Passion and meaningful impact: Career journeys at ESMT

Konstantin and Zoltan
Konstantin and Zoltan

Zoltán Antal-Mokos is a professor of strategy and Konstantin Korotov is a professor of organizational behavior and faculty lead of the Executive MBA program at ESMT Berlin. They both joined the faculty in 2005 and speak on what has changed for them and for business education in the years since. 

How would you describe your career journey at ESMT Berlin? 

Zoltán: I joined ESMT on May 1, International Labor Day, 2005. I’ve been laboring ever since! Soon after starting as a professor of strategy, I was invited by Derek Abell, our founding president, to do more in the administration. I had already been helping here and there with the full-time MBA program, and then I led the launch of the executive MBA. This evolved until I became the dean of degree programs, a role I stepped down from just one and a half years ago. Since then, I’ve returned my focus to being a professor of strategy. I am enjoying myself, doing a lot of teaching and pursuing my pet projects. 

Konstantin: Technically, I joined on August 1, 2005, but I had started before that. There were some executive education programs already in place. I joined as an assistant professor and was one of the younger ones at that time. I quickly found myself teaching a lot in executive education, which is still a passion of mine. I gradually took assignments in the degree programs, first in the full-time MBA and then in the executive MBA. 

I also had some roles related to our earlier Center for Leadership Development Research. I started the tradition of the ESMT coaching colloquia, which has been running for several years. That has resulted in ongoing activities with the coaching community worldwide and a couple of books. For a short period, I too had a little bit of a detour into administration, as an associate dean of executive education. I was then invited by Zoltán to take over the faculty lead role in the executive MBA program. I’ve been doing that for four and a half years now. 

What was your biggest surprise at ESMT?  

Konstantin: My surprise was the resourcefulness of the small number of people here. They could relatively quickly launch a set of activities that, in many other places, would probably require significantly more staff, experience, and money. 

Zoltán: It’s difficult to surprise me with anything really. But I’d say the surprising fact is that we never broke down as a school. This was despite all the challenges and the doubts – everyone believing, oh, your school will go down the drain like some other schools have done before. Like Konstantin said, we went through the challenges flexibly and with a lot of resourcefulness. I now have nearly 18 years under my belt at ESMT, and we are still here, bigger, the number one school in Germany, top 10 in Europe, and we have created our space in the landscape of management education in Europe and globally.  

Maybe the other surprise is that, after so many years, I’m still having a lot of fun here and am happy to walk into my office every morning. 

What’s the most fun about working at ESMT? 

Konstantin: I think the most fun is the encounters I have with our participants, our students, the guests who come to ESMT or whom I meet at external conferences and events, and the encounters with colleagues over coffee or when walking into somebody’s office for a chat. They all provide intellectual stimulation – food for thought and maybe even food for fights, intellectual fights, I mean. That’s probably the biggest fun factor for me. 

Zoltán: Konstantin stole my lunch, so I cannot just say people now! So, let’s highlight freedom as the source of most fun for me. I have never felt constrained. If I wanted to do something, I was allowed to do it – not many questions asked. And it was so easy to arrange to do things, to initiate things, to drive them through, because I was given the freedom to act in an entrepreneurial way. That freedom is something that I take a lot of joy from. 

What has changed in management education? 

Konstantin: We’re still preparing people to take positions for which there is a lot of power and responsibility. However, I think the focus on responsibility has increased significantly, compared to what was happening in the world of business education many years ago. I mean responsibility in a broader sense of the word: responsibility for the planet, responsibility for the societies that companies operate in, and also responsibility for ourselves.

We have more future career options to discuss with our students than before. It’s no longer the case that it must be the CEO career in order to be a successful human being, a happy human being, and a successful member of society.

Zoltán: If we look at schools like us, I think that we see positive change, because responsibility, a social perspective, and sustainability issues are gaining prominence in the curriculum. More recently, this has drawn a lot of people from the nonprofit sector, NGOs, and so on to business schools. This adds to the learning experience because they have a lot of things they can bring to the table for the benefit of others in the class. But we also have to make sure that what we are offering is right for them.

Konstantin: In the past, when somebody was nominated for an executive MBA program, they would be more or less in the process of discussions about how their skills could be used for enhancing the company. Now, we’re getting more and more students from the open market – which is definitely a success of the efforts that were put into building this program. But it makes me wonder overall what companies do or fail to do in terms of the career development of their own people. Is there something that might be fundamentally changing in the way organizations invest or treat their best resources?  

On the other hand, I would also be happy to see people who say just, “I don’t want sponsorship from my organization. I want to invest on my own and find the best application of my skills and knowledge – be it in the same workplace, be it in my own organization, be it in some other company that’s going to employ me.”

Zoltán: For nominated EMBA participants, companies need to create the conditions for success. Even if they select top talent and are willing to sponsor the studies (at least partially), that still does not prevent peers of that candidate from feeling burdened while they are away. Companies need to integrate strategies for success into the structures and processes of the organization. 

Would you do it again? 

Konstantin: Absolutely. I’m actually very grateful to be here. When I first came, I remember everybody telling me, “You must be crazy to go to that place.” Then I had lunch with founding dean Wulff Plinke, who convinced me to give it a try.

Zoltán: Similar story. In my case, it was my former PhD supervisor who drew my attention to ESMT. It was just a unique hit of luck that I was at the age where I wanted to do something different. I had tried doing something similar on a much smaller scale back in Hungary, but it didn’t work at the time. The environment just was not ready. And then this thing called ESMT comes out of nowhere and promises to be something on which you can leave your mark over time. 

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