October 20, 2013 11:30 pm

Q&A: EMBA 2013

Ask the Expert

Could an Executive MBA help you in your career? If so, how much would it cost? And how do you choose the right programme? These and other questions were answered by the Financial Times’ panel of experts in a live Q & A session on Wednesday October 23 2013, between 14.00 and 15.00 BST.

On the panel were:

Nick Binedell

Nick Binedell, dean of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science

After working in the mining and manufacturing industries, Prof Binedell moved into academia. He has a PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle and an MBA from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. He founded GIBS in 1998.

Mahendra Gupta
Mahendra Gupta, dean at Olin Business School at Washington University in St Louis

Prof Gupta was appointed dean of the Olin Business School in 2005. He has a PhD from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Steef Van de Velde
Steef Van de Velde, dean at Erasmus University Rotterdam School of Management

Prof Van de Velde has a PhD in mathematics and computer science from the Eindhoven University of Technology. His research interests lie in the areas of operations excellence, service operations and supply chain management.

Bernard Yeung
Bernard Yeung, dean at the National University of Singapore Business School

Before joining NUS in June 2008, Prof Yeung was the Abraham Krasnoff professor in Global Business, Economics, and Management at New York University Stern School of Business. He has an MBA and PhD from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Della Bradshaw

Della Bradshaw

Della Bradshaw, FT Business Education Editor

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What are your top tips for choosing the right EMBA programme? And how would you summarise its impact on an individual’s career?

Bernard: In today’s globalised environment I would think about the relevance of the programme in the market and to your existing network, as well as the opportunities it offers for expanding your network. I would also look at the diversity of participants – again especially relevant in a globalised market – and the rigorous nature of the training, both the theoretical side and the hands-on practical experience.

Mahendra: Choosing the right EMBA programme is largely about fit — your personal fit. In addition to a collaborative and engaging teaching style, due to the cohort nature of many EMBA programmes, an EMBA experience can be transformational.

At Olin, we like to say there is magic in the classroom and in large part that magic is due to the combination of research professors who are skilled in applied teaching and the 500+ years of collective experience via the classmates in the cohort.

Many EMBAs aspire to and achieve the C-suite within five to seven years of earning an EMBA. The collaborative dialogue and collective experience with new EMBA course tools routinely bring out entrepreneurial ideas that get developed in the cohorts – ideas that would not have rooted had it not been for the EMBA experience and talents coming together.

Nick: Ensure the programme has strong global exposure and that it is good on strategic leadership skills (strategy design and execution). Check out carefully who will be on the programme and look for a design that ensures you can give back to the business while you are doing it.

Della: Ask yourself why you want to put so much time, energy and money in an EMBA and then focus on those schools that will give you that. Do you want to make it to the board? Move into a different sector? Change employers?

Steef: Choosing the right EMBA programme amongst all the offerings available can be a daunting task. However, through proper investigation and preparation you can make an informed choice.

Time management is a major consideration when deciding to embark on an EMBA – how will I combine family, work and life with studying. My advice to candidates is to gain the “regular” schedule of the programme that they are investigating as soon as possible to get a sense of the time commitment required. Furthermore, it is extremely useful to speak to current EMBA students and alumni to hear from them how they manage to structure their time. This often provides a lot of clarity. And, it reinforces the fact that candidates are not alone. At RSM, we are always happy to provide contact details of students and alumni and our RSM EMBA’s are always happy to share more about RSM and the EMBA experience.

With regards to the impact on an individual’s career, at RSM we believe that the EMBA should be a transformational experience. That is why we do everything we can to ensure that the programme challenges the assumptions of our students and causes them to reflect on what they do and rethink some of their ways of working. Our Personal Leadership Development helps our students to build their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Innovative and creative teaching methods such as in-class exercises, simulations, group work, discussions, case studies, peer reviews and mentoring help them to develop deeper self-knowledge and identify practical ways to apply their knowledge.

EMBA candidates have to apply themselves in real situations, they receive feedback on their performance, they re-examine their actions, and work on areas for improvement. This is about reflection, discovery, and application.

All of this lead to well-rounded individuals that start carrying themselves differently in the workplace.

