Spotlight on INSEAD: MBA Insights From Academic Dean Urs Peyer

March 21, 2022 | by Matt Symonds


Fortuna Co-Founder and Director Matt Symonds interviews Urs Peyer, Dean of Degree Programs at INSEAD, about the full-time MBA program.

This candid interview, which takes place during the February 2022 CentreCourt MBA Festival, is full of insights for MBA hopefuls. Urs speaks to INSEAD’s core curriculum, its unique offerings and flexibility, the global reputation of the school, and why recent alumni call the experience “the best year of my life.”

Read on for the full transcript of their conversation.

Matt Symonds, Fortuna Admissions: Throughout this CentreCourt MBA Festival in February, we’re bringing in the voices of senior staff and the leadership to get a better understanding of the MBA program itself, its curriculum, the different formats, and, of course, how you can personalize that experience to match your personal trajectory. And I’m delighted to welcome Urs Peyer. Urs is the Dean of Degree Programs at INSEAD, which of course includes their wonderful full-time MBA program. Urs thank you very much for joining us at Centre Court. And here you are, you’ve been at the school, what, about 20 years, in the last eight years Head of the Degree Programs. Perhaps we can start just with that a sense of INSEAD as an institution, as the banner behind you describes “the business school for the world,” perhaps just how that incredible international mix translates into the culture of the school.

Urs Peyer, INSEAD: Thank you Matt. Great pleasure to be here, and welcome everyone so I’m really, really happy to represent a bit INSEAD and the MBA program. INSEAD obviously a place where, from a mission point of view, we bring together people, cultures, and ideas to develop responsible leaders, who transform business and society. From an institutional point of view this is most represented in in the MBA program where we bring together about a thousand MBA’s a year, from many different nationalities – up to 90 nationalities mixing. So very excited to talk and tell you a bit more about INSEAD.

Matt: We talked about what 88 nationalities typically in the in the MBA program, and with Virginie Fougea [INSEAD Director of Admissions & Financial Aid], we’ll be focusing on that whole admissions process. The school has successfully operated across the two campuses of Fontainebleau in France and Singapore for over 20 years. There’s now Abu Dhabi, the Research Center in San Francisco. When you talk about that international dimension, it really is something that permeates through all aspects of the school, I’m sure.

Urs: I think the cool thing is, since the foundation, the idea of INSEAD was to bring people together, and that means not having any dominant culture. And originally we started in Fontainebleau in France and then thought that, okay, Asia is such an important, upcoming part – this was more than 20 years ago – established the campus in Singapore, but with the same notion. There is no MBA coming to INSEAD to just learn about Singapore, or just learn about France. Both of those locations are really diverse, plus it’s integrated, as you have said, like students exchange between the campuses, on a period-by-period basis, if they want to.

And then having an expansion to the Middle East was really our idea of getting the Middle East and Africa more into the knowledge play, by allowing students to also visit that part of the world, and getting first-hand knowledge. And now also in North America, through our San Francisco hub, where we hope to explore after the pandemic a bit more the opportunities and the culture that is created in the Silicon Valley type environment.

Matt: Graduates of the MBA program enjoy careers across industry, consulting, finance, entrepreneurs, you know, you name it and they’re pursuing their careers in that. You’ve also sort of focused on this idea of business as a force for good as part of your mission. Can you speak briefly to that?

Urs: Yes, so business as a force for good; for us again, it has been there since the beginning. It was when our founder, Georges Doriot, who was a professor at Harvard Business School, and himself the inventor of the venture capital industry, when he thought: What is the role of business? It was to establish bridges between cultures and, at that time, in European countries, so that they work together to build businesses that really advance society, rather than people fighting with each other. So it’s in our DNA.

I think that we’ve re-articulated it, because it has been clear that, over the past few decades, business and societies often start to clash, and we have to make sure that our business world understands and gets tools that allow it to make sure that business and society work to advance, not just performance in business, but also progress on the society side. And this is what is behind the drive of the Business As A Force For Good, both the campaign, both to advance our knowledge, as well as to enhance our teaching, so that we start to solve, or help solve, these clashes that we see between business and society.

