Tall, silver-haired, immaculately dressed, John Wells looks every inch the corporate executive. Hardly surprising, you might think, for a man who has spent much of his life working in business and management consultancy. But his corporate background was only half the reason for his appointment in April as president of IMD, in Switzerland.

For, unlike the deans at Insead and London Business School – IMD’s biggest European rivals, who are both from professional services firms – Prof Wells has both an MBA and DBA from Harvard Business School (as well as a first class honours degree from Oxford University in nuclear and solid state physics) and a solid academic teaching and publications record. Before joining IMD, he was professor of management practice at Harvard, where he taught the core strategy course on the MBA programme.

John Wells
John Wells, president of IMD, plans to use his expertise in strategy to drive change at the school in Switzerland © Financial Times

It is this expertise in strategy that will drive certain change at the Lausanne-based business school. “My research is on why do successful companies fail,” explains Prof Wells. “Successful companies fail because they keep repeating the model. You have to look at alternate models that might displace you in the future…I think all institutions should be in permanent change mode. IMD is incredibly successful. So what is the next step?”

Faculty and staff at IMD already think along those lines, he says. “What I like about IMD is that it is not complacent. We have to deliver; we live on the edge as companies do. We are a professional school and we don’t do research for its own sake, we do research to inform action. It’s easy to say and very hard to do.”

In this IMD has always done things differently from most other business schools and in the appointment of Prof Wells as president it also went against the perceived wisdom. By and large, when business schools replace long-term deans – Kellogg and Columbia in the US and Iese in Spain are good examples – they choose an internal candidate who had worked closely with the outgoing incumbent. But although it has a cadre of well-respected senior faculty, the IMD board went outside the school for a professor to replace Peter Lorange, who had built up the institution over a period of 15 years.

Although different from his predecessor in many ways, Prof Wells, 56, agrees with Prof Lorange on one topic: there will be no tenure system at IMD. “There’s no-one at IMD on the faculty that couldn’t make a lot of money elsewhere. If you need to be here, you shouldn’t be here.”

Research rigour

That said, Prof Wells cannot afford to be complacent about his faculty. A brief glance at the résumés of the 65 faculty on the IMD website reveals that a disproportionately large number are reaching retirement age: indeed, 17 of the faculty will retire over the next five years. These include some of the most widely respected: Peter Killing, Paul Strebel, Xavier Gilbert and Bill Fischer.

“My first priority is to replace those who are leaving, “ says Prof Wells. But things will not stop there. “Our priority is faculty, faculty, faculty…I would love to wake up one day and know we didn’t have to scramble.”

One of the reasons IMD needs up to 200 faculty is that the new president wants to increase the research rigour at the school. “The good news is the research output of the school is going up faster than the revenues. The faculty workload has increased by 38 per cent over the past five years.”

The second is to increase the geographical reach of the school and to attract different types of course participants. At the moment, some 80 per cent of IMD programmes are taught in Lausanne. “Clients would like more distributed delivery and we need to respond to that,” says Prof Wells. “I’m encouraging faculty to take on learning partners [corporate clients] in other parts of the world.”

He has five regions in mind – China, India, South America, the Middle East and Africa. One of the biggest conundrums for Prof Wells is what to do in North America, arguably the market he knows best.

Prof Wells has no intention of opening a second campus overseas. “If it’s tough to manage a business school, it’s even tougher to manage two.”

One of Prof Wells’ first changes at the school was to update the management structure. Under the old regime the school was run by two people, Prof Lorange and Jim Ellert, finance professor. Prof Wells immediately introduced a five-dean structure. The new line-up includes two Irish professors – John Walsh, dean of faculty and staff and Sean Meehan, dean of external affairs – one American, Stuart Read, dean of research development and publishing and one British professor, Stewart Hamilton, dean of finance and administration. Bettina Büchel, who is German, has been appointed dean of programmes.

Masters programme

Already under review is the MBA programme. Canadian Martha Maznevski has been put in charge of developing the degree.

“A one-size MBA makes no sense to me at all,” says the new president. Under discussion is whether to increase the number enrolled on the programme from the current 90; another is to develop the MBA as a sandwich programme with study and work interweaved.

There is also the potential for a masters programme for those in their early twenties. But he says such a programme would not be a high priority at the moment.

A business school such as IMD, where 90 per cent of the teaching is executive education (non-degree), might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Only the next five years will tell whether his philosophy of continuous change is one that will make the school or break it.

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