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Ten Years Of Leadership At The Business School For The World

“If two people always agree, one of them is redundant” – Ben Bernanke

Ilian Mihov, the Dean of INSEAD completed his PhD in Economics at Princeton, and had Bernanke as his doctoral supervisor. The words of the Nobel Prize winner and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve could very well have described the dynamic and engaging discussions in an INSEAD classroom.

Described as “the Business School for the World”, INSEAD has four locations in Fontainebleau, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and San Francisco. The one-year MBA program, which reached #1 in the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking in 2016, 2017 and 2021 welcomes students from over 85 countries.

With hindsight it seems a natural place for a global citizen like Mihov to have built his career. But it nearly didn’t turn out that way.

Born in Bulgaria, the brilliant young economist was considering offers within the field from top schools on the East and West Coasts. When he received an email invitation to interview at INSEAD, Mihov initially thought it was the statistical office of France, and intended to say ‘no’. It was his Post-Graduate classmate that convinced him to consider the opportunity.

“He said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Milov recounts, “INSEAD is the best business school outside the U.S., it’s like the Harvard of Europe.”

Milov took the interview, and it took just one trip to campus to shed any reluctance – he felt immediately at home with the faculty, and was impressed with the engagement of INSEAD students. As a professor, he found the discussions to be so thoughtful and rewarding, and he valued the opportunity to learn from his students as well as teach them.

“We had a student from Ecuador, another from Pakistan, from across Europe and North America, from Africa, … there was just so much international diversity,” he remembers. “When classroom discussions are stimulated with so many different perspectives, people feel even more engaged. And I feel rewarded for not only teaching but also learning.”

But for many PhDs coming out of a department of economics in the 1990s, teaching at a business school was considered a ‘mortal sin’, as was the idea of leaving the U.S. By deciding to join INSEAD as a Professor of Economics, Ilian Mihov was committing both.

But it has proved to be an inspired decision. “I look back and I just think, wow, it was actually a lucky choice… I found my place, especially in teaching students”.

Though Mihov was later appointed to be Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the country’s efforts to join the Eurozone, he never took up the position. His teaching at INSEAD has been recognised several times with the Outstanding Teacher Award, and in 2018 he received the UN Women HeForShe Leader Award for his outstanding service and contributions towards gender equality.

Finding a balance between online delivery and face-to-face engagement. Video interview with Ilian Mihov, Dean of INSEAD

And for the past 10 years Ilian Mihov has been Dean of INSEAD, the Business School for the World. “Taking care of the whole school and the community has been a privilege.”

This modesty is characteristic of a quietly-spoken and deeply thoughtful individual, who reaches the end of his 10-year tenure as INSEAD’s Dean in September. He leaves behind an indelible mark on the prestigious business school – one that we got to explore whilst at INSEAD’s Alumni Forum Europe held in London in March. We were surrounded by senior business and government leaders, faculty and many hundreds of engaged alumni excitedly discussing how to put new concepts and goals into action to rethink wealth and purpose.

Business as a force for good has been central to Ilian Mihov’s leadership. In 2018, during his second term as Dean, Mihov launched the Force for Good Campaign anchored around three key themes of the school’s values, vision and ventures. “The Campaign empowers us to advance the school’s mission to develop responsible leaders who transform business and society,” Mihov explains. “We need the support of the INSEAD community to develop a generation of global business leaders, managers and entrepreneurs ready to take on our global challenges and harness business as a force for good.”

So far the Force for Good Campaign has raised a record €309 million, well above the initial goal of €250 million. In addition to creating more professorships to attract the best minds in academia, the campaign has transformed spaces on campus for innovative teaching, learning and collaboration while further boosting resources for entrepreneurship.

The international diversity that Ilian Mihov discovered with his first visit to INSEAD has been another priority, “to promote geographic, socio-economic and gender diversity by ensuring that highly qualified students anywhere around the world can access the MBA programme.”

There are 306 scholarships now available, of which 155 are for women.

How does fundraising enable INSEAD to pursue diversity initiatives? Video interview with Ilian Mihov, Dean of INSEAD

Under his watch, INSEAD has continued to expand its global footprint, inaugurating a new campus in Abu Dhabi in 2017 and opening the San Francisco Hub for Innovation in 2020. “With the hub in San Francisco, we’re providing Executive Education all over the world… Every single day, we’re thinking about how to expand and improve for ourselves. And, clearly, we’re very successful!”

Mihov has never lost his passion for teaching, as witnessed at the INSEAD Annual Forum in London in March 2023. The school’s largest alumni event ever, the Dean welcomed professors and alumni to panels on sustainability, entrepreneurship responsible business and spoke himself about economics and interest rates.