Matt: Unlike Harvard Business School, Stanford, Wharton, the top US schools, from day one your choice had always been to deliver the MBA program in a very intensive, one-year format. Someone has described it like drinking water from a fire hydrant. As we look at the curriculum, how flexible is it? There’s obviously a core course that students will go through, but then I’m sure many options to personalize the learning experience.

Urs: Yes, so the one year was innovative, and it was in part designed because we wanted to get a little bit more mature MBAs ­– educated, people with experience. You know, sometimes in the US you have MBAs that you don’t need experience, or very little experience. For us, on average, we’re looking at five, five and a half years of work experience. Then you can really concentrate in one year, and you use and you draw upon the experience that people have, rather than having them do a lot more classroom work. So the one year works. It’s very intense,  indeed both academically, as well as socially. It is a melting pot right, and it’s what I would call a pressure cooker environment that that really makes sure that people bond together, based upon the academics but also based upon the social.

The one year is divided into two segments about half and half: Half is about core courses where everyone takes it together. And half is you choose what you want to do. Four months you’re in your starting campus. Six months you get to choose between different locations. So even in that one year, it’s not just in one location, it’s multiple. You have the choice to do multiple locations as well.

So the one year option in terms of core curriculum  – I look at it in two ways. One, I definitely want general managers, so they need to know everything, and I don’t want anyone to be fooled by a new trend, even, you know, we haven’t heard about it. You should be able to think, “These are the fundamentals, I can sort of link it to what I learned about the fundamentals.” And then obviously in electives, you get to choose and you get to go deeper where you want. The second reason I want core curriculum is also about socializing.

Essentially, having these small groups work together, and you don’t have a choice, you’re being put in these groups and you have to make it work. It’s sometimes painful, but it’s always insightful, right? Not just the learning about finance or accounting, from different perspectives, but also the learning about who does the learning with you. What you learn through this group dynamic is super important. And therefore, having core curriculum is one way of making sure you have this continuation where, you know, no one can escape. You have to address the challenges and that really builds leadership skills.

Matt: In offering in that one year format and, as you said, individuals that on average have five, six years’ professional experience, obviously there’s a range of those profiles. Many are perhaps looking for a career transition and that’s something, even in the 12 months, that you’re able to successfully offer. A tremendous number of graduates will change sector.  They’ll change geography and perhaps change function too.

Urs:  Yes, it is indeed intense. It means early on you have to start exploring what you want to do and then, very quickly, start to really go deep and explore the different opportunities. But yes, at the end of the program, we have lots of people changing any number of dimensions, being jobs, industry, location, so that in terms it works in a one year format and I do, I have seen actually that people have now start to come in and are more willing to explore, than in the past.

In the past there were people that had a very clear, “This is where I want to go.” I think now people are a little bit more open to explore different opportunities before they then decide, “Okay I want this, I want that.”

And the second thing that has changed is entrepreneurial aspirations. Now in the program it’s more structured, such that we help our students that are interested in really starting their own business right out of the program to have time during the program to really focus on that. In the past, this was more we give you the general management education, we give you a bit of time to explore, and then probably you first need a job and then two years after you start your business. Now we’re set up such that those who are really serious about it can use that year successfully to start their business afterwards.

Matt: The viewers of CenterCourt and readers of Poets & Quants are looking at MBA programs at the world’s top business schools, is there anything for you that you really feel is that key differentiator for the INSEAD MBA, or even perhaps courses, that you offer? You’ve got Professor Randel Carlock teaching Family Business. There’s an incredible range of electives, things that you think are truly distinct to the school.

Urs: Yes, and I think to the school I would say the big, the big things that are really different is the one-year intensity; it’s the global opportunity within one year you know that you can do. And I think the diversity aspect, which is like you said 90 or 88 different nationalities coming together, that’s one way of looking at in terms of data, but what’s really important about diversity is there’s no dominant culture. You’re coming to INSEAD and you’re going to be a minority in some dimension and I think that just makes a total difference, in terms of who speaks up, what is being spoken about, how to be articulate. As opposed to other cultures, or other countries where you have probably more the norm of an American education, and people try to understand what that is, which is perfectly fine. But at INSEAD it’s this melting pot so you have to deal with all the diversity, the good things and the challenges it provides. I would say that’s one of the key differences.

