RSM-based team wins CEMS responsible leadership business case challenge

A team of five master students coming from London, Lisbon and Rotterdam have won an international business case challenge focusing on responsible leadership. The five, all students of the worldwide MSc Masters in International Management/CEMS, took part in the first competition of its kind organised by CEMS, the global alliance in management education. Three of the five students were from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM); Yenal Ersen, Roy Florijn and Felix Wegerle. Their team-mates were Elena Bignami from the London School of Economics and Pedro Moreira de Lemos from Nova School of Business & Economics in Lisbon, both on study exchange at RSM.

It was a ‘remote’ challenge with a special focus on responsible leadership. Students from 21 CEMS schools around the world took part during CEMS Global Sustainability Week.

The winning team from RSM called themselves the ‘Free Thinkers’. The challenge was revealed online: to deliver a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy to Alsea, a Mexican franchise doing business across Latin America and Spain. The teams had exactly one week to submit a short ‘pitch deck’ or presentation, including an outline of the problem, major goals, strategy formulation and next steps.

Value-adding and waste-reducing

Ten days later, shortlisted teams were notified and given seven days to submit their video presentation to the jury of CEMS Social Partners and CEMS Professors.

The Free Thinkers’ submission was shortlisted for its good understanding of responsible leadership. They analysed the competitive landscape of the industry and did a materiality analysis based on the impact of key material issues for Alsea and its stakeholders. Based on their findings, they proposed value-adding and waste-reducing solutions that would improve environmental, social and economic performance for the company.

The Free Thinkers team introduced a code of conduct for suppliers, implemented specific guidelines to protect workers’ rights, optimised waste and energy management, and addressed corruption to make Alsea's operations more transparent. Finally, they assessed the potential risks of the new strategy and suggested proactive steps to counteract them.

The judges welcomed the team’s passion, creativity, and the depth of their analysis. But, as members of the team admitted, the competition was not all plain sailing.

Management skills

They had to manage working on their entry alongside their regular university workload – they did this by communicating their individual schedules and allocating tasks accordingly. They learned how to manage projects and of the importance of effectively communicating a new strategy to everyone affected.

“We always think of the consultant’s job as ‘throwing solutions at problems complemented by fancy frameworks and smart wording’,” explained Pedro Moreira de Lemos. But one of the toughest aspect of the competition was translating solutions into practices that can have a genuine effect on the organisation. “More than simply making the organisation look good and eco-friendly, the difficulty of the exercise rests upon integrating sustainable practices as a fundamental part of the organisation’s operations,” he said.

Felix Wegerle found the context of the assignment quite complex. “The company holds stakes in a very diversified portfolio of other companies, so we had to spend several hours investigating the company’s exact structural relations.”


Writing a detailed and implementable action plan for a company of which they had little prior knowledge was difficult and demanded creativity to develop a range of solutions. “I didn’t have a lot of prior knowledge of sustainability, so for me it was extra-challenging to write such an action plan about a topic that I knew relatively little about,” said Roy Florijn.

Their business case recognised the company’s social and environmental impact on consumers, global citizens, local populations and minorities. “Once companies take the first steps to internalise sustainability into strategic decision-making, they become part of a global movement of private actors, governments and civic society that is accelerating the transition towards a low carbon economy,” said Elena.

Stakeholders together

“Effective communication is essential to reach customers and secondary stakeholders. Sustainability is an issue impacting everyone so to truly make a positive impact, all stakeholders have to work together,” said Yenal Ersen

 “I think many corporates get scared away by such [sustainable] alternatives because they associate them with high costs, but I believe positive changes do not necessarily have to come at high cost. In the long run, choosing sustainable solutions can result in even greater profitability, especially now that customers are increasingly looking for sustainable and responsible products,” added Roy Florijn.

Pedro Moreira de Lemos said: “For one problem there is rarely a single solution. Our case provides multiple-angled solutions taking into account the eventual risks that bring effortlessly applicable answers to put sustainable practices at the heart of the company’s processes.

“In that sense, the greatest positive change is the combination between social conducts – tackling employees working rights in emerging economies along with external agents’ code of conduct and ethically acceptable interactions – complemented by economic measures (bringing specific ways to increase transparency and reduce corruption with the digitalization reconversion at every level of the supply chain) and finally environmental actions (waste and energy reduction by adopting alternative methods). Together, the elements allow the company to turn sustainability into a competitive advantage and have a positive influence for the other emerging market companies to follow.”

Pedro Moreira de Lemos said the most enjoyable part was working with ‘an incredibly talented team’ of friends. The whole project was enhanced by the great team dynamics; it was exciting and fun, he said. “This exercise was therefore a great reminder that, for generating a positive change that takes your business and ideas forward, you always need to be a free thinker.

All the students expect the experience to influence their choice of career and the job-hunting process after graduation. “With a global sustainability challenge of this size and magnitude, individuals may feel intimidated, or believe that their actions will have too little impact. I am a believer of the domino effect: start now and start somewhere because numbers matter!” said Elena, who is planning to look for a job with ‘the next generation of green giants that pay attention to their planetary and social footprint as well as profits’.

“I am confident that many other like-minded millennials will do the same,” she asserted.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

Business-Society Management , International , Newsroom , Master , Sustainability , China , Positive change