Carlos Quintana is Mexican and Genilson Melo is Brazilian. But their small national differences are nothing compared with the unexpected cultural challenges they face studying together on the executive MBA programme at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. What has proved most demanding is working on projects via phone and email with a team scattered around the world and who are all from different nationalities and sectors.

“I think most of us were surprised by how difficult it would be to really work with people from different business cultures around the world, since we mostly have already had plenty of international experience,” says Melo. “But we’d often stayed within our own hemispheres or at least our own sectors or companies. Dealing with truly different cultures has proved a real challenge, which I suppose speaks to the value of doing a course like this.”

“Maybe we didn’t know it,” adds Quintana, “but this kind of tough lesson is probably something we needed.”

Melo, financial manager at Copersucar, Brazil’s largest sugar and ethanol exporter, and Quintana, director of compensation at PepsiCo, the drinks and snacks company, in Mexico, are on the Global Executive MBA programme, one of a number of EMBAs focused on giving working professionals a truly international experience in addition to more traditional coursework.

On the OneMBA programme, participants are based either at FGV in Brazil, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Egade Business School in Monterrey, Mexico, Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands or Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina in the US. Students meet periodically at their home campuses, spend some time studying at each of the others, and in between – over the course of the 21-month programme – work on projects in teams made up of students from all the other locations.

Elsewhere, on the Georgetown/Esade Global Executive MBA programme, students of various nationalities do not have a home base close to where they live or work, but travel to meet for 12 days of intensive, non-stop coursework six times over two years. What amounts to 60 working days of study – on location in Washington DC, Barcelona, São Paulo or Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Beijing or Shanghai, and New York – includes special attention given to international geopolitics.

“Normally the participants recognise their need to do the global executive MBA,” says Pollyanna Nethersole, associate director of admissions at Esade Business School in Spain. “Either they wish to conduct an international career, or they have already been doing so for several years.” She says three special themes loom large in the course – local-company case studies at each of the international locations, management and leadership skills, and the global business environment.

It is important for students to be certain this type of programme is what they want, say Melo and Quintana. That is not only because of the cost – the OneMBA costs R$112,000 ($60,000) if based in São Paulo – but also because they are so demanding.

In addition to carefully selecting candidates to maximise interaction at high-executive level across national and sector boundaries, such programmes attempt to ensure participants get the most from every hour they can carve out from their professional and family lives.

“We aren’t allowed to miss our classes or our meetings with global teams,” says Quintana. “This has led to some tense conversations with the directors in Mexico City when it meant I had to miss important PepsiCo meetings. But they had to understand: I’m doing this course.”

“It can be tough to juggle home, office, classroom, and global projects,” says Melo. “But that’s another skill we need to build.”

Didier Guillot, director of FGV’s Hong Kong programme, says he sometimes discourages students he thinks really want something else. “There is a big gap between a normal MBA in Hong Kong and the Executive MBA,” Guillot says. “Most international MBAs here are based exclusively on mainland China. For students that only want to put their focus there, we tell them to stay with the local programmes.”

That is not the only warning. “I tell them: ‘This is going to be a challenging programme,’” Guillot says. “They think they are prepared to work with global teammates, and I tell them: ‘Be really, really careful, because you only have experienced this in your own business.’ I don’t think they anticipate the difficulty of this. That is exactly what we want.”

Indeed, it seems the programme aims to force learning by wrenching students out of their comfortable routines, before globalisation itself inevitably does so.

“These people are executives. They are bosses,” says Marina Heck, associate dean for the FGV programme. “Here, they become students and have to work with people they can’t command. This obliges them into some kind of sociability. If you put five stars in a room and tell them to make a decision, it’s not easy.”

Melo and Quintana recall some such moments with looks of exasperation. “We in the Americas or Europe tended to assume that once a clear majority came to one conclusion, the decision was made,” says Melo. “But our colleagues in Asia tended to insist that everyone fall into line before a conclusion was reached. I’d never dealt with that.”

But both say they emerged from such delicate negotiations with valuable experience and a network of contacts abroad. And for the moment, all has been resolved. They are planning to go for drinks after the last day of class in this round – and not talk too much about the course.

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