How Do You Top That

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Publication date:

March 12, 2021

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When you look at the MSM SKOLKOVO building at the outskirts of Moscow, it is a very impressive piece of architecture. It is definitely not your typical school building. David Adjay created a wonderful piece of architecture that makes an imposing statement.

What is not immediately evident is that the design of the building was inspired by the work of Malevich, the Russian avant-garde artist. In fact, looking at the building from above, it’s footprint very much resembles a typical Malevich painting. The Malevich inspiration was to capture the school’s Russian roots as well as its ambitions. Very much like Malevich did in the art world at the time, we wanted to be avant-garde in business education and move established boundaries.

As the Malevich inspiration for the building is evident from above, we used to joke at SKOLKOVO that we had intergalactic ambitions; aspiring to be an international business school wasn’t just good enough! The ambition was to move the needle in a significant way; we were out to reach for the stars.

The universe and the Russian space program were never far away either. While at SKOLKOVO, I visited on a few occasions Star City north of Moscow. For many years a hidden location deep into pine forests, Star City is where the Russian cosmonauts (and US astronauts) train before they blast off into space on board of a Soyuz capsule. The place is quite fascinating even for someone who never contributed Star Trek fever.

What interested me at Star City were the many simulation facilities used for cosmonaut training. Many of these facilities could be used in crisis management training. For example, there was a whole setup to simulate the critical docking manœuvre when the Soyuz capsule approached the International Space Station (ISS). Star City also had 2 exact replicas of ISS with one submerged in a giant pool to simulate weightlessness. We spent quite a bit of time contemplating how some of these facilities could be used in experiential learning modules for senior executives. We could do all this because of the political backing the school had in Russia.

When MSM SKOLKOVO was created, it became a priority project for Dmitry Medvedev who was Prime Minister of Russia at the time. He also became the chairman of the school’s advisory board, a position he kept even when he moved into the presidency of the Russian Federation. With such political backing, all doors were open and it was up to us to be creative in how we could leverage the unique access to assets we had into meaningful educational experiences. It was a fun challenge.

The political backing in Russia also brought significant global visibility. Many high-profile visitors to Russia would stop by to visit the school. Our students got quite spoiled in meeting who’s who in the corporate and political world. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he was governor of California, drove up one day sitting besides Medvedev in a vintage Russian automobile!

With tight security protocols, these visits were exhilarating but also very disruptive. Especially when the visitors were escorted by Kremlin officials, we would never really know when they would show up until they were right at the door of the school! Sometimes, we would just stand around for hours not knowing exactly when the big moment would come. But more often than not, our dressed-up students would forget the required patience as soon as they got to interact directly with the visitors. Those encounters etched lasting memories into their minds.

With such exposure and access, we always had two challenges with our students. First, how do we keep their feet on the ground? Privilege forms quickly in a young mind. Second, how do we keep the excitement going? These visits were wonderful for our students but we constantly faced the question of how do we keep the excitement going? After a while, another CEO or Prime Minister were just not good enough anymore.

That was the challenge we faced when we started planning for the graduation of our first MBA class. It would be the first graduation ceremony for the school so it had to match in ambition with what the school had set out for. Who could be a meaningful and memorable keynote speaker? How do we reach for the stars if we already toured the Milky Way? The school’s PR team got to work. Our students were in for a treat and I was to discover that in Russia the sky is indeed the limit.

During the graduation ceremony when it became time for the keynote speech, the school’s auditorium went completely dark. As this was a surprise to most, the auditorium went completely silent. For a few seconds, you could hear a pin drop. Then, a crackling noise came over the sound system and grey snow appeared on the giant screen. We were trying to connect somewhere but where and to whom?

A few seconds later, we were in the International Space Station (ISS) with the two resident Russian cosmonauts at the time! Bobbing up and down in weightlessness, they greeted the students and gave the long-awaited graduation speech. It was so unexpected and grand that a flood of emotions grew in the auditorium and culminated into wild screaming, excitement and applause. It was absolutely wonderful The graduates of that day still talk about that surprise experience.

Of course, once the euphoria of the moment was over, my thoughts immediately went to the graduation of the following year. How are we going to top that?

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