IMD president Jean-Francois Manzoni: Role of business schools is to increase executives' strategic savvy

The year of 2020 has witnessed too many tumultuous changes and challenges.

At the beginning of 2021, National Business Daily (NBD) invited the deans of seven world's top business schools to have in-depth discussions on global economic trends, technological innovation and other significant issues.

One of them is Professor Jean-Francois Manzoni who is the President of IMD Business School. His research, teaching, and consulting activities are focused on leadership, the development of high-performance organizations and corporate governance.

In the interview with NBD, Professor Manzoni shared his insights on the global resource allocation, business leadership and other topics.

Jean-Francois Manzoni Photo/IMD official website

COVID-19 outbreak pushes tech-mediated interactions 

NBD: How did the COVID-19 crisis influence the development of business education and business schools?

Jean-Francois ManzoniThe first aspect of the crisis is the health and safety side. The second one is an economic crisis.

The economic crisis, interestingly, for business schools, has some positive aspects, because degree registrations tend to be counter cyclical. When the economy is not going very well, more students register for degree programs, which means that most business school will have an enormous year in 2021 with more individuals deciding to study.

Now, this is true for the degree programs. Obviously, it is less true for non-degree programs, executive programs, type of activities, because those are more negatively correlated to economic difficulties.

Now I said the economy is the second aspect. Of course, the first aspect of the crisis was the health related constraints.

First of all, we couldn't put as many people in rooms, and so very quickly, we had to move all degree-program sessions to online. Now we don't like too much the term online at IMD we call it technology mediated interactions. But basically, we move them outside of face to face and into technology mediated. Again, that was the main impact on degree programs.

On non-degree programs, there was not only an issue of not being able to put people in a classroom; there was also the issue that people could not travel. At IMD 85% of our activities require people to travel or require us to travel to them. When travel breaks down, clearly, it becomes quite challenging. So executive programs had to move relatively again to technology-mediated interactions.

So that was the main impact of all of these aspects of the crisis in 2020. We moved considerable parts of our activities to technology-mediated interactions. And we anticipate that going forward, this trend, of course, will revert a little bit as people, again, are able to travel and can be in larger numbers in a classroom.

But we believe that technology mediated interactions are very much here to stay and will in the future very much be part of the fabric of business school education.

NBD: COVID-19 has made online education widely used. For business education, is it possible for online education to completely replace offline education?

Jean-Francois ManzoniSo first of all, at IMD, we don't really use the term online education, because up until now, online education has been associated with what are often called “MOOCs” this very large, Massive Open Enrollment Courses, with very limited support. So there is mainly asynchronous sort of activities, where the material is available on-demand, but there is no synchronous discussions.

So at IMD, we talk about technology-mediated interactions, and again, these are made up of a mix of synchronous activities where all the learners are together at the same time, with asynchronous activity, which can be delivered on-demand to the learners.

Now, will technology-mediated interactions completely replace face to face? We certainly hope not. Why? Because face to face is a fantastic medium and a fantastic platform for extraordinary discussions and very impactful interventions and discussions. So face to face works.

Now, having said that, technology-mediated interactions also work, so technology-mediated interactions in the future will certainly replace some face-to-face interactions. It will certainly compliment face-to-face interactions in most programs.

3 years from now, I don't think we will be running any intervention that is only face-to-face. I think henceforth we will always be blending face-to-face and technology-mediated and there will also be interventions that are only technology mediated. I don't think there will be any interventions that will only be face to face.

To stimulate reasoning and thinking process is important

NBD: The crisis has tested the leadership and creativity of managers. In your business school, how do you improve executives' leadership and creativity?

Jean-Francois Manzoni: At IMD, we don't think about our job, really, as increasing the creativity of managers. We tend to think about the need to increase their strategic savvy, meaning their ability to diagnose their environment, understand how competitive conditions are changing.

For example, understand how the sources of value creation and the sources of value capture may be changing as new competitors come in with very attractive competing offer.

Often, at least those as good as ours are at a much lower price. So we call this “strategic savvy”, the ability for leaders to navigate in these ever-changing competitive conditions and to identify sometimes creative solutions to these competitive challenges.

