The Off-Campus Leadership Seminar, styled by COVID

During their 16 months in the HEC Paris MBA, intrepid students might discover the campus’ waterfall, or wander through its series of man-made caves. But no one has ever been on the roof of the gymnasium in the name of leadership training—until now.

Anna Pozniakoff pictured during one of the field exercises

Anna Pozniakoff pictured during one of the early field exercises (top photo); and also rappelling off the HEC gym

The stakes have never been higher for Anna Pozniakoff, MBA ’22, and her 11-student team. A mega-earthquake has just ripped through France’s Savoie region. The area’s largest alpine dam teeters at its breaking point. Mountain residents are racing to the valley, expecting Anna’s non-governmental organization (NGO) to shelter them.

Yet the NGO has no funding. These 12 MBA students must coordinate with the local Prefecture and civil-security force to construct a refugee camp for an estimated 700 evacuees. There are countless phone calls to make and organizational details to attend to, and everything must be done while facing a barrage of frantic citizens, journalists and government personnel. The interruptions never stop—first there was a medic offering aid, then a pregnant woman pleading for help, and now a car burns wildly just a few meters away from this command center.

Despite leading the NGO at this utterly hectic moment, Anna is confident. She and the other MBA students are in the final hours of the high-intensity, hands-on leadership seminar run annually by the experts at Saint Cyr Formation Continue (Scyfco) for the HEC Paris MBA. For two days, Anna and her team have faced increasingly complex situations designed to hone their crisis management and leadership skills. Coordinating this refugee camp is the culmination of everything they’ve learned during the past 48 hours.

“I come from the hospitality industry,” explains Anna, whose previous job was European sales manager for one of Paris’ most exclusive hotels. “In hospitality we are always managing. It takes a team to get a customer’s scrambled eggs to the table. Hospitality workers know that you can’t be everywhere–you have to delegate. Still, I’m learning skills–especially soft skills–that I will use throughout my life.”

Moving the Seminar to Campus

Because of COVID’s health-and-safety concerns, the MBA’s 2021 “Off-Campus” Leadership Seminar took place on campus for the first time in its 11-year history. Running the seminar in Jouy-en-Josas with Scyfco’s 15 mentors was a Herculean organizational task.  But it’s just one example of the MBA program’s commitment to bring students the best educational-experience possible, no matter what the constraints.

With social distancing and mask rules firmly enforced, 245 students completed the April seminar. Any MBA who chose not be involved, no matter what the reason, had the option of submitting a written assignment instead.

The first day unrolled exactly like all previous leadership seminars, while the second day became more mission-based.

Despite being 4 ½ months pregnant, Anna was determined to participate. “What you learn seated in a classroom is not the same as what you learn when you are in the snow, next to the lake, debriefing with an expert,” the Swiss/French student says. “You learn, you remember and you absolutely get better in the field.”

In the Field with a Seasoned Mentor

The first day begins promptly at 8 a.m. Teams pair up with their mentors, then gear up in gloves, boots and outdoor wear purchased specifically for this adventure. After a short classroom discussion, it’s out in the field for the next 48 hours. They tackle increasingly difficult scenarios under the careful supervision of Scyfco’s specialists.

Mentor Eric Méjean watches as a team of students work together to solve a solve a problem

Students working on a team-building exercise with Leadership Seminar Mentor Eric Méjean (pictured, right)

One of these specialists is Eric Méjean. His resume reads like a list of the world’s most dangerous places. Formerly a private-sector crisis-management consultant, Eric was called in for Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and Madagascar’s coup d’état. Like all of Scyfco’s experts, his background bridges both the military and business. He is an obvious choice for mentoring MBAs about teamwork, adaptability, and complex project management.

“What I find great about the Leadership Seminar is the experiential aspect of it,” Eric says. “You can be in a classroom and go through the same exercises intellectually, but students won’t understand their mistakes in the same way. Unless you are confronted with the physical impossibility of the task—until you are holding a plank of wood, trying to get your entire team across a river and the plank is just not long enough, you don’t actually grasp how differently you have to think through the problem.”

Debriefing by the lake

Debriefing by the lake (no snowfall for this session)

One key component to the MBA’s Leadership Seminar is that everyone who participates has to lead. Hiding behind your peers isn’t an option. “I match personalities to exercises, from the Alpha male to the person who doesn’t like to speak up,” Eric says. “I know where to put them so that they can gain the most out of the experience.”

For two days, the leadership lessons stack up like bricks, one key element carefully laid atop another. Every scenario is timed, and is immediately followed by a debriefing with the mentor and every student.

“I always start with the leader of that particular exercise,” Eric explains. “I ask them, ‘How do you feel? Did you use all the tools you were given? Why did you do it that way? Did you feel listened to by the rest of your team? How would you do it better?’ The essential thing is that no one feels judged. It’s always you talking about how you perceived your contribution.”

This mentorship style is something Anna intends to replicate. “Even with basic tasks, Eric is always lifting people up, and not letting them drown,” she says. “I appreciate that the most, because I never had a manager that showed me this behavior—supporting everyone on your team so that we all succeed.”

As part of the seminar's exercises, teams must work together to build a boat--then test its seaworthiness by sailing it across the HEC lake

As part of the seminar’s exercises, teams work together to build a makeshift raft–then test its seaworthiness by sailing it across the HEC lake

From Bluebells to Rappelling off a Building

Across campus, another group of MBAs is silently making their way up a steep, bluebell-covered hillside. They are led by Lebanese student Roula Boustany, MBA ’22. Her mission, early in the seminar’s second day, is to exchange money and gasoline for information. The person they must meet up with is known only by his GPS coordinates.

Roula Boustany and her teammates are on their way into the forest to exchange gasoline and money for information

Roula Boustany (4th from right) and her teammates are on their way into the forest to exchange gasoline and money for information

The team arrives at a seemingly abandoned building. Suddenly a man steps through a hole blown in the structure’s side. He accepts their money, then directs them towards their next goal—finding a helicopter pad strategically located on the top of HEC’s gymnasium.

Afterward, Roula shares what she has learned from the morning’s scenario. “You get to have the life experience of being a leader in a time of crisis,” the former Underwriting Supervisor says. “We all think we are ready, but what this has taught me is that when there’s a crisis, there’s a whole new set of skills. Thanks to the seminar, I now have them.

“The seminar also teaches you how to talk to people during a crisis,” she continues. “You get to help people by talking to them, because not everyone reacts to a crisis in the same way.

“It’s something that I highly recommend,” she concludes. “I wish I could do it again, because it’s incredible.”

To learn more about the HEC Paris MBA’s Annual Leadership Seminar, watch this video in which MBA students talk about their experience with Scyfco’s mentors