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Alumni Stories · Leadership

IMD EMBA Graduation June 2019: “Celebrating our learning marathon”

Valedictorian Pablo Percelsi, ICRC Field Executive, on the highs and lows of completing an executive MBA
June 2019

Pablo Percelsi’s career has often placed him in closer proximity to the world’s battle fields than its board rooms. Even so, completing IMD’s EMBA with executives from the world of business has led him on an unforgettable journey of self-discovery.

Pablo was chosen as the June 2019 IMD EMBA cohort Valedictorian, no small feat considering how many other outstanding executives were in his class and given his heavy workload outside of the program.

Pablo began his career at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva in 2005 and was very soon working in some of the world’s most well-known conflict areas: Ivory Coast, Gaza, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Iraq until 2013. After a stint back at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Pablo has been Deputy Head of Delegation in Lebanon for the past year.

At the recent graduation ceremony for the IMD EMBA June 2019 cohort, Pablo addressed his classmates with an emotional congratulatory speech.

Edited extracts:

Fellow classmates, IMD staff, faculty and alumni,

Thank you for choosing me as the Valedictorian for the June 2019 Executive MBA class. When I look at all of you, at the collective amount of experience, intelligence and skills that this class has, I am truly impressed.

To find the right words to close this ceremony is no easy task: the word “valediction” comes from the Latin term vale dicere (“to say farewell”). But this is not just about saying goodbye. This is about celebrating our achievements and remembering the learning marathon we’ve just completed.

This is about recognizing that, despite all the smiles and happy faces that we see today, the journey has been tough. We went through difficult moments. Moments of doubt, moments of exhaustion, moments when, faced with continuous deadlines and information to absorb, we asked ourselves: “Am I up to the task? Am I really going to make it?

Fellow classmates! To reassure everybody, including those who are still “shell shocked” by finally holding the diploma in your hands: yes, we were up to the task. Yes, we made it!

While preparing for this “last assignment”, in order not to bore you too much, I wanted to inject some elements of fun in this speech. Not just for the sake of it, but because the whole eMBA experience came with a good share of entertainment. I could mention many examples: the “after class drinks and debriefing” here in Lausanne, during the Core Modules.

Or the Discovery Expeditions across the globe…

Fellows classmates! We had quite a few good moments together. Let’s be thankful for those – they helped us to overcome all the difficulties I mentioned before.

But of course, this speech should also reflect the seriousness – the gravitas – of this event. After all, we are graduating from one of the most respected Executive MBAs worldwide. IMD puts a lot of emphasis on the professionalism and academic excellence of its programs.

We have all experienced this the hard way: the tight deadlines, the long and sophisticated assignments… Every single piece of our work required countless hours of research, of reading, and writing.

The result, I think, is in front of us all: the quality of this eMBA is truly outstanding. And to maintain such a level of excellence, it had to be challenging – almost unforgiving, sometimes.

Fellows classmates! We have achieved something remarkable that we can be proud of – it made us all better professionals, and I dare to say, even better individuals.

Why did we put ourselves through this? Look at us: we’re a group of successful professionals (some of us particularly successful), in the middle of our lives (this is an average, of course – apologies to the younger ones: I know that you still have a few years before reaching the famous “middle passage”. And to the most senior ones: you have proven to be very young in mind and spirit!).

So why on Earth did we decide to dedicate so much time and energy to studies, when our professional and personal agendas were already so packed? The most rational minds would tell us: “You must be insane to do that!” Yes, probably. But, as science fiction author Philip K Dick stated, “it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

And the reality of our world today tells us that to reach the greatest targets, to achieve the unthinkable, to leave a long-lasting impact on those surrounding us, a generous, abundant pinch of madness is necessary. Everything else belongs to the domain of the ordinary. And that’s not where anybody should belong. That’s definitely not where we should belong.

Fellows classmates! We are a bunch of crazy people. Wear this as a badge of honor, be proud of it, because only crazy people can fully understand a crazy world.

What did IMD bring us? The first answer is obvious – knowledge. There is a great deal of hard facts that we have managed not only to absorb, but to master during our journey. I was impressed by the academic level of our professors and faculty, by the quality of the courses, and by the final impact of what we learned.

But there is more. One real differentiator of this eMBA is the strong emphasis on the true meaning of leadership – because, after all, this is the purpose of this school: to develop leaders. But to do that, all of us needed to dive deep into ourselves, into the deepest and most intimate aspects of our personalities. We had to expose our vulnerabilities to our professors and peers, we had to analyze them, and try to make the best out of it.

Let’s be honest – this wasn’t always a pleasant experience. But it’s only through the most difficult paths that one can improve. Per aspera ad astra, said the Romans. Through difficulties to the stars. No pain, no gain.

Fellows classmates! We have learned a lot about the outside world, but it’s safe to say that we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as well. This was probably the most unexpected part of all this.

And there is a last, very important learning element we gained from this eMBA. To illustrate this point more eloquently, I’m going to borrow a quote from a very famous philosopher, Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I’m not talking about the severity of our professors here (even though it felt like they punched us every now and again).

What I mean to say is that one can learn about strategic frameworks, memorize complex formulas, understand sophisticated theories – and then the real world comes into the picture. And reality is always messy, imperfect, ridden with exceptions. No amount of theory, regardless of how well it is taught in class, can be of real benefit if you don’t know what to do with it in your everyday life.

Even with a prestigious diploma in your pocket, if you still don’t realize “what the heck is going on” around you, well, it means that you are still at square one. It’s not because you have a larger baggage of knowledge that adversities will stop coming your way. It’s how you react to adversity that defines you, not the adversity itself. But we have also learned how to react, haven’t we?

IMD has always been constant in its efforts to relate theory with practice – in linking individual assignments to our own companies, in creating interactions with real business cases during the discovery expeditions… In connecting us with real people and real problems.

Fellows classmates! “Real learning, real impact” is not just a catchy slogan – it is a necessary attitude to turn general notions into tangible actions. The last 18 months (or more, for some of us) were all about this.

Dear friends. I have bad news and good news. Let’s start with the bad. The learning journey is not over. By now you’ll probably suspect it – it will never be. There is no time to rest! To turn these well-deserved degrees into real gains, we must go out there, roll up our sleeves and turn everything we’ve learned into something concrete. Be it in our current jobs, or in any new endeavor that lays ahead.

But there’s also good news, remember? The good news is that you’re not alone. IMD has created a fantastic network of people, skills and ideas for us to be part of. Have a look around: You might be seeing your next partner, advisor, or ally for a business or non-profit adventure. Think about all the impressive professionals we’ve met in our classes and expeditions. How much potential lies in them? It is up to us now to answer to this question.

Fellow classmates! Our job now is not to change the world. The world keeps changing by itself, and not necessarily in the best ways. Our job will be to influence these changes, to have our strong say to make it better. We can do it!

Before concluding, please allow me to express, on behalf of all the graduates, a huge and sincere thank you to all the family members, partners, and special ones that accompanied us during these very long months.

To our families and friends: We have been very busy, sometimes short-tempered, sometimes real pains the neck, constantly worrying and complaining about homework. You have been patient, helpful, and very sympathetic about our predicaments. Without your support, it would have been much more difficult – if not impossible – for us to reach this stage.

I would also like to thank all the IMD staff – professors, assistants, course coordinators for the incredible experience they have offered us. It was absolutely worth the effort. To all of us, it is pretty clear now why this school enjoys such a great reputation.

Thank you very much to all of you, fellow classmates, for all the efforts you contributed to collective peer support, for the fun moments, and for the difficult ones – that we managed to overcome as a group. It is really because of you all that this was such an unforgettable experience.