I set aside a 12-year corporate consulting career (Accenture/BCG) in 2003 to explore other business experiences that would leave me more time for my young family. While I largely achieved what I set out to do, I find myself at 49 earning a decent living as an independent consultant but yearning for a new and challenging career path. As someone who has always enjoyed studying, I was wondering whether an executive MBA might be a good way to freshen up my skills and reinvigorate my career? Or am I just too old?

Jonathan McKenna

Bernard: A strong EMBA programme will give you a systematic, diversified and yet integrated perspective to continue to learn as well as widen your radar screen. It helps you to connect the dots in ways you will probably have never seen before, as well as develop and enhance your leadership skills.

Everyone learns new things everyday and you are never too old to learn – I intend to enroll in a post-grad programme (e.g., history or math) myself when I retire. Currently, as an academic, I do research because I am curious and want to learn, amongst other reasons.

Nick: Without knowing the details of your career, but working from your question, I would suggest if your interest is entrepreneurial or that you wish to play a leadership role in the business that the EMBA is an ideal transition mechanism from a functional or specialist role into the complexity, challenge and excitement of running a business.

The learning from peers, exposure to best practice, conceptual clarity about how companies compete in the broader landscape of business as well as the personal development in the leadership area in a good EMBA will all be extraordinarily useful for that transition.

As an experienced consultant you have been exposed undoubtedly to different industries and different companies and you might be tempted to think that general knowledge is sufficient. However, a well-structured and focused EMBA will bring all of that together, give you a great network of colleagues from whom you will learn a great deal and stretch you intellectually.

You are at the top end of the age cohort, but I wouldn’t count you out for that reason. It is much more about your attitude to life and business. Most executive MBAs report that the programme is an invigorating process that stimulates fresh thinking, builds confidence and builds new skills.

Mahendra: 50 is the new 30! And, 49 is not too old to earn an EMBA. In fact, at 49 you offer rich experience and expertise in the classroom yet can gain tremendous value from being in a cohort with an age range of 30-60. There are things about how leaders work across generations and think and you have a front row seat as a member of an EMBA class.

A member of one of our recent cohorts started at 55. He was already in a C-suite position at a financial services firm yet felt he had more in him that his current career. Through the EMBA cohort he engaged with two younger members of the cohort (young 30s) and ultimately wrote a white paper on marketing financial services to millennials that his firm has put out for publication. There’s magic in the classroom!

Della: You sound as if you are just the right age to study for an EMBA, but check the age range of students on the various programmes you consider. If you have the time, the dedication and the money to study for an EMBA, then business school might be a good move – if nothing else, it might boost the number of clients for your consultancy.

Steef: It is important that there is a fit between your MBA aspirations and the MBA programmes you are investigating. All programmes state average age and work experience reflected in class – if your profile is a major outlier to these averages, I suggest you contact admissions staff to discuss.

At RSM, the depth and scope of the work experience, much more than age or actual years of work experience, is important. If we see candidates that can add value to the in-class dynamic and level of discussion in class and that will be comfortable in the MBA environment, we encourage them to apply – regardless of age. It would be prudent to speak to alumni that were also at a more mature age in the programme you are targeting to get their ideas/perspectives on the experience. This will provide you with reassurance that you are not too old(!)

What is the difference between studying for an EMBA and taking a couple of executive courses? The latter is a much cheaper option but is an EMBA more worthwhile?

Della: The great advantage of longer courses is the network of friends and contacts you develop – remember your days as an undergraduate!

Steef: It is important to decide how much value you and the industry you’re in place on an accredited degree from a reputable institution. If you wish to receive an academic degree, a full EMBA is of course your best option. When it comes to a next step in your career, you are more often than not competing with candidates who have very similar profiles to you – an EMBA can then be a differentiating factor.

The EMBA also means that you get to spend a year or two with a group of people that become a very strong network. With executive courses you will of course build up your network, but the interaction tends to be shorter and less engaging/exhaustive.

Executive courses are more specifically related to a certain field. It boils down to your specific reasons for wishing to pursue further education and checking which options (EMBA vs courses) would suit these best.

Nick: A few executive courses are a totally different package than a comprehensive programme that covers all the bases. Apart from complete exposure to all the key subjects, a well designed EMBA will build your leadership skills and your general management capacities in a way that no short courses will do.