The importance of teaching pushed Ilian Mihov to create the initiative for learning innovation and teaching excellence, or iLITE, which has fundamentally transformed the teaching culture at INSEAD. A five-day programme for all new INSEAD faculty members that includes coaching, video analysis, and feedback from senior professors, Mihov says this already is having lasting impact; “Now I have so many assistant professors in their second year getting best teacher award nominations.”

iLITE has also contributed to creating a more equal playing field for all faculty members when considering tenure decisions, with INSEAD now achieving a 50-50 tenure success rate amongst men and women. “For women, it was previously around 40%, or maybe even less, recalls Mihov. “Now the 10-year success rate is 50-50, so there is no difference between men and women – as it should be!”

One of the INSEAD Dean’s proudest achievements, and timely given the event we shared, has been Ilian Mihov’s engagement with the school’s over 65,000 Alumni, distributed across 180 countries with 168 nationalities. This is a global community that he describes as “completely unparalleled.”

“We have alumni in almost every country in the world. Outside of the U.S., I’m sure that we’re the school with the deepest and widest network. There is just such a wealth of knowledge and experience out there that we’re trying to harness through forums, inviting alumni back to our campuses, connecting with faculty, inviting to speak with current classes, and engage on the new INSEAD Learning Hub.”

“With my colleagues we have changed a lot in the school over the past ten years. And throughout we have focused on business as a force for good.”

INSEAD launched the Hoffman Global Institute for Business and Society in 2018, to inspire and empower leaders to build a more inclusive, sustainable, and prosperous society. The idea was not new, but the Institute brought a new level of focus and expertise to the conversation. Today, it continues to conduct research, develop educational programmes, and convene leaders from around the world to discuss the pressing issues facing society. Indeed, its presence at Davos 2022 highlighted INSEAD as one of very few business schools in the world to be attending such a high level forum.

Moreover, sustainability has been a core part of the development of the MBA during Mihov’s tenure , to ensure the flagship program remains relevant. INSEAD announced last month that the renewed MBA curriculum will embed sustainability into all its 14 core courses. The school whose one-year MBA program consistently features among the top three in the world in the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking will introduce a mandatory capstone challenging students to integrate sustainability learnings across all management areas.

The value of an MBA might have been a topic of debate in recent years, with some arguing that its position as the premier business qualification is misplaced, but the INSEAD Dean firmly believes in the value of an MBA, especially when it comes to the intensive one-year INSEAD program. “It provides students with a systematic way of learning, which is essential when it comes to problem-solving and critical thinking.”

Once again, diversity at INSEAD is highlighted as a great strength, as the MBA cohort represents for Ilian Mihov one of its greatest attributes. He reveals that the school purposely puts students from different backgrounds and cultures together to maximise friction. While this can be challenging at first, he notes that students often say it was one of the best things that happened to them during the MBA, as they learned to work effectively in diverse teams. The result is a diversity of perspectives that students gain from the program.

But the INSEAD MBA is more than just a program to develop business skills. As we discuss together at the Annual Alumni Forum, the Dean’s claims are constantly reiterated in conversations among the alumni: INSEAD was the best experience of their lives.

“There is something transformative about the program that goes beyond business,” Mihov reflects, “whether that be the networking skills and social skills, or the lifelong friendships that we see reunited here at the Alumni Forum.”

One story in particular stands out for Mihov – a meeting with an Austrian alumnus from the class of 63, on their 50th graduation anniversary. The Dean asked him why – before rankings, before the internet, before the globally established recognition of the school – had this individual decided to apply to INSEAD. His response, while personal to him, is one that is shared by so many of his fellow alumni. ‘I read about the school in the forest of Fontainebleau, getting people from all over Europe to build businesses together. I thought it was a good idea. I drove my car to Fontainebleau and it was the best decision of my life.’

“I am meeting alumni all the time,” says Mihov, “and today here in London someone from the class of 2005 tells me the same story, that it was also their greatest decision.”

So where to next, after ten such successful years as the Dean of INSEAD? Ilian Mihov will head to Stanford for a research sabbatical – but the school will continue with the projects he set in motion, including INSEAD’s growth in Africa, a continent that can be overlooked in the world of business education and one he wishes to do more with. “We’re now in discussions to deliver executive education programme in Rwanda, in finance. I think that this will be fantastic.”

Where does INSEAD go next? Video interview with Ilian Mihov, Dean of INSEAD

As INSEAD prepares to welcome a new Dean, Professor Francisco Veloso of Imperial College Business School, it is a school that is today even more inclusive, even more focused on business as a force for good, and more than ever ‘the Business School for the World’.

Ultimately, Ilian Mihov’s influence at INSEAD will continue to inspire; his impassioned belief in the intrinsic value of the INSEAD MBA program is a testament to the school’s commitment to providing students responsible business education. His legacy has been built on his dedication to diversity, inclusion, and sustainability, coupled with his engagement with the school’s alumni.

A legacy that was built on that one, very successful, mortal sin.

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