How do we focus on that? We tend to create cycles of divergence, followed by convergence. The idea is to create divergent information flows to stimulate executives, reasoning and thinking process.

For example, by exposing them to dynamics in other industries, to show them what could happen in their industry, or to make them more aware of new technological developments. This creates divergence, it creates more openness. And from there, we held them to reason through possible implications of these simulations for their own activities.

On the leadership side, there is no doubt that the crisis has really tested leaders and has emphasized even more than ever before the importance for us to train leaders who are resilient that are able to face such crises.

So we've emphasized, in particular, two aspects will emphasize the self-awareness, and then the self-management of leaders. Self-awareness means the ability for leaders to understand how they function and how they feel at this particular moment, which is a prerequisite for then leaders to be able to manage themselves and managing themselves in terms of, for example, energy.

This crisis has been extremely demanding for leaders and they have needed to really be much more effective than ever before at managing their energy to make sure that they have enough energy and they also have enough of the right kind of energy and they can show up as the leader they need to be.

We've emphasized also the importance of mind, fullness, the importance of leaders being able to focus here and now. The importance for leaders to be resilient, means that they are able to rebound after setbacks, and also, for leaders to manage their degree of openness to others, and to others feedback. Leaders need to be open to other people's feedback. They also need to have the self-confidence and the drive and the confidence to persist even in the face of sometimes-challenging responses.

Now, how do we develop the self-awareness and the self-management along these four lines? We used to rely a lot on experiential activities, meaning creating leadership behavior here and now often by doing tasks that we assign to leaders. This has been a little bit more difficult to do using technology-mediated interactions, not impossible, just a little bit more challenging.

So we have continued to rely on lectures and guest speakers, a lot of the things that we've always done. Also experiential activities, but we have probably put even more emphasis than before on helping leaders to reflect on their experience. So not only to act, but also to reflect on how they're acting, why they're acting this way, and what's the impact of their efforts on other people?

NBD: For managers, what is the key to leading the company to overcome the crisis and achieve rapid recovery?

Jean-Francois ManzoniThis crisis certainly has reminded all of us of the importance of leaders in a time of crisis.

Now, there are many ways of conceptualizing the role of leaders in a crisis. In a recent series of videos, I focused on four major aspects.

The first one was: as a leader in a crisis, you need to make sure that your leadership team is extremely engaged and aligned.

Again, all teams always need to be engaged and aligned. But in a crisis, your role as leader becomes magnified. People pay so much more attention to what we do during a crisis than they do during normal times. And so, it's even more important than normal for the leadership team to be engaged and aligned.

The second aspect we developed and we emphasized is the importance for leaders to communicate incredibly well with the groups.

In particular, to pursue two objectives. The first one is to reassure people. Now, not to explain to people that everything is going well, and there's no problem, because there are challenges, but to acknowledge that there are issues, but then to emphasize the solutions that we are coming up with and to stay focused on these solutions.

So communicate to reassure, communicate also to inspire and this inspiration can be based, in particular, on reminding people of your organization's purpose and also can be achieved by reinforcing the sense of community and the sense of team among within your various units and across your organization. So, an engaged and aligned leadership team, strong communication to reassure and to inspire.

The third aspect is finding the right balance between playing defense to survive the crisis and playing offense to make sure that you will come out of the crisis, not only having survived, but also having put in place, a number of important pillars, a number of important capabilities to thrive in the post crisis world.

If you think back to the financial crisis in 2008-2010, a number of organizations managed to survive, but they survived by cutting so much that they came out of the crisis without momentum, without energy.

So here, the trick is to, yes, play defense and cut where necessary, but also invest enough and prepare yourself enough to be able to excel in the post-crisis world.

The forth aspect that we developed in this series of videos is the importance for leaders to self manage.

And here there was an issue of energy management and the four sources of energy, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. And then also to manage their own emotions and to manage other people's emotions.

In a crisis, there are a lot of emotions around this. There's a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, there's also a lot of grief. The sense of loss that we all experience in this difficult period where if nothing else, most of us cannot go wherever we want, whenever we want to do whatever we want with whoever we want. So, there's a lot of for freedom that has been lost.

