Persevering to the GEMBA – COVID Edition

Laith Najjar

In spring of 2016, I created a folder in my personal files called “Project INSEAD” – which holds all what I need to know and do to apply for an MBA at INSEAD. With the momentum starting on building my application, it had to be halted mid-way for personal reasons, yet the idea of attaining my MBA never went away, in fact, it remained strong and engraved in my mind – as a component in a plan to achieve my career and personal aspirations.

During this process, as I registered on INSEAD’s admissions portal, I automatically received an email titled “MBA VS. EMBA: The Difference– that’s where my Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) journey “mentally started” and the change in plans all made sense.

As an experienced individual progressing well in my career, I had two contradicting thoughts in my mind related to getting a full-time MBA.

First, I wanted to make the best out of it while linking to real-life application (i.e. minimise the time between taking in new learnings and applying them), and secondly, the opportunity cost in going for a full-time MBA (vs part-time GEMBA). The requirements, attributes, and format of the GEMBA programme resolved those clouding thoughts and provided me with a clear target to go after in the medium term.

With this in mind, in summer of 2019, I decided to apply to the GEMBA 2020 intake. Having this relaxed timeline until the application deadline, given that I started early, I set a plan in place aiming to finish one bit at a time alongside a busy work schedule, traveling (back in the day), and family.

In relevance to my career objectives and aspirations, I valued the GEMBA offering of being surrounded by well-achieved seasoned individuals sharing unique and diverse experiences, beyond the rigorous academics that became a given in most MBAs.

Speaking to alumni throughout the process supported my initial collection of thoughts, provided me with unique insights, and drew an image of a community that I would want to be part of.

Putting my application together was an interesting exercise. There was an essay writing section that played an important role in the admissions committee decision. It was one of the very few times in my life that I got to pause and fully reflect on deep questions, personally and professionally, without cutting the thought process at any point as I was required to think it through, articulate it, and connect the dots.

At some point after submitting my application in February 2020, I was fulfilled that this exercise on its own added to me significantly; hence I imagined how much more the whole programme would be a life-changing experience in return. The highlight of this experience was when I received a call from the INSEAD Admissions team in March, congratulating me on getting accepted – I can still recall how satisfying that felt; how an idea and a life goal came into reality on that day.

With the many unfavourable conditions imposed by COVID, one comes to think whether he/she is getting the best out of this investment, or not.

The thought process I had (among other participants as well), is that there would never be a precisely ideal time to go for an MBA, as there would always be something not in favour of this commitment (especially being amidst a COVID quarantine with no known end date).

Easier said than done, but it was this empowering thought that gave me a different perspective – thinking of this as an opportunity to go through this “COVID Edition” version of the GEMBA (which might not happen again), making this an even more unique experience themed with perseverance and resilience. This crossroad felt as the starting point of the learning curriculum offered by the programme – and deciding to go ahead with the 2020 intake despite the circumstances - has unconsciously made me more committed and diligent to make this a worthwhile experience.

At the end of the day, I strongly believed (while deciding whether to proceed or defer the programme) that no reputable institution would allow their core offering to be compromised or diluted, and that was the case observed in preparations of the programme and flexibilities provided.

It was apparent (and appreciated) that the admissions and operations teams were factual and objective in the discussions throughout the process, whether during the application process, fit assessment with the programme, or in navigating through frequent COVID updates and adaptations.

Having gone through module 1 already, meeting my classmates was a highlight that made a huge positive difference in making this experience go beyond my expectation.

The great sense of belonging and community felt engrained and contagious as part of the ethos in INSEAD, even before starting the programme, as the cohort got to know each other months before the starting point through the many networking Zooms, WhatsApp groups, and 1-on-1s, not only within the Middle East cohort, but with the wider network of 200+ participants on the Asia and Europe campuses.

A personal investment can go a long way!

With the changing dynamic of the world in this epic year, many old ways and assumptions will no longer serve the way forward. For a mid-career professional with over half of my career still to come, I am able to comprehend much more how the GEMBA journey is widening my horizon and equipping me with skills of the future to be able to pivot and adapt in this ever-changing landscape. With 14 months to go in the programme, I can see how this will be a great leap forward in my personal transformation, network, and my career!