A man stands in the middle of Grand Central Terminal as he speaks on a cell phone

Serene Nah was GE Capital’s chief financial officer for greater China and had bright prospects in the group where she had worked for the past 10 years. However, Nah, who joined the company after an undergraduate degree in business management from Nanyang Business School in Singapore, wanted to accelerate her career and develop new skills beyond finance.

“I was starting to get involved in mergers and acquisitions and big strategic projects. I was very keen to find an [executive MBA] programme that could expose me to more, such as the commercial side and legal side. Also, to meet people who could offer me real-life experiences and contacts in [China].”

Six-figure tuition fees, travel costs and time off to attend classes make an executive MBA a substantial investment. Nah had full employer support for the programme.

She chose the Kellogg-HKUST programme – run jointly by Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – because of its strong reputation, active alumni network and Chinese focus.

During the programme, Nah’s role continued to expand and she anticipated staying with GE. However, she decided she wanted to work somewhere different and three months after her 2011 graduation she left to become a senior operating executive at Silver Lake, a private equity house. Today, based in Hong Kong, she considers her EMBA to be “one of the best investments” she has made.

Both employers and employees have shifted their thinking about funding, says Peggy Bishop Lane, vice-dean of the EMBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Companies fund fewer candidates because long-term employment is less common, she says, and conversely some students feel “they can dictate a little bit more what they can do once they graduate if they haven’t been financially sponsored”.

Serene Nah
Time to go: Serene Nah moved on three months after completing her EMBA

Scott Balloch, a client manager at BT, the UK telecoms group, was considering a full-time MBA in the US when his employer offered to fund an EMBA in the UK, so that he could study while working. He chose Warwick’s Business School’s EMBA but expected to move companies when he graduated in 2012 as he was under no legal obligation to stay at BT, nor to repay his fees. But, having been “impressed” by the opportunities at BT, Balloch remained at the company and is now head of energy and environment strategy.

Corporate funding for EMBAs has declined over the past 20 years, says Bishop Lane, and there was “a dramatic dive in employer sponsorship after 2008, as you would expect, but that trend has continued”. However, even employers that do not fund tuition still invest by allowing employees to work flexibly during part-time courses.

After two years as senior marketing director at a US healthcare company Eamon Bobowski decided to self-fund an EMBA. Five months into his programme at Georgetown University, Washington DC, and in the depths of the recession, he lost his job in a reorganisation. Interim project work to pay the bills has evolved into a rewarding career as an independent consultant. “The skills I am able to exercise in real-world monumental projects are going to position me very well,” he says.

Peggy Bishop Lane
Peggy Bishop Lane: corporate funding for EMBAs has declined over the past 20 years

Niki DeVault-Smith’s plans were also shaken by the 2008 crisis when her employer entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy weeks before her EMBA was due to start. However, when the programme began in July 2009, DeVault-Smith had secured a place on engineering group Robert Bosch’s finance leadership development programme in the US. She supplemented her own money with contributions from her old and new employers and US government funding under the trade adjustment assistance programme.

DeVault-Smith has stayed with Bosch, which she says has given her the chance to learn and work at higher levels. “While I have had opportunities during the programme and after graduation, so far Bosch has been the right place for me,” she says.

Get the most from your EMBA investment

Check your figures

Use a business case to determine whether your expected salary uplift will pay back the cost of an EMBA. Positive return on investment (ROI) is important, though not the only consideration. Chris Doran, academic director of Kellogg-HKUST’s EMBA, cautions that some things cannot be measured in ROI terms – like getting the confidence to start your own business or following your passion.

Choose the right programme for you

Identify your personal career goals. While rankings and reputation are important, they should not be slavishly followed. Course structure and class names may be similar, but programmes vary widely in what they offer. Attend the fairs and open days to identify the programmes that meet your objectives. Do you want to start your own business, for example? Do you want to work in China? Use rankings and logic to create a shortlist that meets your goals and then listen to your heart to make the final choice.

Choose a programme located in the market where you want to work

Location will influence the culture, laws, regulations and business practices taught. While there is general benefit to building cross-cultural knowledge, EMBA learning is practical, so studying in your target market will arm you with relevant knowledge. Alumni networks and work prospects also tend to concentrate in the market of the school. Finally, travel time is an important practical consideration when juggling the course, work and family obligations.

Once in the programme, participate as much as possible

Interact and share with classmates – help and learn from them to build your knowledge and network. As well as being a sounding board and source of potential jobs in the future, they can become life-long friends.

Put your new skills to work right away

A key advantage of an EMBA over a full-time MBA is the chance to use your new skills at work, which can cement new knowledge and impress your employer. Niki DeVault-Smith applied lessons learned in class to propose an unconventional solution to a problem, impressing her employer and providing a practical example of her new capabilities.

Explore the job market

Even if you do not intend to change jobs, consider all your options, because plans can change. To accelerate your career with your current employer, Prof Doran recommends graduates use negotiation skills learned on the course “to create an attractive alternative offer to encourage their pre-degree employer to recognise their new skills”.

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