Mission possible: interview with EADA Dean, Jordi Díaz

EADA Business School created the first master’s degree in sustainable business and innovation. Its Dean, Jordi Díaz, spoke to David Woods-Hale about further embracing sustainability and addressing the ‘reskilling revolution’

In 2022, it will have been 20 years since you joined EADA. What have been the biggest changes in business strategy that you’ve observed? 

EADA was founded back in 1957 as an executive education institution with a clear emphasis on personal development. When I joined the School in 2002, EADA was inaugurating its first edition of the International MBA in English. Today, all our full-time programmes are offered only in English, attracting around 350 participants a year from more than 60 different countries, with an impressive 90% international student body. 

Nevertheless, I would like to stress that this remarkable level of international growth and recognition has not changed the ‘boutique’ spirit of the School. Quoting the late Sumantra Ghoshal, ‘the smell of the place’ is still very familiar, with close to an obsessive focus on our participants’ experience. 

We were founded to be – and still are – the place where businesspeople grow. This ‘growth’ today cannot be understood without paying greater attention to sustainability, leadership and innovation, which are the three pillars that guide all what we do at EADA.  

It’s also coming up to your two-year anniversary as Dean of EADA – a role you took up during a global pandemic. Could you share some insights into your leadership journey and the challenges you’ve overcome? 

I accepted this challenge with responsibility but also with a high level of energy and motivation. We are living in unprecedented times and I feel that business education can be a clear catalyser between a working world that anticipated the change and the huge number of professionals who need to learn, unlearn, and relearn how to be ready for this accelerated change. As a leader, you must focus on business today and of tomorrow. 

The big challenge for a leader is looking beyond the pressures and demands of today’s world – especially under the daily stress of a pandemic – while also looking into the future. For example, we started our digitalisation process a few years ago, but after Covid-19, we had to speed up – and really ramp up – our online offering, and it was an enormous challenge. 

The policies you put in place as a leader must have the next game in mind; in this case the post-pandemic era. Looking into the future is your critical role as a leader. 

Is the business education sector responding quickly enough to this ongoing disruption, and what advice would you offer to other deans?

Our industry’s response to the pandemic has been remarkable. We went fully online overnight, prioritising the health and safety of our teams and our participants, many of whom were away from home. Like others in this industry, we offered support way beyond education. For a lot of participants we were their family at a challenging time. When the unexpected first wave of Covid-19 hit, our industry started to offer hybrid teaching with face-to-face and online participants in real time. While much needs to be refined in hybrid teaching, one thing is clear: there is no way back to a single way of teaching.  

When thinking about disruption beyond the pandemic, I believe our industry needs to fully embrace the ‘reskilling revolution’ (a term coined by the World Economic Forum). 

We need to stop thinking about a linear programme of education with two stops (Bachelor + Master/MBA) and start thinking of education as a never-ending lifelong learning game where we have to enter into partnership with non-academic partners such as technology platforms, corporations and governments.  

What innovations are you developing to future-proof your School’s postgraduate business programmes? 

Backed by our three-pillar strategy (sustainability, leadership and innovation), we have launched several programmes and academic initiatives to accelerate our role as change-maker ‘multipliers’. We were pioneers in this area when we created the first master’s degree in sustainable business and innovation. It’s a full-time programme that we launched three years ago, and no other top-25 Business School in Europe had an equivalent. 

Students might end up working for the United Nations, NGOs, and leading corporations, or become social entrepreneurs and innovators. We see a huge need from both young people wanting to change the world and the concept of globalisation, and from senior leaders who are switching towards a new mindset, which is putting both technology and sustainability at the centre of their thinking.

Your background in the corporate world and your master’s focused on HR strategy. Having been involved in the world-class HR delivery at Ritz-Carlton, do you think there are lessons Business Schools need to learn in terms of delivering a customer-service focused experience to students and alumni? 

Absolutely! In our industry, there is often unnecessary debate around the way we view our main stakeholders: as students or customers? In my view they are both. In an exam they are definitely students but during the rest of their interactions with us, they are customers; we not only have to meet their expectations but anticipate them. To do that, the second most-important lesson I learned at the Ritz-Carlton is the concept of ‘lateral service’. 

When 900 guests on a cruise were arriving at the hotel at the same time, the entire team (general manager included) helped to offer a speed check-in. In exceptional situations such as this, there is no time to hire temporary staff; we all had to be ready to support each. These experiences, help to generate a clear sense of team spirit. 

At EADA, we have incorporated this concept of ‘lateral service’, and it has helped us to make the impossible possible during the pandemic, when we have faced the unknown on a day-to-day basis. 