There are a lot of extra constraints on all of us and this creates grief. And so, the leader, during a time of crisis, needs to be able to manage their own grief and also again, help the people to manage theirs. And that of course takes us back to the notion of playing offense and emphasizing the purpose of the organization and reinforcing the sense of community.

Competitiveness lies in initiate courageous conversations

NBD: What is the core competitiveness of a business school?

Jean-Francois ManzoniI'm afraid I can't tell you the core competitiveness of any business school because IMD is a relatively unique business school. So I'll tell you what I think is our core competitiveness.

First, we start with a very clear sense of purpose. Our purpose is, challenging what is and inspiring what could be.

We develop leaders who transform organizations and contribute to society, challenging what is and inspiring what could be. So we do this in degree programs. We have students who pursue an MBA degree and an Executive MBA degree. We also do this by working with executives, and corporations.

Now, whether we work with students, degree students or with executives and corporations, we believe that our approach needs to be based on three pillars.

The first pillar is a clear understanding of what are we trying to achieve in this activity? Whether it's a degree program or/and open executive program or a custom executive program? What are our objectives? What do we hope participants will learn and get out of this?

And associated with that is our ability to be very good at diagnosing the needs, but also our willingness to be quite courageous in our conversation with corporations, in particular.

As a non-for-profit, we believe, and as an academic institution, we believe that it is important for us to have enough distance and enough courage to engage our clients in courageous conversations.

Then the middle pillar is:once we know what we're trying to achieve, what kind of thought leadership are we going to bring to this intervention?

And when you think of thought leadership or of research, obviously, academic research needs to be rigorous. That's the cornerstone of academic research but we believe that research also needs to be relevant, insightful, and actionable. Relevant means somebody is going to be in need of this information can make use of that information and the problems that they're trying to solve today or tomorrow.

Too much academic research is about issues that are really not relevant to any managers or are only relevant to a very small number.

So relevance insightful means there's something new, something that you didn't know before. And actionable means that you can do something about it. So research is very important, but we also live in a world where research has become a bit of a commodity. As soon as any of us finds anything, we put it on internet.

So we use the research that we conduct at IMD, but we also have access to research that is conducted all over the world in business schools and outside of business schools. And we make use of that information. So what are we trying to achieve? What's the thought leadership we're bringing to this intervention? And, number three, and maybe most important, how are we going to structure the pedagogical process? How are we going to structure the learning journey for these individuals?

At IMD, we pride ourselves in teaching less and focusing less on teaching, and focusing more on what participants and executives learn. So we're less preoccupied with our teaching mechanics and ability than we are in finding ways to interest the participants, to stimulate their curiosity, to keep them engaged, and to create more interactive and more impactful pedagogical experiences.

So that’s our cornerstone: what are we trying to achieve? What sort of leadership will we bring to bear? How will we create a symphony out of these disparate instruments?

Maintaining some local sourcing is essential

NBD: COVID-19 has blocked the global industrial chain and supply chain. Is the global allocation of production factors still the future choice of the world's major economies?

Jean-Francois Manzoni: To be precise, the COVID-19 crisis has blocked the movement of people more than it has block the movement of goods and services.

I think this is important during this crisis actually, we observed some of the benefits of globalization and of global supply chains, because when one root was blocked, many other routes were still opened.

So I think, while the movement of people was limited, the movement of goods continued, and thank God it did.

Now, what the crisis did highlight is the dangers of single source, global supply chain. Clearly, when the whole world relies on one supplier or on a small number of suppliers all located in the same small region.

Clearly, what we have is a very risky arrangement. We have an arrangement that has put a lot of emphasis on increasing the efficiency of the supply chain, because this small number of suppliers can be very specialized, and so that drives down the cost.

But we pay this higher efficiency with a greater degree of risk, because we don't have enough diversification in the supply chain.

What I think this crisis has shown, to some extent, is the importance of maintaining some local sourcing, because clearly, in a number of cases, local sourcing would have helped to avert some of the global shortages.

So I think we're going to see a little bit more local sourcing and more robust, because more diversified global supply change, where maybe the system will be a little bit less efficient, but it will be more reliable and more resilient because it is more diverse.

Editor: Gao Han