Bernardo M. Villegas
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published: Aug 13, 2019






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People First in Business Education (Part 1)

          I consider myself lucky for having seen the evolution of a fledgling business school in Barcelona, Spain in the early sixties to one of the best business schools in the world today. After I obtained my Ph.D. in economics at the Harvard University in 1963, I was invited by a professor of the IESE Business School, who was then attending the International Teachers Program (ITP) at the Harvard Business School, to spend an academic year to help in preparing business cases in their then recently established business school, the first to offer a two-year MBA program in the whole of Europe.  That professor in his early twenties was Carlos Cavalle who later became the longest-serving Dean of the school from 1984 to 2001.  The start-up school had a tongue-twisting name in Spanish, i.e. “Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empress” or IESE for short.  Today it is known simply as the IESE Business School and after 60 years of existence (it was founded by a group of industrialists in Barcelona in 1958), it has become well known as offering some of the best executive education programs in the world today.  In fact, it has been ranked Number One in customized executive education program for five consecutive years by the Financial Times.  Among those offerings full-time MBA programs, it has systematically been among the top ten for years on end. 

         IESE Business School started with an advanced management program for owners of businesses in the industrial heart of Spain, Barcelona.  I attribute its rapid growth to the fact that its first professors decided to focus first on executive education rather than on the more academic MBA program.  From the very start, the ones who were being educated in its programs were entrepreneurs who were immersed in the day to day realities of business.  They could present living cases in marketing, finance, production management, human resources management and general management.  What the business professor had to do was to give these highly experienced top executives the framework with which to analyze their business problems. The handful of professors—experienced engineers, lawyers and accountants—knew a lot about business from the inside.  They made it a point to learn pedagogy (how to teach) by enrolling in the ITP of Harvard Business School.  Most important of all, they, as a consequence of their receiving doctrinal and spiritual guidance from Opus Dei—an institution of the Catholic Church— from the very start of IESE saw business, not as a profit-making machine, but as a community of persons who promote the good of one another as they produce and sell goods or services for the benefit of society.  Sixty years ago, this idea was not common.  The capitalism that was presented as an alternative to communism then was of the free market variety that considered profit as the ultimate reason for a business to exist. 

         This aspect of the beginnings of IESE was recalled recently by Monsignor Fernando Ocariz, Prelate of Opus Dei, in a speech he delivered during the 60th anniversary celebration of IESE in early July of this year.  He reminded an audience of IESE professors, alumni, students and guests that “what motivated the founder of Opus Dei to encourage the opening of IESE was precisely this desire to leave a mark on society.  Professor Francisco Ponz, who lived in Barcelona in the l940s and is a former Rector of the University of Navarra, said that Saint Josemaria when visiting this city once remarked on the apostolic interest of improving the formation and Christian life of the many people in Catalonia who were responsible for running all types of businesses.  He pointed to the spiritual and social repercussions of helping those responsible for the promotion, direction and development of businesses to be exemplary Christians and to act in accord with the faith, with good professional and Christian criteria, following the Church’s teachings and moral principles.  He said they should do so with a spirit of service towards their employees and workers and towards society in general, without being led by purely human ambitions, or simply the desire for material enrichment.”

         Let me make things very clear, though. Those who started IESE were no pious Joe’s mouthing lofty ideas without grounding themselves on sound business principles and practices.  Before they could be of service to society, they had to attain the highest levels of professional competence both as business practitioners and as business professors.  That is why they sought the assistance of the leading business school in the world at that time, the Harvard Business School (HBS).  I still remember the names of HBS Professors Stephen Fuller, Harry Hansen and Franklin Folts, among others, who formed an advisory body to transfer technology from HBS to IESE.  Like my friend Carlos Cavalle who trained at the ITP of Harvard Business School, a good number of the first IESE professors followed his example and learned how to be competent business professors, realizing that it is one thing to be a good business executive and another thing to be a good business professor.  IESE management exerted a great deal of effort and spent resources to send some of their best professors to pursue their doctorate in the leading schools of the U.S. in addition to Harvard, such as University of Chicago, Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania.  In no time at all, IESE had the best business faculty in the whole of Europe.  (To be continued).