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The first big surprise for Marc Martinez-Selma when starting the global executive MBA at Spain’s prestigious IESE Business School was just how much he had to “unlearn” during the initial phase.
Already 10-plus years into a fast-moving career in the insurance sector, with several international postings under his belt, he knew the programme was sure to present new tests and challenges.
But what he hadn’t quite expected was the extent to which everything would be open to question and every subject a source of debate.
“The first thing we did was unlearn old concepts which may have been misplaced, outdated or simply wrong,” says the chief operating officer for Zurich Commercial, Asia-Pacific. “I thought it was a fantastic process which creates an atmosphere where you think big, assess things critically, and stay in touch with reality. Your first boss may have taught you how to deal with a customer, but that framework may not work with a bigger client or in an international context. In these cases, the class helps tremendously.”
He opted for the EMBA rather than an MBA, knowing the class would include a good mix of professionals with significant executive-level experience in a diverse range of industries.
And while he freely admits that the 18 months, starting in 2008, when he had to balance part-time study with the demands of a full-time job, was one of the most challenging periods of his life, he is also in no doubt that it has paid off – and will continue to do so.
“The main objective was to expand my knowledge and understanding of how business works around the world,” Martinez-Selma says. “It was certainly tough, but without question, I would do it again.”
The course is built around seven residential modules. Each lasts a few days and includes classes, case studies, group assignments, guest speakers and seminars. The preceding four to five weeks entails preparation from an extensive reading list and, afterwards, there are individual exercises and team projects as well as follow-up exams and evaluations.
“Assessments are relative to your classmates, which gives a little extra motivation,” Martinez-Selma says. “It is very demanding, but that is what gives value to the qualification and the school. At first, I was a bit sceptical, but this methodology means you do learn, and I felt the competition within the class was natural and healthy.”
The original 40-strong intake included 27 different nationalities, creating immediate opportunities to learn about other cultures and discuss alternative approaches to commonly encountered problems.
Working in smaller breakout groups, which replicated an “alpha” team in an ambitious company, was also a chance to appreciate the importance of teamwork, the dynamics that exist in any business scenario, and the need to adapt or compromise.
“We now organise a weekend every year to get together and catch up,” Martinez-Selma says. “That gives an idea of the connections, friendship and trust that you develop over the course of those 18 months.”
For many, the EMBA also led to new ways of working. Co-ordinating projects where the participants were based in different time zones, perhaps 10 hours apart, put a special emphasis on teamwork, good communication, and effective use of the latest technology.
“In those circumstances, you can’t afford two-and-a-half hours to discuss one topic,” Martinez-Selma says. “So, you become more efficient in seeing the dynamics at work in each group, which is a skill you need in business and, more generally, in life too.”
As someone who hails from Barcelona, he was initially attracted to IESE because it is a Europe-based school with a strong reputation, good connections with tech companies and angel investors in Silicon Valley, and partners in Asia.
Indeed, Martinez-Selma did one module with CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai, which opened his eyes to the region and inspired him to jump at Zurich’s offer of a transfer to Hong Kong in 2015.
In common with others, he concedes that his initial reasons for taking the EMBA included the prospect of a higher salary, better career opportunities, new skills, and a wider network of contacts. And while all that has happened, other considerations became just as important.
One was the chance to step back and reflect on issues and aspects of the big picture, which you don’t necessarily see amid the pace and pressure of day-to-day priorities. Another was simply learning more about oneself.
“During that 18-month journey there were many lessons on humility, and realising how little you know and understand about the world,” Martinez-Selma says. “You also understand how to listen, communicate and learn better and think about what is really driving you.”
Of the 40-plus subjects the programme covers, four focus specifically on managing yourself. This, of course, has direct relevance for anyone working with or leading high-performance teams. Being an effective contributor means adapting to different roles and situations in order to achieve the desired outcome. And, ultimately, individuals have to find what works best for themselves, their companies and their colleagues at any given time.
With regard to some of these more introspective aspects, Martinez-Selma has developed a specific technique to help him reflect, maintain perspective, and have time for outside interests.
“I call it ‘boxes of happiness’,” he says. “I find time to play piano and guitar, sing, and compose songs. I can enter this ‘box’ and forget everything else for a while. Another box is people. I’m very curious and like meeting and talking to new people, whether as friends, colleagues or customers. And a third is sports, I love tennis and diving – the sensation of ‘flying’ over the water is fantastic – and a few months ago I discovered yoga.”
In offering general advice to prospective EMBA students, Martinez-Selma notes the importance of defining in advance what you really want from the journey.
“It is a very personal decision linked to individual goals and ambitions,” he says. “You must be prepared to put in the effort, but remember too the family commitments and consider it from that point of view.”