Ilian Mihov professes to have one claim to fame: that he is the first professor from eastern Europe to become dean of a leading business school.
The newly appointed dean of Insead is unduly modest. Not only does he have the old-fashioned movie star looks straight out of 1950s Hollywood central casting, but Prof Mihov is a thoroughbred scholar and seemingly popular among his colleagues to boot.
Indeed, more than 95 per cent of Insead’s professors voted for Prof Mihov to be dean; their support is a prerequisite for the appointment of anyone to the top job at the school. “It reminds me of communist times in Bulgaria,” smiles the quietly spoken economics professor.
His appointment as dean is hardly surprising, for Prof Ilian is an Insead man through and through. He joined the school in Fontainebleau in 1996 and then moved to the Singapore campus, working in several positions before his appointment as dean in October 2013.
Having worked and studied in North America – he was a protégé of Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, when he was at Princeton – as well as eastern and western Europe and Asia, Prof Mihov would be a perfect fit for the Insead dean template, should such a template exist. Where he differs from all his predecessors, however, is that his principal residence is in Singapore, not the school’s original site near Paris.
He is swift to point out that does not mean that Insead is refocusing on the growth markets of Asia rather than the established, and even declining, markets in western Europe. “The main message is that we are a global business school,” he insists. His recently announced leadership team of four bears out the assertion: three work in Fontainebleau and one in Singapore.
Insead’s third campus in Abu Dhabi is very much a work in progress, concedes the dean, with just a small EMBA programme run from there. “We have learnt one thing: that in the beginning you have to have the right quality. You make a first impression only once,” he says. But he clearly has bigger plans for the location. “Abu Dhabi can add to the diversity of Insead. In future it will be the gateway to Africa.”
The balance between growth and quality, in teaching and research, are topics that Prof Mihov returns to frequently. “Insead has to be about quality and excellence, not just about growth,” he says. The school already has the largest top-ranked full-time MBA programme in the world, with 1,000 students enrolling on the one-year degree every year. And even though the Insead MBA is half the price of most top two-year degrees, cost is still an issue that worries the dean. “In this new market it is very difficult to transmit the idea that high-quality education is expensive.”
The big question that has hung over Insead for the past decade is whether the “business school for the world”, as its marketing slogan trumpets, will ever open a campus in business education’s most prominent market, the US.
Prof Mihov is still hedging his bets. “We have been debating for some time whether to build a campus in the US. Now there are no plans, but who knows? We might want to build an EMBA programme that is close to the US.” Brazil would be the obvious location for such a degree, but Prof Mihov is hesitant.
“When we discuss geographies I am always worried that we will lose one of the big benefits of Insead, which is diversity,” he continues. The hallmark of Insead’s MBA is that there are 89 nationalities represented, but no nationality dominates. Britons used to be the largest single group, says the dean, but these days it is students from the US, India, Canada, China and France that prevail. There is also an increase in students from eastern Europe, reports the Bulgarian professor.
The resulting teamwork is one few business schools can emulate, with people from different countries – and often conflicting religions – forced to work together. “We deliberately put in groups people who a priori would not work together. Over time they learn to tolerate other options and learn about other cultures. This is something you cannot measure!”
The diversity is one reason why the resulting programme is a logistical nightmare, admits Prof Mihov. Another is that 80 per cent of students – 800 every year – study on both the European and Asian campus and additionally some choose to study at Wharton, Insead’s partner school. On top of that, students hope to get their first job on graduation in as many countries as there are nationalities. “We are running today the most complex MBA programmes in the world,” says the dean.
It is a model that Insead pioneered and which many business schools, especially in Europe, have tried to emulate, with varying degrees of success. Insead holds a trump card, however, in that the business school is not tied to a university structure. “Insead has remained independent and very entrepreneurial … We are completely market-driven, so we say if people want [to do something], we will do it.”
But having no university backing brings disadvantages as well as opportunity. In particular, a strong university builds brand, says Prof Mihov. “The school [Insead] is fighting an uphill battle in getting recognised,” he says, even though it can count as many graduates among the FT500 chief executive list as Stanford, and more than Wharton, Kellogg or Columbia. “Trying to get a bit more recognition is important.”
Another disadvantage, which the dean has committed to tackle, is one of the thorniest internal issues at Insead – the governance of the school, and in particular the appointment of the dean, who is voted for by academic staff but appointed by the board of directors, who are business people. The diverging interests of the two groups has resulted in understandable disagreements in the past.
But the big issue on Prof Mihov’s “to do” list is digitalisation, which deepens the experience on campus as well as enabling teaching at a distance, says the dean. “It [digitalisation] is one of the priorities for the school,” he says, pointing to a programme Insead already runs for 500 Russian executives using Webex.
“It helps us to reach out to people in places where they can’t afford to travel.”