5 Reasons That Make INSEAD’s Global Executive MBA Outstanding!

Emanuel Frauenlob

Here are my personal reflections aimed to help you in deciding if the Executive MBA experience at INSEAD is for you.  

In December 2018 I graduated from INSEAD’s Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) programme. As a member of the Europe section I have been going through 14 intense and rewarding months of learning, self-reflection, group work, exams, project papers, and fun.

During my career I had the opportunity to participate in executive education programmes at London Business School, Wharton University, and INSEAD. I actually completed an Executive MBA already at Henley Management College in 2005. However, I could not forget the outstanding quality, the diversity, and the special atmosphere at the Fontainebleau campus of INSEAD. Over the years the desire to go back and to complete an Executive MBA at INSEAD became too strong and I decided to start my INSEAD GEMBA project in early 2016, by looking at the admission criteria, talking to my employer and starting to prepare for the GMAT test.

Now, 14 years after participating in my first INSEAD executive education, I am a proud alumnus of the INSEAD Global Executive MBA programme and want to share my experiences at INSEAD with you.

What makes it so special and why do I believe that it is life-changing?

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Picture 1: INSEAD GEMBA 2018 Europe Section at the first module in November 2017, Fontainebleau, France.

#1: At INSEAD, personal development trumps academic learning.

The faculty at INSEAD is outstanding, the programme is extremely well designed, the course materials are world class, but this is not what makes INSEAD special. It is the personal development journey that every Executive MBA embarks on. The Leadership Development Programme (LDP) is a separate track, that runs in parallel to the academic modules. The LDP is demanding, not intellectually, but emotionally. Be ready for serious self-reflection. Both on your own, but also in groups. Guided by professional coaches you will analyse your value system, learn about your drivers and blockers, and get feedback on your executive presence. While the academic content has to some extend an expiration date, your personal leadership journey will shape and change your life.

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Picture 2: Start of the LDP journey. Fontainebleau forest, Nov 2017.

#2: INSEAD is truly international.

The executive education I took at Wharton was impressive. Great faculty and great classmates. But still the learning experience felt one-dimensional. All the cases covered US companies and the cohort was dominated by American and Chinese students. This is completely different at INSEAD. In the 2018 GEMBA intake we had 273 participants from 59 countries, and no national culture was dominating.

The 155 faculty members are from over 40 countries, and the programme is taught at three permanent campuses: Fontainebleau (near Paris), Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.

This truly international setting adds enormous complexity. Just imagine yourself in the following situation: You just embarked on the INSEAD journey, you are in your first two-week core module in Fontainebleau and the first exam is coming up. But instead of an individual exam you have a group exam, and instead of working with people you know well, you will perform in a group of still strangers. In our “Leading People and Organisations” class we had three hours to analyse and come forward with recommendations concerning the lack of innovation and the rise of ethical issues at a Chemical Diagnostics Instruments company. My exam group consisted of two female and three male members with five nationalities: Cameroonian, Greek, French, Russian, and Austrian. We had a medical doctor, an entrepreneur in the food industry, a project manager in the telecommunications industry, a software sales manager and me, a sales manager for sports technology. We had three hours to deliver our analysis and all group members were to get the same grade. It doesn’t take too much imagination to feel the heat and intensity of such a setting. It truly allows one to experience the pros and cons of international and diverse teams.

This multi-cultural team exercise was a real eye-opener. Understanding the power of diversity has lasting impact on how I tackle leadership questions in general.

#3: You learn more from the cohort than from the faculty.

Before entering the programme, I thought the claim of INSEAD, and other elite MBA schools, that you learn more from your classmates than from faculty is stereotypical marketing vocabulary. Trendy, millennial, streamlined phrases trying to give the school a modern touch. 

Probably the biggest surprise of my INSEAD journey has been that it is actually true. You learn more from the cohort than from faculty!

Never before did I feel so inspired like when we finished a case discussion in such depth as it can only be achieved through the vast and broad experiences that are represented in every INSEAD class. Envision how if feels to discuss the business issues of American optical lense manufacturer Essilor in South Korea, when you have a US diplomat, a French doctor, a Japanese banker, a Belgium city developer working in Mongolia and doing business in Korea, a CTO from a satellite technology company in Luxembourg, a British operations manager, etc. sharing their experiences and insights.