Returning to your own experience in international programmes and relations. the pandemic and climate agenda are putting increasing pressure on Business Schools to remain international, but in innovative ways. How will EADA ensure it maintains an international footprint?

EADA has a clear mission: to be the place where businesspeople grow. We’ve been operating since 1957 and have always served the business community and contributed to its development by being on top of the corporate world’s needs. 

Our mission has transformed into our purpose – it’s what drives what we do and makes us so flexible and relevant in today’s society. Barcelona is one of the most cosmopolitan cities, and our location is an outstanding factor. 

We have a cluster of world-class Business Schools here, making it one of the top-three European cities for business education. In our case, 90% of our full-time programmes are attended by participants from over 60 different nations.

Your own research focuses on reskilling and upskilling leaders in Business Schools through an innovative executive education ecosystem for the fourth industrial revolution. Can you tell us a little bit about your findings and theses in this area? 

We are moving into an era of lifelong learning. Research suggests that we will have to ‘recycle’ ourselves every five years. The old model, where you just did a bachelor’s degree for three-to-four years, will transform, and Business Schools have to understand that they will need to serve students consistently throughout their careers. 

Universities and Business Schools need to accept that external partners will begin to be part of this educational experience and can bring a lot of value. I strongly believe in business education innovation ecosystems. 

We have to embrace co-operation, not only among universities and Business Schools, but beyond the industry. Working together, technology companies, corporations, governments and others can offer the best experiences to the talent of tomorrow. 

What role do you see for new education ecosystems in satisfying the need for reskilling and upskilling?

At the 2020’s World Economic Forum it was said that, by 2030, more than one billion people would have to reskill in the face of changing technology, growing automation, some jobs becoming redundant and new jobs being created. 

In reality, we probably won’t be able to wait until 2030, we will need to fast-track this goal to 2025. The imperative to reskill and upskill the workforce is a global phenomenon. Business Schools should be the engine of this transformation and need to propose something that is totally different. We need to build a business education ecosystem that includes stakeholders such as Google or Amazon. 

If tech companies do it on their own, there will be more of a consulting approach: if you have a problem, tech companies will give you the solution. This is why educational institutions should be involved, since they are able to provide the knowledge and understand the way to approach solutions whenever a problem arises. This is the difference between consulting and training. In class, we don’t tell our students what to think but how to think. We believe more in problem finders than in problem solvers and this is unique to the education profession. 

What do you think are the most pressing challenges facing international Business Schools? 

Without a doubt, the most urgent challenge is sustainability. As Business Schools, we can accelerate the pace of change in this regard. We have an enormous responsibility here because, in our classrooms, current and future leaders refine their own decision-making processes. They will make decisions that will affect people, companies and wider society. If, during their business education experience, the triple bottom line (people, profit, and planet) is not always present, it will not be present in real life. In a way, we can be multipliers of positive impacts as well as multipliers of negative impacts. We have to be part of the solution. 

Business students are passionate about people, profit, purpose, and planet. How is EADA addressing these emerging needs in its delivery, and how is the School focusing on developing responsibility and sustainability-centric leaders? 

All our faculty and academics in research have combined their interest in this. We’ve also set out alliances with the two main movements in these areas. We collaborate with B-Corp, the movement for certifications that consider financial profitability, but also sustainable impact on the planet and people. And we have partnered with Ashoka, the leading organisation for promoting and supporting social entrepreneurship. They are both now part of our business education ecosystem. 

What are the next steps for you personally, as a leader, and for the School? 

To keep learning! If we don’t adopt a must-have growth mindset nobody will. I am working on a book around the reskilling revolution and its implications for Business Schools because our sector has a critical role to play. 

An institutional level, we are facing an historic moment with the launch of our first ever ‘bachelor’s’ programme. Our entrance into the undergraduate market is in response to our conviction that business education –underpinned by sustainability, leadership and innovation – is needed as early as possible. We are definitely becoming a full-service Business School; our origins are clear and solid, and the future is unknown but very exciting.

Do you feel optimistic about the future?

I am an optimist by nature, so you have to take my answer with caution. I don’t think we fully understand what we have gone through with this pandemic that has disrupted our lives. I think such a crucible moment will lead to a period of post-traumatic growth but that we will not forget the things we have learned the hard way. 

In terms of business education, face-to-face learning will be as reinforced by online education. The question lies in when we should use one option and when the other works better. In terms of the economy (as well as any major issues we face; for example, climate change) one thing is starting to  become clear: collective responses will be required. Ecosystems will be needed more than ever; this will be the only way to deal with the complexities that we will face over and again. 

Jordi Díaz has been Dean of EADA Business School since August 2020. He holds an Executive Doctorate in Business Administration from École des Ponts Business School and a master’s in HR management from EADA Business School.

This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

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