Why do I make that point? Is that classes are therefore also, it’s not just about the family business, it’s not just about the finance, it always has this dimension of diversity in it, that brings these different perspectives together. I think even in the sort of ethics curriculum or ethics core courses it comes to life, right, when you have the cultures like from America where you say like “bribing no, it’s illegal,” and then you have people that are very much used to seeing this. And then you have an interesting interaction and discussion around it, and then it opens people’s eyes to what is happening in other parts of the world. And that it’s not so clear-cut. And I think that’s some of the things that you can discover in many of the classes that we offer.

Most schools offer a similar portfolio. If you’re thinking about specific courses that we have, we’re very proud of our Entrepreneurial Capstone which was based on what we call the ‘first hundred days.’ So imagine you’re running a business venture, you’re just in charge and you’re being  challenged to a couple of tasks, so you condensed your first hundred days into three days of active learning, with role plays, with real role players, representing VC, capital, real people that that give you the hard times and the, you know, the challenges and opportunities to grow. I think that that’s one of the courses that’s fairly unique at INSEAD. Where we have in one class, there is easily two, three hundred role players participating on this three-day journey. So very exciting, I won’t give you any details because that’s always fun to explore as a student, but certainly a cool course.

Matt: You talk about discovery and opening the students’ eyes, whether it’s to different cultures, ways of doing business. So alongside those sort of ‘hard skills,’ the technical skills that are embedded in that core curriculum, how on this INSEAD MBA journey are you also then teaching the soft skills of leadership perhaps empathy, grit, and determination that will then serve them well in the next steps of their career?

Urs: Yes good point. I always like to say, “You get hired for your hard skills and you get fired for your soft skills,” so definitely something that, you know, when we when we sort of review with alumni, what is it that they wish they had taken at INSEAD?  It always comes back to more soft skills.  But again it’s a step in time, right, so that’s why we have lifelong learning, so you don’t need to do everything once you’re at INSEAD during your program, you also have opportunities to develop afterwards. But definitely, in terms of soft skills, we changed a few years ago.

In 2018 we started this Personal Leadership Development Program because we thought it was an important part of providing students a backbone in their journey, to have professional leadership coaching, that allows them to learn more about themselves.  That’s basically how I would look at Leadership Development. We have a formalized program, it’s called the Personal Leadership Development Program. You start from the very get-go, you get put into your learning groups and you have a coach that will help facilitate these discussions, so you learn from others. The way I look at it is like, you know, when you have this diversity around you, and everyone gives you feedback. It’s like holding up a mirror that has a different culture and different industry, different background type of reflection on you and you learn so much from that in this environment. This is an important part of the leadership development journey at INSEAD that is formalized. And then it’s obviously, as I said before, it’s a lot about the team, the group work that you do in academics. As well as on the club side, that gives you this opportunity to practice your leadership and team kind of skills.

Matt: With all of those backgrounds, with all of those cultures, perspectives if, you know, if I sat down with perhaps not a thousand INSEAD graduates in any year but, you know, just a group of alumni, perhaps they’d all share a very personal and distinct experience, but what are some of the common things? You’ve talked about how those soft skills have proved to be so precious to them. It’s a school that they become an ambassador and an ongoing network all over the world, what is the sort of feedback that INSEAD alum often provide?

Urs: Feedback? I think people are super excited during the year and, most often, after one year ends, they’re a little bit sad that it ends, right? It’s been an intense year, so they’re now transitioned to a working life, so I think at that at that time we ended at the peak, which is a good time to end any sort of learning or experience, but when they are afterwards in their jobs, in their careers, I think their feedback is that they look back and they say, sounds a bit cheesy, but often times it is that they’re saying “It’s been the best year of my life.” You can see it, because you get to focus on yourself, right?

