Lausanne—a picturesque Swiss city with Lake Geneva at its feet, the breathtaking Savoy Alps in the distance, and spectacular vineyards cascading down the sloping hills that surround it; quite the setting for a relaxing retreat or hiking expedition for the more adventurous. The city is home to the International Olympic Committee, impressive Gothic architecture such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, and clean mountain air. But these attractions are not what led me to take the seven-hour flight from Dubai to the French-speaking side of Switzerland. Lausanne has become renowned for something else.
Nestled in a secluded, wooded spot in the serene waterfront area of Ouchy is IMD—one of the world’s leading independent business schools. Incorporated under the name International Institute for Management Development, the school regards itself as “a pioneer in executive education.” With an MBA program ranked number one in the world by Forbes in 2011 and with an amalgamation of practicality and problem-solving that in many ways resembles a dexterous business more than a prestigious institute of higher learning, IMD is attracting executives by the thousands.
Keen to find out more about this unique institution, I seized the opportunity to attend IMD’s annual week-long “Orchestrating Winning Performance” (OWP) program. For the university’s alumni and those who cannot commit to the intensive twelve-month-programs that the institute offers, OWP provides a window of opportunity for executives at the top of their game to hone their expertise in leadership, management and a host of other skills required for today’s demanding business world. Not sure quite what to expect, I was to be pleasantly surprised as the week unfolded.
Arriving at Geneva airport on a Sunday afternoon in late June, I proceeded to negotiate the country’s public transport networks—train then metro—as I made my way to my final destination; Lausanne’s Mövenpick hotel, situated a stone’s throw away from the IMD campus. After a very smooth ride, I emerged from Ouchy metro station to be greeted by a pleasant lake-side promenade overlooked by imposing alpine mountains across the water, and a fabulous sunny evening. Recalling the directions I had jotted down on the back of an envelope, I took a right and headed towards the hotel. Arriving at the Mövenpick, I was met with a warm welcome from the hotel staff and a gift-turned-info pack from IMD preparing me for the week ahead.
No rest for the wicked writer, I woke early the next morning; my pre-arranged itinerary required me to be on campus at 8:30 a.m. sharp for the first of many diverse and informative sessions that would take place over the course of the six-day program. Those hoping to take the week as an opportunity to relax and enjoy the cultural, gastronomical and geographical delights of Switzerland’s fifth largest city must have been misinformed. While delights were not in short supply, the focus of OWP was firmly on delivering and receiving as much quality learning as possible with “streams” starting early in the morning and ending with a rather generous on-campus dinner served punctually at 7:45 p.m.
Intrigued by the titles of a number of the streams available, I opted for a wide range of courses, starting with Feeling Good About Making Money: Social Responsibility and Cash Flow led by Professor Arturo Bris, an interesting session as it turned out, that dealt with the importance of incorporating the concept as an integral part of a company’s business model rather than using it as an add-on. From the psychology of leadership and dealing with complexity within organizations, to lessons from emerging markets and navigating the future in today’s challenging and competitive world, the sessions as the week progressed were as diverse as they were fascinating.
In fact, far from the old-school preconceptions of classroom-based training and leadership courses, all of the streams were thought-provoking and more importantly, applicable to the everyday demands that befall ambitious execs the world-over. During a coffee break between sessions, Abdullah Al-Musa, advisor to the group CEO at Saudi Arabia’s STC shared his motivations for participating in OWP:
“This course is unique across the world in my opinion. You can look at it as executive education, but also it’s a business forum, and it’s also sort of a workshop and a conference,” he explained, adding, “I have done a lot of executive education courses before, but I found that with this program, there are other things at the fringe that are critical for our business and also personally.”
Adding to OWP’s unique approach, as a private institution, operating outside of any university structure. There are no tenure posts or staff hierarchies to be found here. Each professor is employed (and retained) on merit, and each is an active real world professional in his or her own right, making it difficult at times to differentiate participant from professor. Managing to sit down briefly with IMD’s president, Professor Dominique Turpin, he explained that in addition to the business school’s unique structure, strong ties with top companies and staff recruited from a range of industries across the world are amongst the keys to IMD’s success, “we are very lucky to have been created by industry,” he remarked.
Between sessions on building customer-centric organizations and coping with change, to name but a few more, I also managed to find time for a little exploration. With the university campus conveniently located on the shores of Lake Geneva, the center of Lausanne was just a short walk away. As I began my adventure, my second realization (my ill-preparedness of the warm weather being the first) was that I could not remember the last time I had walked up a steep hill! Life in the sandy, flat expanse that is Dubai meant that my leg muscles (or lack-thereof) hadn’t been challenged for some time.
Catching my breath and finding myself in the city’s old quarter, the walk had been worthwhile. Bustling, narrow streets boasted small independent shops with proud shopkeepers in some cases appearing as old as the buildings that they occupied. The smell of fresh fruit and vegetables that wafted from the markets lining the pedestrian-only walkways reminded me of simpler days when food looked and smelled as it should.
Returning (downhill this time) to my lakeside base as the day drew to a close, dinner at the OWP restaurant was substituted for a Swiss experience of a different kind. Piling into taxis along with fellow journalists that had come from other far-flung corners of the globe for the IMD experience, I headed out of the city to Chalet Suisse located on a wooded hilltop in the lush countryside that surrounds the city. Much to the amusement of the restaurant staff and in true tourist style, we were determined to test the traditional cheese fondue, typically enjoyed in the depths of winter after a day of action on the ski slopes. Without delay, steaming pots were duly delivered to our table, and with long-handled forks in hand, we began to dip cubes of bread and hot potato into the molten cheese.
Gazing across the horizon towards France and the misty lake that lay far beneath us at the foot of the hills, I came to understand that the quality of Swiss life more than compensated for the high cost of living and hefty taxes in place across the country.
As a country that seems to effortlessly balance outdoor life in the fresh air of the Swiss mountains, with commercial endeavors and entrepreneurship–Nestle, an IMD founder, one of the most notable success stories—it feels to me at least, like there are few better environments for a leading business school to thrive. And I am not alone. As the 500-strong OWP crowd starts its journey home with food for thought and new skills in hand, around 8,000 new fulltime IMD participants are preparing to embark on their Swiss adventure.