Integrating leadership and technology: The origin story of the emba X

Even before Nathalie joined the team at the University of St.Gallen, there were already conversations around leaders and education of the future: What kind of skills, knowledge, and mindsets will be required? What kind of executive education will the world need?

“The University of St.Gallen is quite well-known for the quality of its business education,” Nathalie tells us. “I think we couldn’t get better in Switzerland in terms of what the University of St.Gallen offers. The answer lies somewhere else. What can we look at, beyond what the traditional way of teaching leadership and business is like?” (01:22)

There are a lot of buzzwords in the technology sphere – AI, Internet of Things, blockchain, to name a few. MBA programs around the world are increasingly offering courses focused solely on these topics – but Nathalie and her team realized that in order to truly serve leaders of the future, the University of St.Gallen would have to integrate technology and leadership in a new, powerful MBA program.

Ultimately, the emba X program at the University of St.Gallen was inspired by the question of “How can we equip leaders with the tools they need and with the understanding they need in order to ask the right questions?” (02:31)

Once they decided to redefine the Executive MBA with the integration of leadership and technology, there was just one obvious partner in Switzerland: ETH Zurich.

The alpine journey and the myth of “reaching the peak”

Inspired by its unique environment and taking “Swissness” to the next level, the emba X program uses an alpine metaphor to describe the program journey.

More specifically, the program rejects the common conception that “reaching the peak” is the most successful part of the journey. In fact, it’s the journey back down that shows the traveler’s real impact.

Nathalie elaborates, “If you look at mountaineering metaphors – and us being Swiss, we are very exposed to those – we know that the real impact happens when you come back down, when you are back in the valleys…We were taking students into journeys that went beyond just them being successful as individuals, but actually making sure that they had impact in their teams [and] in their organizations.” (03:51)

The emba X program is about how leaders can use their knowledge, skills, and tools, “to navigate the unstable landscapes around us” and to experience that “change in altitude,” as Nathalie says. (05:42) What better place to experience this than in the formidable Swiss Alps?

Navigating uncertainty: Who is the emba X program for?

The emba X program at the University of St.Gallen “was designed with 21st-century leaders in mind,” Nathalie says. “And 21st-century leaders need a certain skill set that integrates not only the traditional ways of doing leadership, but also a willingness to question the status quo. And also skills in terms of technologies and embracing the speed at which technology is developing.” (09:19)

emba X students must not only understand that the future is uncertain, but equip themselves to navigate this uncertainty. This means they often come from different perspectives and different fields.

“It’s not necessarily technology managers that want to learn business education [or]…leaders who would like to understand technology,” Nathalie explains. “It’s people who want to develop a mindset of integrating technology and leadership…What we want is that integration to happen and people to realize that that integration is necessary. We cannot afford to treat these two fields as siloed anymore.” (10:09)

In sum, the emba X is “a program for any leader [who] understands that the integration of technology and leadership skills is necessary to navigate the uncertainty of the future.” (11:02)

How the emba X journey fosters a future-ready mindset

“What’s really important for us is the journey; that they take on the learnings from the journey, and not necessarily just a toolbox,” Nathalie states. (06:07)

As Nathalie explains, there are plenty of toolboxes out there, but the journey of the emba X program is designed to help students go beyond traditional courses and lessons in order to be effective 21st-century leaders.

Even in the program’s core leadership, management, and technology courses, the university insists that its faculty teach forward-thinking frameworks instead of past or even current theories and frameworks. What could the tools of tomorrow look like?

Armed with the integrated knowledge, skills, and mindset they develop during the emba X alpine journey, students will be ready to embrace the peaks and valleys that every leadership journey brings.