As an MBA student, one of the things that you do is, it’s really about you: your development, personal, leadership, career-wise and social, right, and along all of these dimensions. Our program is built around those dimensions, which why I think, in terms of one year, it’s going to be hard to pack anything more into one year, in terms of experience, learning, career development, socializing. Usually, you would take a lot longer to build these relationships. Usually, it takes a lot longer to build this knowledge phase. That’s why I think most of our alumni come and voluntarily say, “this has been the best year of my life.” and again we hear it from the ones who did their MBA’s in the 1960’s but also the recent alumni who really appreciate this unique experience.

Matt: We encourage our viewers of course to make those connections with current students or alums, because I think you know that statement of you know ‘the best year of your life’, to then be able to explore, dig down, into some of those details that made it such a fascinating and transformational experience.

So what comes next? You know, as Head of Degree Programs, you’ve introduced a Master’s in Management; looking at online delivery of certain programs, but for the flagship MBA, how do you think the program will continue to evolve in the next three, five, ten years to adapt and, you know, respond to both what students and the market is looking for?

Urs: I see two big trends from a topical point of view, and then I can a bit comment on how we address it. One is obviously the digital transformation, it continues. The other one is maybe broadly called sustainability, if you’re thinking of ESG type topics. Those are, for me, the two big trends for the next five to 10 years, and it’s certainly something that from a skill point of view our graduates will need to be able to contribute in their in their jobs, and then, as leaders of their entrepreneurial ventures or of their businesses.

From my point of view, like, topic-wise these are the key things. Interesting is that across any change you need the ability to lead the change, independent of what’s coming, so our MBA program obviously can’t foresee what’s happening in 10 years’ time, but what we can know for now is that, you know, we will still need to lead change. So a lot of what we think is key to the MBA program is still that we need to develop leaders, and the leaders will need to have a solid compass as to, what is it, in which direction should you be leading your organization, your people? And that solid compass is something that we need to build, so the moral of why we’re doing what we’re doing, the responsibility of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and alert students more and more of maybe in economics we call it “externalities,” but side effects of your inventions, of your choices. That mean well, but understanding everything has a side effect.

And so from a program point of view, what we want to really help the skills, but also the soft skills to make those changes. So what does that mean concretely, in terms of innovations is in both of those areas around digital transformation and  sustainability? We’ve obviously started to develop a lot more electives that allow students to specialize, so that when they know ‘I can do sustainable finance as my next job. I can be the expert and help lead in these roles.’ Or, ‘if I have digital transformation position, I can hone my sort of skills by taking these in electives.’

What we’re doing over the next two years, is a curriculum review to make sure that we look at all our core skills that we want to teach and see whether there’s any changes that we need to make to the core curriculum, so that we are adjusting and adapting to these new trends. I don’t have a concrete outcome of that process yet, that’s in the in the in the making, but again it’s just exciting to also think about it from a fundamental perspective as a school – why is it that these tensions between business and society exist? What has it been that we have been teaching as business schools in the past that have led to such strong tensions? And what can we do to alert and inform both research and then in teaching how to improve on this? We’re in a deep dive at the moment and hope to have more and more progress made to deliver to our MBA’s now, and then in the future even more.

Matt: Right, and we’ve discussed the diversity of the student body, but of course the staff and the senior leadership team that bring their own diversity to look at those societal and economic challenges. Well it is an exciting future, and Urs, I know the demands on your time, we were delighted to be able to welcome you to CenterCourt to share those sort of insights and see where the school might be heading next.  Thank you very much for being with us.

Urs: Yes, thank you. A pleasure, thank you Matt.

Want advice on how to get into INSEAD?

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Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder & Director, Matt Symonds is a best-selling author and business columnist. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for free consultation. Matt also co-founded with John A. Byrne and Poets & Quants the CentreCourt MBA Festival, a premium MBA Admissions Event that brings together the top 25 ranked business schools to connect with applicants around the world. Register to join the next event, June 7 & 8, 2022. 

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