INSEAD’s Executive Master in Change (EMC) programme takes participants on a deep dive into the hidden drivers of human behaviour to help them become more successful change leaders. We spoke to Programme Director Saskia de Maat to find out more.

What makes the EMC’s content and learning methodology especially relevant today?

The EMC is an advanced programme for leaders working with and within organisations that offers new approaches for navigating complexity and sustainable change. Many of the organisational challenges today’s leaders, consultants and executive coaches face are not only complicated but also complex.

With complicated issues such as implementing a new software solution across an enterprise, the components that need to be tackled are usually reasonably clear and linear. It might take time to figure it out and it often involves many components, processes and technological challenges, but with expertise and analytical thinking, leaders will be able to work through the issues.

By contrast, complex problems are multidimensional, beset with unknowns and densely interrelated factors that can easily lead to a sense of a loss of control. If you try to intervene on one level, there might be huge implications elsewhere that you simply couldn’t have predicted.

The challenges caused by the pandemic, post-pandemic organisational life, climate change and global economic and political crises are all good examples. There are no ‘best practices’ here, yet leaders must figure it all out – and fast.

With complexity and the need for swift responses both increasing, today’s leaders must constantly lead through change.

That means they need additional capabilities on top of their analytical, technological and commercial knowledge and skills. They need to be able to look beyond the obvious and the visible and understand what’s going on at a deeper level if they are to make sense of what often seems irrational, contradictive, or even chaotic. That’s where the EMC comes in.

How does the EMC help leaders tackle change and complex problems?

INSEAD Executive Master in Change Saskia de Maat
INSEAD Executive Master in Change Programme Director Saskia de Maat

First, the programme gives participants a new lens through which they can look at and deepen their insight into organisational challenges and change processes. We call this lens ‘the system psychodynamic approach,’ and it helps to arm participants with a better understanding of both human and organisational complexities. 

Often, we have incomplete or even false assumptions about these kinds of dynamics.

The INSEAD EMC’s approach enables participants to explore the more hidden, unconscious and non-rational aspects of individual, group and organisational behaviour and establish a language to think and talk about them.

Second, by applying system psychodynamic theories and concepts to their own life ‘cases’ – the actual problems they meet in daily life – participants develop additional skills needed to navigate change in a more effective way. 

For example, they explore how their past experiences impact how they perform their roles as a leader, a consultant, an executive coach, or a start-up founder. They find out how they can understand and work with any resistance to change. They work in small groups or ‘practicums’, where they apply different ways of inquiring and sense-making.

They also learn how they can make better use of their own felt experiences to become better observers and create reflective space for collective thinking. We call this developing and tuning ‘yourself-as-instrument’.

After all, leaders are themselves the instruments for organisational change.

The EMC is transformational in exactly this sense: participants feel they have changed in a profound way. They often understand this personal transformation not as a goal in itself, but as a way to enable better service to others, in whatever role that might be.

That means becoming more effective leaders, consultants or coaches, and increasing organisational cohesiveness and performance within the whirl of fast-moving everyday life – including at times of great disruption. And perhaps most importantly, it means helping to create more humane organisations, communities and societies.

Last but certainly not least, the EMC is an academic programme. Reading, researching, writing and applying theory and methods in a thoughtful and accountable way are all essential features. It is this combination of solid theories and concepts (such as the system psychodynamic paradigm) along with reflective work, plus the practical application of all this in participants’ daily lives that makes EMC so very unique. 

INSEAD Executive Master in Change

What other factors make the EMC stand out?

The make-up of our programme is usually highly diverse, with participants coming from different backgrounds and cultures as well as roles. There is a huge opportunity to learn from a rich pool of experience. We believe there is no one right way to do things.

Today’s business challenges can really benefit from the application of multidimensional thinking.

So, a big part of the programme involves inviting leaders to share their experiences, points of view and life stories in a confidential, non-judgemental environment. 

The diversity in the EMC also ensures that the case studies we use in the programme are cutting edge, because they are drawn from current business issues that participants are tackling. 

What does all this look like in practice? Can you give some examples of the concrete professional impacts the programme can make?

One recent participant was tasked with leading a change initiative within a large pharmaceutical company. His organisation wanted to install a new financial reporting system across its entities worldwide. The participant had done a lot of groundwork, holding Q&A sessions across teams, disseminating information about the coming change, and creating a highly detailed transition plan.

Yet when the time for implementation arrived, he met with a solid wall of resistance. Nobody wanted the change! During his time on the EMC, he was able to work through what had happened.

He discovered that what he hadn’t addressed were the deep anxieties people felt about the impending shift. Many worried they might not be competent enough to fit into the new technology-driven system. Others were concerned they would be losing contact with trusted colleagues with whom they had been working closely. 

There is a huge impact of loss – whether realistic or unrealistic, conscious or unconscious – that usually accompanies a major change process. It took this participant a while to see that he needed to address this as part of his implementation plan, working through it with people and teams before they would be willing to look forward to the new possibilities change could bring.

He went back to his organisation and did exactly that. With the help of a consultant and coach, he held a series of workshops across the company to directly address the aspect of loss. After that, implementing the change was much more successful and his confidence in his own leadership abilities was transformed.

INSEAD Executive Master in Change

Can the EMC make as great an impact in a smaller organisation?

Absolutely. I remember one participant consulting to a start-up in the food industry. While it was initially very successful, growth began to stagnate because of clashes over leadership styles and the company culture. 

The founder of the start-up favoured an open, collaborative approach, with a big emphasis on freedom and creativity from the ground up. But the EMC participant (who was acting as a company consultant) started to realise that the absence of any organisational hierarchy was starting to impinge on the company’s ability to operate in an agile way.

Lacking direction, employees were guessing what the founder was thinking and taking decisions that were not always productive. This even led to health hazards in their factory because safety information was not being properly managed.

Working together with her practicum group, the EMC participant gained a better understanding of what might be going on at a deeper level and was then able to generate hypotheses and interventions that might help the founder. Through her work with him, he realised that while the firm had grown and scaled up very quickly, its management practices had not kept pace.

The non-hierarchical approach that might have worked initially when his company was smaller now needed reform, with clearer rules and guidance that could help people understand how to work seamlessly together on a larger scale.  

A breakthrough came when he became aware how his own issues with authority –grounded in his own upbringing and family dynamics – were getting in the way of applying some rules, boundaries and task responsibilities. This insight helped him develop his approach and becoming a different kind of leader. He implemented a change process that involved holding regular meetings to gather feedback on employees’ concerns – dynamics he had ignored up to this point. 

Are there any other benefits for participants that you’d like to mention?

Being accepted onto the EMC means you gain access to an alumni network that’s already over a thousand strong – senior peers all working to apply the same lens and values to their leadership approach.

Participants consistently tell us that is something they very much appreciate and make use of. We try to stimulate and work with the alumni to expand their meetings and opportunities for thinking and working together to become an ever more impactful community.

And of course, you also have access to INSEAD’s wider alumni networks – an even bigger community of more than 64,000 business leaders around the globe. 

What excites you most about leading the programme?

The combination of the more academic side of the programme and intensive work we do in group settings has a very significant impact on participants’ lives and approach to work.

Often, people uncover not just what can make them more effective as leaders, but also how to better understand themselves and others and make more fulfilling contributions to the lives of people around them. That transformational effect has become one of the EMC’s hallmarks and it never ceases to inspire me. 

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