Courage and resilience distinguish the EMBA Class of April 2021, and these traits have allowed them to pursue their challenging program through 14 months of uncertainty wrought by the pandemic.

As the group graduated today – some onsite for a socially distanced ceremony in Lausanne, others zooming in from around the world – there was a palpable sense of achievement and camaraderie. Participants praised their exploration of entrepreneurship during a trip to Kenya and hailed the resilience of IMD’s faculty and their cohort as they prepared to embark on their next adventures.

Focus on impact

“Your job as leaders will not be to preside over the inevitable,” Prof Manzoni, who is also Nestlé Chaired Professor at IMD, reminded the graduates. Instead, “it will be to make happen what otherwise would not have happened.” When bringing about this change, he said, leaders should “do so in a way that leaves the system – economic, ecological and social systems – stronger than you found it.”

This, Prof Manzoni acknowledged, would not be easy. The graduates might have moments of pause, he said, wondering why they had chosen this particular path. “When this happens, in years to come, try to keep in mind that you don’t control outcomes. You manage people, processes and activities. And when you do that to the best of your ability, you will be increasing your odds – your probability – of obtaining positive outcomes.”

Prof Manzoni advised the assembled graduates to “focus your time and energy on the parts of the world that you can influence, and have faith that when you do the right things, outcomes will be as good as they can be.”

In addition to focusing on what they do have the power to influence, Prof Manzoni spoke of the importance of retaining focus on the person and leader they would like to become. “You must know what this best self looks like and feels like, to know the kind of behavior you want to produce,” he said. Booking time to reflect and to be mindful would help executives to remain focused on their goals. “We are not born our best self; we become our best self,” he said.

Focus on learning

Joining the ceremony as a guest speaker, Professor Dr Michael O. Hengartner echoed the sentiments of Prof Manzoni when he observed that this cohort had triumphed during a difficult year. “If you ask me whether your 2021 degree is worth the same as my 2008 degree,” said Prof Hengartner, an IMD EMBA alumnus, “I would say: No!

“Because of the extra challenges you went through, your degree is worth more than mine!” said Prof Hengartner, who is President of the Board at ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne.

A biologist by training, he cited Charles Darwin’s work, which found that it was not the strongest species that survived, but rather those best able to adapt that thrived in life. This, he said, should be a metaphor for working life. And he advised graduates that “while being flexible and taking advantage of opportunities is important, so is staying true to our values.”

Focus on curiosity

Values, said Valedictorian Marija Tomeska, were central to what held together this tightly knit EMBA group of 51 graduates, hailing from 31 industries and 27 different nationalities. She saluted her cohort of “passionate and curious individuals, willing to sacrifice their comfort, peace and harmony for their desire for real learning and real impact.”

Tomeska reminded her colleagues that they had all chosen to come to IMD to grow. “We not only learnt but we unlearnt a lot from our past,” she observed. Juggling responsibilities at work, “endless zoom meetings”, family life and the pandemic had not been easy, she said, but this test of commitment had established a strong bond for the group.

Focus on growth

Looking back over the 14-month journey of the program, Professor Stefan Michel, Dean of the Executive MBA at IMD and Professor of Marketing and Service Management, recalled his late mother’s leadership in their family’s restaurant.

Prof Michel likened parenthood to leadership in organizations, reminding graduates as they prepare to embark on the next stages of their careers that they “should not worry or punish ourselves for not being perfect leaders. We have millions of ways to be good leaders, and every single day offers many opportunities to help somebody to grow.”

After completing their EMBA, each graduate would not be perfect, he said. Rather, each person should be more self-aware, and know that growth starts with them, so that they can continue to pursue IMD’s purpose: “To challenge what is and inspire what could be”.