The case of Essilor was especially inspiring as one of my key work challenges is to grow our business in Korea. It allowed me to better understand the obstacles Western companies face in Korea, how my own actions are perceived in the context of Korean national culture, and what alternative routes of action I might have.

To learn how to work across national cultures is another highlight at INSEAD. One of the electives we could choose has been “Business Across Cultures“ with Erin Meyer, author of “The Culture Map” (a strong reading recommendation for everyone who is interested in doing international business). The course provided a great foundation for understanding cultural differences, but also one’s own preconceptions. The international cohort that you will call your friends after the programme expose you every day to the practical questions of working in a multi-cultural team and INSEAD provides you with a risk-free environment to practice and learn. 

Working with like-minded classmates from around the globe is very inspiring. It makes you humble. And it makes you grateful for the opportunities you have.

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Picture 3: Our team OTTO that tackled the famous INSEAD "Your first 100 days" case.

#4: It is intense, be prepared.

During the graduation ceremony the Dean for Executive Degrees at INSEAD joked about EMBA meaning the “extreme MBA”. It is not a surprise that an Executive MBA is demanding. Balancing the needs of work, family, friends and school is not easy and sometimes almost impossible.

The weeks at school are very intense. I still remember our first two weeks in Fontainebleau in November 2017. It was cold and rainy. We started when it was dark outside, and we ended when it was dark again. In the second week, half of the class fell ill and we had four exams to write. Some of us still tried to handle work on the side. Many of those who did, including me, regretted this decision and ensured in the following modules that there were only very limited commitments towards work. It is for a good reason that INSEAD asks its students' employers for a letter of support!

The weeks outside of school are not free either but filled with hundreds of pages of pre-readings, the requirement to write project papers, as well as individual and group homework. All of this against strict deadlines and with high ambition.

The most valuable advice I have received from a former alumnus was to have a purpose for the programme. Not only a personal development focus, but a topic relevant to your company which should serve as the central theme for your MBA. In my case this purpose was "how to make our company successful in Asia". All papers written, and all electives chosen have been centred around this theme. It helps to choose from the vast variety of options, to stay focused in times when your head feels blurred, and it provides a clear benefit to your employer.

The 14 months at INSEAD have been by far the most intense period in my life, but I would not want to miss a single day.

 #5: Looking for a job change? Don’t expect miracles.

Many fellow classmates expected the programme to be a catalyst for career change, and many succeeded. The first start-ups that have been generated through the programme are starting operations now. People left their existing jobs, changed industries, functions, and work locations. There is probably never a better time to switch career then while you are doing your MBA at INSEAD.

I envied those colleagues who took the decision to stop working and concentrate on the programme and the transition. They surely got most out of the programme. For me this was never an option, as my ambition for joining the INSEAD GEMBA programme was not to change company, but to bring new capabilities to my employer and to ensure that I will have interesting options for the rest of my life.

If you consider leveraging the Executive MBA journey for a career change then make sure that you have verified your expectations with the admission team at INSEAD. In contrast to full-time MBA programmes with younger participants which are still early in their careers, Executive MBA's usually do not get headhunted on campus. The school provides you with career advice, executive search education and CV services, but it does not actively connect you with potential employers. I think it is a given that a more complex job search process applies for senior positions, but the lack of career services beyond job counselling was the most prominent criticism expressed by colleagues that were looking for new job opportunities.

Finishing the Global Executive MBA at INSEAD left me with bittersweet feelings. It has been the most intense, inspiring, and challenging time in my life. As INSEAD alumni say: There is a pre- and a post-INSEAD life. I look forward to this journey of experiencing my new self, deploying my enriched capabilities to add value for business and society, and helping others to find their own ways.

INSEAD made me humble and feel empowered at the same time!

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected] if you would like to learn more about my experiences at the INSEAD GEMBA programme, or if you have specific questions in relation to this article.

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Picture 4: Graduation in Singapore, Dec 21st, 2018 with INSEAD Dean Professor Ilian Mihov and Dean of Degree Programmes Professor Urs Peyer.