“A Georgian, a Finn, a Swiss, an Englishman and a Dutchman… sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?” says Jaap Scheele AMP’01. But, in fact, it was a study group at INSEAD – and the beginning of a friendship that has endured for more than 15 years (and counting). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back in time…
It is 2001, just after the tragic events of 9/11. The world is in turmoil but trying to carry on with business as usual. The Advanced Management Programme on INSEAD’s Fontainebleau campus is going ahead as planned. Then, as now, it is a four-week, intensive general management programme for senior executives, involving significant teamwork and group coaching, as well as traditional lectures and case studies.
“The five of us originally met in a study group during the first week,” recalls Jaap. The groups were then shuffled in the second and third weeks, before returning to the original line-up in the fourth. As is traditional at INSEAD, the members were chosen for their diversity. Everyone was from a different industry and cultural background. “We were so different,” says Jaap. “In normal life, these people would probably never have been my friends. But something clicked. At the end of the programme, we turned to each other and said: ‘Is this it?’”
It turned out that not losing touch was the first thing that all five had totally agreed on! They decided to meet up the following year and Jaap took on the role of “reunion project manager”. As the regional head of a global maritime services company, he took a very structured approach. There was to be a theme: “Where do I live?” And the weekend in Amsterdam would be carefully organised. The four visitors would eat, drink and reminisce, of course. But they would also visit Jaap’s home and office to get a real insight into his life.
The weekend was such a huge success that the group repeated the experience in Moscow the following year. Then Zurich. Then Helsinki. And London. At that point, however, the cycle was complete. After five years, the unlikely friends had reached a natural end point. But they’d been having such fun that they decided to organise a sixth reunion around a new theme: “Where am I from?”
Where I’m from… and where I’m going
“The next year, I took everyone to the farm where I was born,” he says. “After that, we went to Lapland in winter temperatures of minus 20 degrees, then Georgia, the Italian part of Switzerland and Scotland.” And so, another cycle was complete. Ten years in – and ten years older – it was time for a new theme and a new set of locations. This time, the choice was obvious: “Where am I going?”
By now, Jaap’s children had grown up and, though still working for the same company, he had moved with his Chilean wife to Santiago. This became the group’s first non-European reunion location. The Georgian had “retired” from the washing machine business to run a vineyard back home, which provided another memorable location – and excellent refreshments!
Meanwhile, the Finn had switched careers from selling scanning machines in the US to working in public health back home. “Don’t let that fool you,” says Jaap. “He’s a real tough guy, who loves hunting. Nothing like any of the rest of us!”
Although the Swiss had taken a four-month sabbatical in India straight after the programme, he had returned home to a career in insurance, which was going from strength to strength. By contrast, the Brit had finally left his job in the food industry to start a niche cider-making business in deepest rural England. He is currently organising the final event of the third round with a trip to Dublin. “Because Guinness has a brewery there!” explains Jaap.
Although the places have changed and the passage of time can be read in the friends’ faces, the reunion formula remains the same. “We spend a lot of time in restaurants – eating, drinking and talking,” says Jaap. “We exchange news about ourselves and INSEAD. At the time, I hated the way the programme director, Fernando Bartolome, kept provoking us! But we always end up talking about his theories of balancing life and work.” It seems the learning that began with the AMP has continued unabated.
Secrets of successful reunion
There are hundreds of INSEAD reunions every year – some large and formal, some small and informal. But this is a special case: a small group of participants on a comparatively short programme, who have met every single year since they first shook hands on campus – with no assistance or nudging from anyone else. “The longer it continues, the prouder we are of ourselves,” says Jaap. So what is their secret?
Jaap shrugs his shoulders: “Maybe because of the mix of characters. It could clash but somehow it doesn’t. When we were at INSEAD, our group coach said he could feel our deep mutual respect. But perhaps it’s also because of the formula we’ve chosen. You need someone to take responsibility and to push for each event to happen.”
Perhaps, too, it’s a question of history. Much has happened since the late-2001 session of the Advanced Management Programme: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Facebook and Uber; smartphones and tablets; Obama and Trump; the financial crisis and Brexit. But this was one group that came together at a turning point for the entire world – a moment when human difference threatened to matter more than what we all have in common.
Most of all, however, the explanation probably lies in a programme that assembles groups of people at turning points in their personal history – and leaves a permanent mark. This may not be what the programme brochures have in mind when they talk about “lifelong learning” – but Jaap Scheele and the story of his AMP group are proof that INSEAD understanding really is for life.
The full cast of characters: Kakha Kobakhidze (the Georgian); Jyrki Perttunen (the Finn); Stefano Beros (the Swiss); Rob Morton (the Englishman); and, of course, our interviewee, Jaap Scheele (the Dutchman).