The executive MBA, which began life three-quarters of a century ago at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, was created to build a new generation of leadership talent that could expand American industry in the middle of the second world war.
The core purpose of the course for working senior managers has changed as it has been adopted by schools around the world — more than 260 institutions now offer EMBAs, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). But the best years for the degree may be yet to come.
While applications have been declining for the original full-time two-year MBA course in most US schools, the opposite has been true for the EMBA. Figures compiled by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which runs the GMAT business school entrance exam, found that demand for EMBAs was either stable or growing for 65 per cent of schools that ran the course last year.
The EMBA has also so far ridden out the disruption that online technology threatens to bring to education. Several leading business schools have launched online versions of their MBA programmes, but demand for these has been flat in the past two years, according to GMAC.
The ability to run some elements of EMBA courses online, notably fact-based learning, has enhanced the limited time students spend together on campus, according to Sangeet Chowfla, the president and chief executive of GMAC.
“It is a symbiotic relationship,” Chowfla says, noting that typically a fifth of content of the top EMBA courses will be taught online. “Executives can use their valuable time in the classroom to focus on debate and discussion and keep the lessons about facts online.”
The fastest growing groups of EMBA students are those with technology, engineering and science backgrounds, according to GMAC data. An EMBA is of particular use to technology entrepreneurs, Chowfla notes. “They find that the skills they have from a management perspective helps them to scale up their businesses.”
Jeremy Kroll, an entrepreneur, completed the Trium Global EMBA programme run jointly by HEC Paris, the London School of Economics and NYU Stern. The part-time course comprises six on-site modules at multiple global locations over a 17-month period, but the time out of the office is only 10 weeks.
Kroll joined the course in 2006, after his family’s risk consulting firm, Kroll, was bought by Marsh & McLennan and Kroll was in a non-compete clause in his contract. The part-time nature of the course, and the fact that he paid the $100,000 fees himself, made it easier for him to leave his old role and decide what he wanted to do next while completing his studies.
His experiences on the course, visiting companies around the world and studying under leading professors from different schools, helped with his plan of setting up another business, building on what he had done at Kroll. After graduation he co-founded K2 Intelligence, a new corporate investigations firm.
“Starting Trium was a very pragmatic solution,” Kroll says. “I was mid-career at 36 and it afforded me the opportunity to continue to work while planning my next move.”
Current business trends, such as the push for greater female representation at the top of large companies, give cause for optimism for the future of the EMBA. According to Tomorrow’s MBA, an annual survey of prospective MBA students by CarringtonCrisp, 46 per cent of women prefer some element of flexible study, a hallmark of an EMBA course, compared with 40 per cent of men. Women in the survey also expressed more interest than men in blended courses, some of which are spent on campus and part of which can be completed online.
The EMBA intake at Oxford’s Saïd Business School has become more diverse and self-sufficient since the course was launched in 2004, says Kathy Harvey, associate dean for MBA and executive degrees.
“Fifteen years ago, students would have been on a talent fast track, sent off to business school to round off their business education and would have been sponsored by their employer,” she says. “Now students are more likely to be young entrepreneurs, whose board have told them to do an MBA but who don’t want to study full time, or older executives, who want time to reflect on what they have done.”
Hollywood producers and hedge fund managers have completed Saïd’s EMBA in recent years. Such diversity enriches the learning experience for students because of the different perspectives it brings to classroom discussions, an essential part of MBA courses, Harvey notes. “They benefit hugely from each other,” she says.
The EMBA also continues to provide value for those who completed their degree decades ago. Zurich-based Rolf Friedli was among the 50 students accepted onto Chicago Booth’s first EMBA programme run out of its European campus in 1994. Friedli’s banking career up until then had included stints working in London and New York. He chose the EMBA because it would enable him to continue working as a vice-president of Swiss private bank Clariden Leu.
“I was very passionate about the work I was doing,” he says. By graduation, he had moved to a senior role at Capvis Equity Partners, a private equity firm in Switzerland. He is now managing partner.
Completing an MBA part time, rather than taking a career break to live on campus, did not dilute the experience, Friedli says. “It is the Chicago brand people are concerned about,” he says, adding that being the first European EMBA cohort meant that the school flew over its top professors for the lectures held at its regional campus, then in Barcelona.
At the time, Friedli felt his EMBA gave him valuable tools to deal with a business world that was negotiating globalisation and skills in leadership and strategy development.
Almost a quarter of a century later, he says his EMBA is still acknowledged by business associates and clients as a badge of honour, especially among people in Asia.
“I do not have it printed on my business card,” he says. “But if people see it they will comment because it means something to them.”
