January 30, 2012 12:19 am

Family business

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Difficult decisions: relocation and a lack of time can be challenging for MBA students and their partners

Moving to England was a huge decision for Elaine Grogan. It meant giving up a job she loved, selling wallpaper and textiles for an international company. It was the first time Grogan, 31, had lived outside Taiwan and leaving her family was a wrench. It also meant exchanging a warm climate for the cold, damp English countryside.

But this year she upended her life so that her Irish husband could pursue an MBA at Cranfield School of Management, near Milton Keynes. Her verdict on the 12 months at Cranfield is that it has been a “great experience – you meet lots of people from 40 different countries, with different talents and different ideas to you”. The fact that she has enjoyed her time as a student’s partner is largely down to her attitude. “You have to find something to do day to day. You have to contribute something – you can’t just wait for people to approach you and you also have to make time to do something with your partner.”

She was helped, she says, by Cranfield, which lays on social activities and sports clubs for partners of students.

While accompanying her husband to business school has been a positive experience for Grogan, for other ­partners it can be hard. Arriving in a strange country with no job and a partner who has little time for you can be very difficult. Any student considering an MBA or even a part-time EMBA, should weigh up the human costs of the time commitment and possible relocation on their friendships, relationships, family and employer.

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Jessica Pounds, director of diversity affairs at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, says: “Students who come here spend a lot of time in recruiting and study time, so they spend a lot of time away from their families. There’s a constant grind in business school – it is very intense from the moment you arrive, whereas normally in jobs you get ebbs and flows.” For students who bring partners, the pressure to spend time with them may be strong, she adds, “though leaving a partner at home can also be problematic”.

Paul Dainty, Melbourne Business School’s deputy dean and author of The MBA Companion, says “students have to manage the critical elements, which are family and work … Quite often, people will say to their friends or family ‘I’m going to do this MBA’, and then get caught up in the school work and find that the last conversation they had was six months ago. They should be having regular discussions with people who are critical to them throughout the programme, not just at the start. Those who haven’t got family presumably have a social life or partners or both. You have to be very careful to maintain those relationships. If you put people on hold for three years, they don’t suddenly pop up again.”

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Just as important, he says, “kids don’t necessarily ­understand what Mummy or Daddy is doing. You’ve got to spend time with them.”

Gila Vadnai-Tolub, a 29-year-old management consultant, graduated from Booth in 2011. Her husband and children (aged five and one) moved with her from Paris. She says her entrepreneur husband was very supportive. “He pushed me to do the MBA.”

As co-chairwoman of a French MBA group that organised breakfasts or outings, as well as a French film club, she introduced her husband to French speakers.

Helping hand

Look for support. Many schools offer mothers and partners groups.

Do not be passive. If there are no existing clubs, set one up yourself.

Talk. Keep partners and friends onside by communicating what is expected in the MBA.

Make time. It is easy to get sucked into an MBA but it is important to get the balance right.

Nonetheless, her husband was mostly at home. “It made me feel reassured that he was at home with the kids,” she says. She was also helped by a flexible curriculum that allowed her to some extent to choose courses to fit around her family. “It meant I could sometimes see my children in the day. Also, at Chicago Booth you are able to join in the part-time EMBA courses, so you can catch up in the afternoons or at weekends.”

The hardest part of the MBA was the recruitment season, says Vadnai-Tolub, “when I had to go to breakfasts, lunches and dinners. By the second year I had a job offer, which meant I could relax a bit.”

She received support from Mothers at Booth, which she co-chaired, a small group where women can share experiences and identify good ideas from other schools.

“Everyone has different experiences. Some brought nannies and mothers or mothers-in-law. We can use each other as sounding boards, to discuss issues with children and how to navigate the corporate ladder. We invited alumni in – it gives female students some insight into the career ahead of them and helps them plan.”

She is unconvinced that doing an MBA is any more stressful than a high-pressure job in terms of family and believes the move has enriched her family’s life. “My five-year-old didn’t speak a word of English when we arrived, but within four months she was bilingual”.

Jessica Pounds says Booth has made an effort to support families. “We have a partners club and they organise social activities. We also have Polo – Parents Of Little Ones – to organise playdates and babysitting or outings to the zoo. We invite partners to events and try to engage with them early on.”

Those taking part-time courses can face resentment from colleagues, says Prof Dainty. “MBA students have to manage them. They should not necessarily expect colleagues to understand what they’re going through: they haven’t been through the programme. Resentment is an issue, especially when part-timers have to leave work a bit earlier. They need to try and help colleagues see that this study is also of benefit to the company. Yes, it is an individual benefit, but it will be ploughed back not only through the individual’s job, but also potentially [in tackling] broader company issues.”

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