Short courses are always great as a brief injection and motivator, but the long term investment requires the hard work of a well structured programme.

Bernard: An EMBA programme offers a diversified perspective on a wide range of business situations, while also taking an in-depth approach and exposing you to a broad network of experts.

Executive courses are much more focused on specific businesses and areas and may not offer the breadth and depth of learning found in rigorous EMBA programmes.

Mahendra: Courses can be refreshers and certainly offer great value to enhance certain areas. The EMBA offers a leadership development curriculum and an MBA degree and it’s often the degree that can set you apart. There is also tremendous value in being part of a cohort experience via an EMBA that executive courses generally don’t provide because they are one day, a couple days, a week, etc… not 20+ months of development with a peer cohort.

I live in the UK. Should I choose to study at a business school in the US or Asia? How important is this kind of international experience?

Steef: I think it is important to ensure that your class is as reflective as possible of the global business landscape that you operate in daily. You want to ensure that your fellow participants represent economies that can be found in global business today.

International experience can take various forms in a programme – at RSM we have a class composition in our EMBA that is 60 per cent international, we take our students on international study trips, we offer electives in different locations, we fly in a large percentage of our faculty. All these aspects ensure that the EMBA gives participants a wealth of knowledge of the global economy that they can implement back into their jobs. You would need to ascertain whether this is important to you, however, if you look at the way business operates today, it is almost impossible to survive without some kind of international exposure/experience.

Della: How important is international experience to your employer? Or are you hoping to change jobs? Are you hoping to work overseas? If so, then studying on a programme that runs in part, or in its entirety, in the US or Asia may make sense. But for the extra cost, you really need to work out why you are planning to do this.

Nick: This is a great question. There are strong business schools in many emerging economies. The answer I think depends on your philosophy and career plan. Top American business schools are outstanding. In my view, there is no doubt about that. However, they come at the world from a particular angle which is powerful and productive but to some degree a limited point of view. The top MBA programmes in America, even though they have many international students, nevertheless have a very strong American culture and feel which is not always shared in other emerging regions and markets.

Asia has a number of outstanding schools and the geographic and cultural location as well as the energy and dynamism of the region will give you a very different perspective. The risk you are taking is whether you believe emerging markets and in particular Asian economies are going to continue to be as dynamic in the next 10 years as they have been in the last 10.

Della: Have you seen Lucy Kellaway’s Q&A session on Executive MBAs?

Mahendra: There are outstanding schools in both the US and Asia and it may largely depend on where you and/or your company is either doing business or looking to grow the business there. If the US is an expansion market for you, being in the US, where you can foster more relationships and gain a stronger network, would be a stronger option. The same goes for if it’s Asia where you’re looking to start, expand and/or grow.

Bernard: The world is becoming ever more globalised and interconnected. International experience and perspective is a sought-after skill. From my perspective here in Singapore, I am obviously going to push for you to come to Asia! I think you’ll find that appreciating Asia’s relevance and Asian perspectives will be critical for your advancement as a leader in executive suites and in the global workplace in general.

How do you decide on the cost of your EMBA programme? There seems to be a great difference between the pricing of programmes worldwide.

Mahendra: An EMBA is an investment and can not be viewed just as an expense. It is true one can get education and credentials at different price points. It is the candidate who must ask whether the programme will deliver what she/he seeks. Your time is a bigger investment than the tuition. And the network you will develop.

From our end, we let our cost of the programme, academic experiences of the programme, faculty engagement, and the programme enhancements define the price. We offer world-class facilities, top-shelf service, renowned research faculty and global experiences as part of our tuition.

Nick: As you point out, there are many MBA programmes that come with different price points. So too on the quality! Many applicants are exploring online programmes. In my view nothing has yet replaced the dynamism, instant feedback, social dynamics and decision making pressure points of a face to face programme with high quality faculty and good peer students. That seems to be the main driver of the price difference although many schools now have hybrid formats which are still being tested and developed. I suppose it is like buying a car – in the broader sense you are going to get what you pay for!

