The GEMBA Journey: My Compass to Navigate Uncertainty

Gulseren Topcuoglu

It has been five months into a unique GEMBA Journey in the period of a pandemic and every day has been thoroughly exciting and challenging. My motivations for embarking on this journey, as stated here, were clear. I have completed two modules so far and I can say without any equivocation that I couldn’t have made a better choice in my life.

INSEAD is the place where you can find a bunch of passionate people elevating strong will with care and agility, surviving uncertain times together, and eventually preparing for a better future.

Three words to describe GEMBA’22 Cohort: Passion + Care + Agility

My interaction with my cohort, which started way before the programme, has been the solid rock on which this journey has been built so far. Issues about travel restrictions and country regulations made most of us uncomfortable with the fear we may not fully benefit from the GEMBA experience, but all these concerns have quickly faded away thanks to the great passion shown by cohort members: "We will make it happen all together, no matter what" was the promise we made to each other. 

It was truly amazing to see people, strangers if I may add, with different backgrounds but with a unity of purpose to embark on this 14-month ride with the commitment to make it remarkable.

Our passion and will brought us together quickly, but the duty of care for each other was crucial to carry this bond to a completely different dimension.

As we experience in our professional lives, one of the traits of effective leadership is genuine care, and this is even more critical to achieve success in times like these. I have seen every person in the cohort deeply care about the rest and offer help on different occasions. This could be helping others in terms of academic content, coaching each other for our professional lives, or just making sure our classmates on Zoom are engaged in the discussions in the class or virtual group work.

COVID-19 has impacted our personal and professional lives in different ways with varying magnitudes, and agility is something we either have adopted or developed even more in our various ecosystems. It enabled many leaders to navigate the ship in the COVID storm, and I have seen a great example of agility at INSEAD. Today we are proactively discussing our alternative options for Module 3 in case we cannot meet in Fontainebleau. Influential leaders will always look for ways to extend their impact area, especially in times of distress and the experiences garnered so far have been exhilarating.

Finding the light in times of frustration

From the day I  decided to pursue my GEMBA application in INSEAD, I was aware of all the potential "obstacles" that could come my way but I psychologically prepared myself to make headway. One way of doing this was to outline these challenges and have a framework prepared in advance, to quickly get over these obstacles and enhance the learning experience. 

Managing a career with its challenges and studying at the same time can be frustrating, especially at times of burnout or Zoom/TEAMS fatigue, but where there is a will, there is always a way.

Even though at the beginning of the journey I found the pre-readings extremely interesting, switching back to academic life was slightly trickier than I imagined. During these difficult times, I reminded myself of my purpose and took the challenge to build my "muscle memory", to practice and stay the course. Initially, with baby steps, it became easier to manage the whole process.

After setting the mindset individually, it is also critical to make sure your peers have a similar approach. Again, virtual learning was not something we were used to, and Zoom can be extremely tiring at times. Here is how I make it work in my virtual networking or virtual study groups:

  • Put effort into connecting with people outside of the class to get to know them better: This could be a full cohort meeting or one-to-one call to accelerate the networking and relationship-building process. Guess what: You talk to your peers even more when are physically distant!
  • Have some ground rules for Zoom calls: As in physical meetings, Zoom calls also need some ground rules to make the flow useful for all participants. Explicitly setting the expectations really helped in my case. With this approach, virtual study no longer became a barrier to our networking but, indeed, became a handy platform to learn from peers as you would do in class, with even better outcomes most of the times.

Whether in-class or on Zoom, seeing the big picture will help you overcome all these minor issues. During my interview in the application process, one of the GEMBA Alumni advised me to be open-minded, something we hear in every context, but I believe it was a spot-on advice when starting an Executive MBA in these tough conditions. Being physically distant created different norms in our cohort, enabling virtual learning indifferent to the in-class experience.

At GEMBA, we embrace challenges to create new opportunities

I knew the INSEAD community was already great at connecting strong professionals from diverse backgrounds, but I believe COVID-19 has strengthened the network even more.

Despite the challenges and fears, our commitment to unite with the same goal creates an exciting opportunity to acquire new tools, new ideas and unique leadership traits, and I am learning a lot from my classmates even outside of class. This is an excellent example of how one can turn crisis into opportunities.

The "Lifelong Learning" concept attracted me during my application, and I feel fully immersed in the process, which happened quicker than I expected. I think COVID-19 has even accelerated the onboarding process. Besides our bonding with the classmates, the course content itself is very well designed to give us insights to navigate these uncertain times. This is no surprise for a business school like INSEAD.

Every day, I am more convinced this was the perfect timing to start this journey in the global pandemic context. The EMBA is an excellent platform to equip ourselves with better leadership skills by enabling new adventures and perspectives. I am incredibly grateful to be part of this community, where I met eager professionals willing to support each other – as we say in the GEMBA’22 Europe Cohort: #nobodyisleftbehind.