Age of wisdom: the EMBA at 75
Why it is still thriving
The first 52 EMBA students met two nights a week at the University of Chicago, graduating two years later. Prof Walter David “Bud” Fackler, who became programme director, hailed it “an immediate success story”
As Chicago Booth’s fifth cohort starts the programme, the EMBA class has grown by 70 per cent to 81 students
Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Canada launches the first executive MBA outside the US
The Executive MBA Council is founded to share knowledge and best practice among the 50 programmes at the time
The Executive MBA Council held its first annual conference outside the US, hosted by Toronto
The first international cohort for Chicago Booth’s EMBA begin classes at a new campus in Barcelona. The curriculum includes 10 modules over 16 months
The Financial Times compiles its first ranking of EMBA courses. The ranking now identifies the top 100 EMBAs around the world
Wharton becomes the only school to top the FT table with an EMBA it ran alone. It was number one until 2006, after which joint programmes have been top
The only time a school featured in all FT business education rankings was in 2003, when Tel Aviv University’s Recanati was 64th out of 75 schools
Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria becomes the first and only African school to feature in the FT Executive MBA ranking. It has remained on the list since
As part of its anti-corruption drive, China’s government cuts the number of state officials and managers at state-owned enterprises taking EMBAs. China was one of the most successful markets but the government was concerned the degrees promoted networking at the expense of academic rigour
The Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers business school entrance exams, creates the Executive Assessment Test, specifically for EMBA applicants
The average percentage of women on FT-ranked EMBAs this year stands at 31 per cent, compared with 37 per cent for MBAs and 48 per cent for masters in management
Eben Upton, co-founder and chief executive of Raspberry Pi (Trading) Ltd, developed the idea for a simple pocket money computer during three years on the executive MBA programme at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. Raspberry Pi is now a multinational business, licensing the technology embedded in almost 22m Pi units — designed to enthuse schoolchildren about coding — which have been sold since the company was founded seven years ago. He graduated in 2011.
The idea of attending business school came earlier, when Upton was creating the 3D gaming graphics business, Ideaworks. An MBA graduate was one of his first hires.
“He had a set of competencies that really helped us in our early years,” he recalls. “But at the time I couldn’t justify going myself because I did not feel I had enough life experiences.”
A full-time MBA was never an option, Upton says. “Stepping away from chip design for a year or two would have felt too much of a wrench.”
Ironically, his worst grades at Judge were on the IT class. “I couldn’t write what the curriculum needed me to write to get the marks,” he admits. “I think that when you are too close to something, you find it harder to bend to what gets you marks.”
John Sampson is a renowned Canadian neurosurgeon, specialising in the treatment of brain tumours. He graduated from the EMBA class at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in 2011.
“I’m a perpetual student,” he says. “When I’m interested in something I love learning about it.”
He recalls being bothered that he could not understand all the technical details of corporate stories in the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. “An executive MBA was the answer,” he says. “I also felt it would help me become a better leader.”
Dr Sampson has a PhD, an MD and a bachelor’s degree as well as his EMBA, something which he admits is “excessive”. Besides his medical degree, the EMBA is his most valuable qualification, he says.
“I now can interact better in meetings and have developed habits that directly derive from my MBA,” he says.
It is also helpful for understanding day-to-day life. “When I’m standing in line at Starbucks I better understand why they have different coffee sizes and how they might price their different products,” Dr Sampson says.
Tim Foster, an Olympic rower, who was part of the gold medal winning coxless four team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, completed the EMBA at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2014.
He began after the 2012 Olympics finished, when he was aiming to make the transition from sport to business, coaching founders of early stage ventures.
“I still had a passion for sport but I wanted my Sundays back,” he says. “I was aiming to set myself up in business but knew there were known things I did not know.”
Foster expected the course to teach him useful skills, such as finance and accounting. But he was also pleasantly surprised that many of the people management skills he had learned to apply in sport were exactly what his professors were encouraging him to do in business.
“Some things were literally just termed differently,” he says. “It was reassuring to know that.”
Linda Jackson, the British chief executive of Citroën, completed the EMBA at Warwick Business School.
The Coventry-born businesswoman has spent a career in the car industry. She started at Rover, near her home in the English West Midlands, where she had a holiday job, stapling paperwork.
She turned down a place to study teaching at university in Sussex in order to take a full-time role at Rover and worked her way up through that business, which later sponsored her through the EMBA programme.
The flexible structure of the course enabled Jackson to combine studying with working for Rover on the European continent, managing the group’s finances for a period.
Her late husband David, who worked at Jaguar, acted as an unofficial “research assistant” for her EMBA coursework, Jackson told the FT.
Michael Lamach, chairman and chief executive of Ingersoll Rand, the manufacturing group, graduated from the EMBA programme at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in 2001.
“At the time it was a curiosity to do something from a personal perspective,” he says. “I was 36 years old and was running out of some of the more traditional development opportunities.”
Studying full-time was not an option, he adds, noting that he was travelling regularly between China, Japan and Germany at the time with work and was a father of young children.
He and his wife now fund an annual $50,000 scholarship, open to Ingersoll Rand employees who are accepted onto either the Weekend EMBA, Global EMBA or Cross Continent International MBA, at Fuqua. Selections are made by the North Carolina school.
“Business school is a heck of a financial burden,” he says. “The reason the value of this company is increasing is the people. It made sense to give back to them.”
Karthik (pictured) and Guha Bala, the gaming entrepreneurs graduated from the EMBA programme at MIT Sloan in 2013. During their time on the course, they developed the video game Skylanders.
In 2016, the brothers founded Velan Ventures, an innovation investment company focusing on game and gaming related technology. Their portfolio companies include Velan Studios, a game studio that focuses on discovering new forms of play.
“The main benefit was the ability to continue to shift my field of vision,” Guha says. “Being able to apply different lenses to my industry allowed me to take the next step and start over as an entrepreneur.”
He also admits to finding particular enjoyment in the accountancy class.
“As silly as that sounds, using financial statements and disclosures to understand businesses was eye-opening.”
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