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The wider business world may see MBA students and graduates as steely eyed followers of a focused career path, but recent trends across European schools to offer more personal development alongside the acquisition of knowledge and “hard” skills have exposed an appetite for introspection.

An exotic array of offerings has sprung up to satisfy this need, ranging from esoteric spiritual retreats to full-blown psychotherapy.

Leonidas Pantazopoulos signed up for his MBA at Insead in France and Singapore, looking for a life-changing experience rather than just a career step.

This is typical, faculty members say, of people experiencing a life transition, who often ask themselves deep questions about their own goals and motivations.

The efforts made by the school to integrate research-based clinical psychology into the MBA – alongside the business case studies and number-crunching – are welcome, says Mr Pantazopoulos.

“When you arrive you are open to people challenging you and you are looking for alternatives,” he says. “But it was a revelation for me to have someone take the time to look under the layers and defences.”

HEC Paris has paved the way for participants to admit they are on a quest for meaning as well as greater success. Monastic retreats, which include meditation, group and solo work, are offered three times a year to all MBA participants at HEC. A priest and a philosopher are on hand during the three-day sessions to help with questions of values and ethics. The seminar is always oversubscribed.

Values-added: an exotic array of offerings has sprung up to satisfy MBA students' need for a more meaningful experience on their courses

“The mission, the duty and the value of an MBA is to help people reflect on what they can become,” says Valérie Gauthier, associate dean of the HEC MBA programme. She plans to introduce more of this approach to the main body of the course in the coming year, with offers of one-to-one coaching.

But the most in-depth work has been pioneered at IMD in Lausanne, where Jack D. Wood, professor of organisational behaviour and a Jungian therapist, offers subsidised psychotherapy, not only to the MBA students going through their transformative life experience, but also to their partners.

Between a half and two thirds of every year group take up the offer. On top of this, he uses clinically trained staff to work with his leadership students on the outward-bound activities and on a long personal autobiography, which they send in before the course begins and then refine during the year.

Both Prof Wood and his former IMD colleague and collaborator Gianpiero Petriglieri, a psychiatrist now teaching and researching at Insead, believe the reasons people give for doing an MBA are often a “cover story” for an inner search for a fulfilling and purposeful life and they are there to help reveal and examine other, deeper motivations. IMD students are, they write in a joint paper, called Behind the Mask, “a select group not just for their superior achievements and talent, but also for their fragility”.

Prof Petriglieri asserts that addressing questions of identity is inseparable from preparing an elite future leader for the purely professional aspects of today’s insecure business environment.

His students seem to agree. At Insead, the courses that focus on psychology are the most oversubscribed.

But his work is “a slightly subversive thing,” Prof Wood admits, encouraging ambitious young business people in their doubts about what Jung called the wrong answers to the questions of life: position, reputation, success and money.

These more esoteric elements of a course also have to be presented carefully so as not to alienate employers,warns Joch­en Runde, director of the MBA programme at the Judge Business School in Cambridge.

There are other risks in exploring often sensitive personal territory: one former MBA at a UK business school that now offers a psychology option, complained after confidential personality questionnaires were discussed without warning in front of the whole study group.

But these courses do well in student feedback, teaching staff say, and are being expanded.

Since taking over as head of the Judge MBA, Mr Runde has reviewed the course and plans more one-to-one coaching, stopping far short of the full-blown psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic approach. He is exploring other experimental avenues: next term philosophy dons will teach business ethics. It will challenge the students with a different kind of rigour, he says.

Prof Gauthier is adamant that the personal aspects of an MBA are critical to the experience even if students do not realise it at the time. “Sometimes those who need it most run away from it,” she admits.

“But three or four years after finishing, they say ‘what I thought was bullshit was the most important part’.”

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