The 2019 EFMD Annual Conference


by Simon Mercado, Dean of ESCP Europe Business School London

EFMD Annual conferences have a tradition of breadth and depth. The 2019 programme hosted at the spectacular Nova Business School in Carcavelos, Portugal, has continued this tradition under the interrelated themes of Trust, Partnerships and Impact.


The theme of trust has been prominent in recent discussions about higher education and the role of its institutions, including business schools. From corporate scandals to ‘fake news’, business schools function not merely in a context of growing public distrust of markets and institutions but, for many, as a part of the issue. When it comes to business and government, the ‘business partner’ image is inescapable. Layered on top of this are critical observations over pay and privileges, admissions biases, rankings abuses, and a misfiring research culture. All of this goes to the heart of the bulldoze the business school manifesto of some of our harshest critics.

As such, the trust question for business schools requires not only a response to what is going on in the world but a significant degree of introspection. It is here that our conference programme started with Louise Turner of Edelman Intelligence setting the scene for our conversation with the spotlight on Edelman’s trust barometer. Louise highlighted the extent to which trust in business, government and media has been in steep decline in recent years as publics respond to evidence of corruption, neglect and dishonesty at the highest levels. As she remarked on our first morning, across advanced and developing societies, there is a growing feeling of pessimism manifesting itself in different social protests and falling levels of confidence about the future. “While not everyone is taking to the streets,” Louise remarked, “…the data shows why protests like the gilets jaunes in France, the women’s marches in India, and walkouts by employees at some major tech companies could become more mainstream.”


Much of our conversation turned on how this decline in levels of trust combines with a rise in populism fuelled by fears about immigration, globalisation and automation. But what is clear is that our schools are neither defeated nor passive. The very diminishment of trust in markets and institutions is itself a new cause for positive action. Business schools in the EFMD community are looking to build trust equity both inside and outside of their organisations. They are stepping up with core curricula emphases on responsible leadership, CSR, sustainability and ethics, and combining this with swathes of student-led social enterprise and social impact initiatives. These are increasingly normalised by these business schools and integrated into programmes and curricula. Trend lines in business school research also show a significant shift towards the addressing of complex global challenges along with the search for more sustainable business models and practices.

More fundamentally, few of us are failing to recognise that the next generation of leaders and influencers need to be equipped and motivated to address complex global challenges in a context of falling levels of trust. If we are to trust our own stated commitment then we are, in our own words, trying hard to educate leaders who are deeply committed to values and ethics. People and leaders who can embed trust into the DNA of a company and its culture. In something of a clarion call, Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University, reminded us that as the nurseries of future business leaders, we must play a decisive and prescriptive role for the advancement of a more inclusive global society. This means a race to the top in leadership education and institutional practice with a sharp focus on such areas as the improvement of mental health, reduction of poverty and inequalities, thriving in a digital age, and transitioning to a low-emission, sustainable economy. If we can do this, we can be the trusted and effective institutions we seek to be.

One positive indicator in trust research is that a large number of individuals do believe that CEOs and employers can do positive things when they work effectively with their employees and wider stakeholders.

What is interesting here is the second dimension to Edelman’s trust-focused research. Tomorrow’s leaders will be expected by employees, peers and the public to effect both organisational and social progress. To lead the change, they will need to attract increasingly socially minded employees using new recruitment tools and techniques as discussed in our roundtable on the future of work and recruitment, led by Amber Wigmore Alvarez. They will need to work with them to address social issues through knowledge sharing and action and speak up directly on social issues such as immigration, diversity and inclusion. In demonstrating their personal commitment inside and outside the company they will be trust builders and agents of change. One positive indicator in trust research is that a large number of individuals do believe that CEOs and employers can do positive things when they work effectively with their employees and wider stakeholders. In many respects, levels of trust here are better than those in government, banks or the media. Business schools can also be buoyed by evidence that good faith endures in the trustworthiness of academic figures and institutions despite some of the negative press around universities and business schools more specifically.