Steef: We need to ensure that out tuition fee enables us to offer the world-class teaching we are known for. We will therefore ensure that we can offer the support services, world renowned faculty and facilities that our students expect and have grown accustomed to. We also need to take care of practicalities such as food while on campus, for example. Furthermore, we include the cost associated with our international study trips and some other activities that are compulsory as part of the programme.

Della: Here are some great comparison figures between the cost of an EMBA and other luxuries from the FT EMBA magazine.

How can I convince my boss and colleagues that studying for an EMBA is worthwhile? They are worried it will just signify an increased workload for them, especially as we are a small company.

Bernard: Focus on what your future contribution to the company would be as a result of you doing an EMBA. Position it not just as an investment in yourself, but in the learning and experiences you will be able to bring back to your colleagues and to the company itself.

Nick: Doing a part time EMBA will more than likely put extra workload on them but, more importantly, you will have to manage your time more effectively so that you ensure the impact is minimised. The broader question may well be whether the company would support you, give you some release of time and workload and whether you can plough back the knowledge in a visible and immediate way to your own work team and colleagues to mutual benefit.

Some bosses don’t like the increase in career expectation that MBA students bring to the business! In my experience, if you have a good relationship with your boss, a heart to heart and commitment to delivery normally helps resolve that.

Mahendra: In fact, a large number of today’s EMBA students come from small to medium sized companies. The impact and transformation that can be made in smaller companies applying EMBA knowledge is immediate and significant. However, there is no escape from time commitment and additional work.

Della: Get your boss involved in the EMBA project – in fact, ask her/him to decide what you should work on. Then not only will they get a free piece of consultancy from you, but also the input from your professor and mentor as well. If all goes well, your boss might be persuaded to send your colleagues on the same programme.

How do you help your students post-graduation, particularly if they plan on switching industries?

Bernard: We shall connect them with alumni. We, like others top rated programmes, have a very strong alumni network. Furthermore, post-graduation career counseling is often available. I would advise that one should first understand why there is a switching desire. Career switching is only one way to attain one’s aspirations, there are many other ways. One should start with a deep reflection - understand one’s aspirations and the way to get fulfillment, and what is hindering one from attaining them.

Nick: Most business schools have some form of career development programme and often have relationships with recruitment companies. If the business school you are thinking of attending has a strong executive education programme – particularly a company customised programme, the school will have strong links into industry and business and between the alumni network of the school and these linkages as well as the school’s own capacities, you may well be able to take advantage of it.

Mahendra: Career coaching, access to the career centre and advisors, and access to an expanded network of alumni — not just from our EMBA programme.

Steef: At RSM, we have a career development centre dedicated to our students that will guide all candidates through their career progress/transition. Specific activities aimed at career switchers are more geared towards full-time MBA participants, yet all EMBA participants are free to tap into what is on offer.

We help students to secure contact with others who managed to switch industries to learn from their experience, try to connect them with partners within the industries they are targeting, and conduct a gap analysis to see which competencies they need to work on, etc.

Would you say online EMBA programmes are now as good as on-site degrees?

Bernard: The internet has opened up many new opportunities for distance learning, and there are some excellent online courses on offer. But, one area where I find that online courses are still lacking is the approach to soft skills, such as communication, networking and the human-to-human side of business. While we call these “soft” skills – they are in fact some of the hardest to learn and the most critically sought-after in today’s business climate.

Steef: When choosing between online and on-site you need to make out for yourself which type of environment is important to you. Face-to-face interaction could have a more “real” feel to it and discussions might be more spontaneous. Yet online might be more suited if you have logistical constraints in attending class.

Online programmes have definitely grown in the last few years and there are some good offerings out there. It is important that you check the accreditations for these programmes, and speak to alumni to make sure the programmes will give you the experience and reward you are seeking – just as you would do when looking at on-site degrees.

Nick: Online programmes are still in the early phase. My own view is that although the technology has improved exponentially nothing yet replaces the face to face interaction, camaraderie and human interaction of an onsite degree.

Della: They are different. Online degrees open up opportunites to people who would otherwise not be able to study, and they are clearly more flexible. But choosing an online EMBA is just like choosing any other degree. The top schools will ensure the quality of their online programme. Others may not.

