise your long-term values, Jordan offered four pieces of advice: (1) have a personal values statement; (2) know your boundaries and prepare yourself for difficult situations; (3) don’t be too leveraged in your lifestyle; and (4) build a trust cabinet of people.

Tschudin said it was important to revisit and reflect on your values as society changes. “What you saw on television 30 years ago, you do not see on TV today.”

For many leaders, it’s not the “black and white” decisions that are the hardest but the ones that are in the gray zone. “It’s those subtleties of being in a situation where you are not quite sure what to do,” she said, explaining how once a month her leadership team talks about an ethical dilemma.

Green is not black or white

The lack of a straightforward answer was also a point raised by Håkan Agnevall (MBA 2000), CEO of Finland’s Wärtsilä, in conversation with Professor Karl Schmedders on sustainability and climate finance risks.

“Green is not black or white. There are companies like Wärtsilä that can really contribute. We are part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution,” he said.

While much of the blame for inaction is often put on companies, Schmedders explained how regulatory and political frameworks often lagged technological capabilities. In order to meet our climate goals there should be a change to competition law to allow closer collaboration between companies in industry, he said.

The capabilities of future CEOs

Under discussion in the session with Professor David Bach and Edilson Camara (MBA 1998), CEO of executive search and leadership advisory services firm Egon Zehnder, was the requirements leaders need to cope with multiple layers of turbulence.

The outside forces companies must contend with include the climate crisis, the War in Ukraine, escalating tensions between China and the United States, polarization and populism in many countries, and rising macro-economic instability, said Bach.

“What we see is particularly evident since the pandemic is that the level of predictability on any exercise has decreased to an unprecedented level,” said Camara. In the past, strategic thinking skills were seen as the defining factor of successful leaders. Nowadays, it’s adaptability.

Building an inclusive world

In his session on Inclusive growth in the global south, Professor Frédéric Dalsace discussed the importance of designing products and services for people on low incomes with Jesper Hörnberg (MBA 2008), Head of Innovation and Scaling at the Global Resilience Partnership and co-founder of GIVEWATTS.

“Don’t treat them as poor people, but treat them as competent people with skills and understanding and their own decision-making ability,” he said.

To finish off the day program, Bach and Dean of the MBA Program Professor Omar Toulan gave an overview of the current MBA class which comprises 39 nationalities from a variety of different backgrounds.

While the program has evolved over the past half a century and has added a stronger focus on sustainability this year, leadership and experiential learning remain at its core, said Toulan.

“We remain fundamentally committed to leadership. Because we believe the world changes when leaders leverage organizations to drive impact,” added Bach.