Moving on, our conference programme provided us with supporting focus on partnerships in business and business education. In our conversation at the conference, it was clear that the challenges businesses face these days are too complex to be solved by individuals or even single organisations. Collaboration — within the organisation and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors — is required to achieve lasting solutions. The equation for business schools is no different.

The continuing priorities of business schools are such that partnerships are vital to development processes and mission execution. High-performing international business schools typically take a strategic approach to partnership development and management. They build and develop strong partner networks that have a bilateral and multilateral dimension, often with an international scope. Productive links with other schools (exchange of students, research and double/joint diplomas) combine with partnerships with civic offices, business, charities, NGOs, pressure groups, technology partners and others. Our ecosystems are increasingly identified as multi-actor communities and it is these communities that power our work and performance. As the host Dean, Daniel Traça remarked on the fascinating case of Nova Business School: “For our lives [here] and in driving cultural change, we do everything with partners.”


This second conference track gave us an opportunity to look at instances of effective and creative partnerships and to assess some of the benefits of these partnership models and pitfalls in partnership development and management. What we have understood is that modern value creation requires complex systems or ecosystems based on collaboration. When we get this right we can achieve the sort of results and impact we desire and target.

Of course, one can’t help but note the key role of trust in partnerships and the capacity of joint enterprises acting with shared intentionality to generate both higher levels of trust and impact. This was all highlighted in our parallel sessions and discussion groups.


Of course, the notion of impact for business schools is never far away from the conversation and in Lisbon, it constituted our third core theme. From the question of trust and trust equity through to the matter of our detailed work in education and research, we accept both the importance and challenge of impact. The importance extends from our sense of service and identity through to questions of efficacy and legitimacy. The challenge extends from the lack of a shared understanding of what impact amounts to, or what types of impact should be prioritized.

Once again, our conference provided a platform for impact case studies and strategies. Focus on the BSIS framework of the EFMD drew our minds to such challenges as defining our ‘impact zones’ and measurement points. Much of the examination of the Nova Business School case assessed the School’s impact in its different geographic impact zones and communities, especially in Cascais municipality. What is clear is that the notion of impact must extend beyond knowledge production and dissemination as measured by publication to a very wide range of indicators: financial, economic, political, environmental and responsibility impacts included. In our final plenary session, David Grayson, Cranfield School of Management, put emphasis on the last two of these and called on us to go ‘all in’ on the drive towards sustainability and inclusive growth. David reminded us that new more sustainable business models are emerging and securing success. The bottom line is that sustainable business equals good business not just business for good.

What is clear is that the notion of impact must extend beyond knowledge production and dissemination as measured by publication to a very wide range of indicators: financial, economic; political; environmental and responsibility impacts included.

And finally

As we look ahead towards 2050 and what the next thirty years will bring in management and management education, we share the certainty that it will bring immense challenge and uncertainty. Our conversations around Industry 4.0 and Management Education 4.0 underscored both the pace and scale of change. Our shared determination is to make a positive impact on our people, communities and partnerships. Our hope is to demonstrate our trustworthiness and respond to any reputational damage we have felt or sense is building.


Much of this rests with the core mission we have of developing effective and responsible business professionals. In our collective view, the most successful 21st-century leaders will align people around mission and values and empower employees. They will be trust-builders, influencers and promoters of collaboration throughout their organisations and organisational ecosystems. Hallmarked by their agility, transparency, and emotional intelligence, they will need to be trustworthy, resilient and inclusive.

From what we say to each other, we all want our students and employees to also have a deep sense of social responsibility in everything they do and a sharp focus on the sustainability goal. We expect them to critically assess the social and environmental consequences of their decisions and actions and to see the performance through a triple bottom line lens. Beyond this, we implore them to be good human beings and to do their best to establish humane values in attributes of care and compassion.

We can’t hope or expect them to do this if we don’t have the same expectation of ourselves.

Want to remind yourself of the unforgettable moments from the conference? Follow  or @NovaSBE on Twitter!

Simon Mercado, Dean of ESCP Europe Business School London, was the Chair of the 2019 EFMD Annual Conference. His invaluable insights and incessant energy helped co-create a conference that brought together top business leaders and offered discussions and best practices on the topics of Trust, Partnerships and Impact.