Most organisations will ask for a time commitment in return for sponsoring the MBA (i.e. stick around x years after EMBA). If you are not sure if you want to continue in the same organisation, what do you suggest?

Raghunandan Murthy

Steef: If an organisation is willing to sponsor you, they must see potential in you as an employee. Maybe part of your sponsoring conversation can be about more than only time and money – i.e. can they work with you on securing projects that will provide new challenges in which you can implement your new EMBA knowledge? Can you discuss the areas you can grow into within the company post-EMBA? Would they be open to new ideas you bring?

If you are absolutely certain that you do not want to commit to the requirements from your company when sponsoring the EMBA, you might want to start looking at self-funding. However, it is good to then still have a conversation with your employer to make sure in principle they will be supportive. It makes for a much more rewarding EMBA experience if your company is behind you. (Having said that, we do have students that embark on the programme and succeed with no company support.)

Mahendra: It is important to ask yourself what you want to get out of the programme. If the objective is a career switch, you may not want to accept conditional support from your company. Otherwise, engage in a dialogue with your superiors regarding potential opportunities within the company as you go through and finish your EMBA.

Nick: If your company is going to sponsor you, I think you are ethically bound either to pay them back or stick to the time commitment. If your MBA career development is part of a sound career plan in the company that shouldn’t be a problem. The challenge is that most MBA programmes make executives restless and stretch them to the point of looking for new opportunities and exploring new horizons.

My company sponsored my programme and I made sure that I had both savings and a loan so that if I wanted to exit I could. In the event I didn’t but it gave me the flexibility to have the option.

From the company’s point of view a demotivated employee who really doesn’t want to stick around really is not a good asset and very often companies will come to a mutually acceptable arrangement.

Della: The other option is to pay for the programme yourself, or negotiate a future “get out” clause. Just as important is to talk about a career path within your existing company if you study for an EMBA. There is nothing worse than returning to work full of new ideas and then finding you cannot implement any of them.

Bernard: In my opinion, integrity is one of the most important human values. We guide our decisions by our moral principles. We should not make a commitment if we are not sure. Once we commit to returning to a sponsoring organisation, we stay with the commitment. If we cannot be sure, please do not accept the sponsorship.

Should EMBA ratings be considered the holy grail?

Steef: Absolutely not! The rankings are a good step as first orientation to ascertain which schools enjoy global brand recognition and are deemed important players in business education. It is important to look at various rankings (there are a lot out there) and to make sure you understand the criteria and weightings of the rankings – this is normally publicly available. It is then important to also look at accreditations to make sure the schools you are targeting adhere to certain global quality standards as set by international accreditation bodies.

Once you have drawn up a choice of schools you will be investigating further, a key step is to ensure that there is a fit between what you want and what they offer. It is crucial that you feel comfortable with the teaching philosophy, ethos and environment of a school – this is where you will forge lifelong relationships and invest major resources – you want to make sure it is a place where you are confident that you will thrive.

Nick: Ratings provide a measure but definitely not the only measure and for many not the most important measure. It is a huge decision to commit to doing an EMBA in the first place and picking the right institution and programme is critically important.

The ratings are a useful guide and introduction but I would spend a great deal of time investigating the school, talking to alumni and I would certainly visit and talk to faculty and the professional team before making a choice.

Mahendra: A rating is a guide and should not be seen as the final answer. It can not answer all of your questions since it does not ask all of your questions in deciding a rank.

Della: The FT EMBA ranking rates schools across a selection of criteria at a given point in time. Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the answers of our experts today is that there is no one right answer for individual students. Rankings are a starting-point for finding your ideal programme.

Bernard: Ratings are objective reference data points. But, these are just statistics and there are statistical randomness. Applicants should do their “homework,” that is, choose a school that serves their purposes. They should study a school’s curriculum, out of classroom learning opportunities, faculty, values and attitude, and graduates’ and current students’ characteristics.

Applicants should ask how these fit with their purposes and aspirations. Applicants should also pay attention to the fit between a programme and their home situation. Applicants should also ask what they themselves can bring to the community. Enrolling in the right programme can be an amazing experience while enrolling in a highly rated but wrong programme can be very frustrating. Students most likely make their choice only once in life.

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