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It was one of the most stressful periods of Julio Harari’s life. As an executive in his 40s and married with three children, he had begun an executive MBA at London Business School alongside his demanding job at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“I used to start reading at 5:30 in the morning and go to the office at 10.30,” he says. “You work like a madman, then you get home and you really want to go to sleep, but your kids are waiting for you. Your wife is waiting for you. It was juggling a million balls.”
When his son became seriously ill, Harari, who is Argentinian, took two years off from the course. His decision to return to it while his son was still having treatment was supported by his wife.
“She said if you want to do it we’ll figure out a way to keep running. That was a very good image for our kids. They saw that despite all the difficulties, Susie and I pulled through,” he recalls. “I explained to my [course] peers and said if all of a sudden I don’t show up, this is the reason why. I’ll try my best, but this is the priority.”
People who choose to do an EMBA are often in their 30s or 40s, high achievers in their careers and have the maturity that comes with life experience. However, they are opting to enter a rigorous course in parallel with their jobs, often while they are raising young children. It is not without reason that some refer to EMBAs as the “divorce course”. Add to that jet lag from travel, long hours of work and study, and many students are left constantly fatigued.
Many will have to adjust expectations of what they can achieve. Getting family members and work colleagues on board is essential because everyone has to adjust to the pressure. Learning to manage time is also vital.
Silvia McCallister-Castillo, EMBA programme director at London Business School, says: “We select people that we are sure will be 100 per cent successful in the programme. We stretch them to beyond what they thought was possible. But we knew definitely it was possible.”
Often students’ first worry is to wonder how they will measure up against other people on the course.
“The competition can be really tough when you’re surrounded by really brilliant people,” says McCallister-Castillo. “They’re used to being covered in gold stars and suddenly they can’t be — and it’s not because they don’t have the intellectual abilities, it’s more because they have a baby at home and they have a challenging career.”
London Business School encourages students to seek support if they feel overwhelmed. Counselling, flexibility around course electives or time off are all available.
It is largely a student’s responsibility to seek help. Signs of stress, however, can be spotted. “They often cling to things that they are good at, or they become very perfectionist, or they are easily upset by a setback that they normally would have overcome,” adds McCallister-Castillo.
Those who cope well in the programme are not necessarily the ones that do best academically, but those who have resilience, are good communicators and able to ask for help. Why do people put themselves through it? Some are looking to fill gaps in their skills; for others it is an opportunity to pause and reflect on their careers, while others hope it will give them a professional advantage.
Laure Katz, a 32-year-old American, wanted to improve her leadership skills in conservation and international development. She began her EMBA course at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in the US in 2014, only a month before she married a man with two children. Katz also continued in her demanding job as director of the seascapes project at Conservation International, an environmental organisation.
It turned out to be the most sustained level of stress that she had experienced. “It wasn’t actually the workload,” she says. “For me, having a family on top left me always feeling pulled, whereas when I was younger I was only impacting myself. Feeling I wasn’t available to [my] family was harder than just working really hard.”
To help her cope she put aside her desire to excel academically and focused on the courses that stretched her as a leader. This helped her to balance family commitments with successfully completing the course. “I was at a different stage in my life and didn’t have the time to be able to be the kind of student I had been previously,” she says.
Personal and professional issues that had previously been sidestepped can be magnified by the strain on participants’ time and attention. This can be positive if individuals are willing to face uncomfortable truths.
Gwen Delhumeau, 35, who was expecting her first baby while studying for an EMBA at London Business School and working full-time for Sony Music, was forced to discuss her role at work with colleagues. “Two things I learnt were to delegate and put myself first. It was hard at first, but it was possible,” she says.
Her perfectionist tendencies were also challenged when she realised it would be impossible to keep up with all the course assignments and balance them with the other demands on her. It was one of the most important lessons she took from the EMBA.
“When you set such high expectations for yourself, you end up feeling you have only done each thing halfway and that can cause stress,” she says. “I have learnt to know when to say ‘cut’ — like when you make a movie and decide ‘that’s enough now, it’s going to production’.”
Profile: Dave Mao
For Dave Mao something had to give. While studying for his EMBA at London Business School between 2014 and 2016, he worked for Dell, the US computer maker, founded a tech start-up as a sideline and co-founded Come Up Capital, a venture fund. In addition, his wife Laura gave birth to their first child.
This all felt normal to him, until peers pointed out that he looked tired. He decided to drop the start-up, quit Dell and to focus instead on the venture fund. “I remember that time of so many balls in the air,” says the 42-year-old. “When you’re in the middle of it you think this is normal.
I felt like Superman, but looking back I think it was insane.”
His energy levels would soar as the adrenalin kicked in, but on arriving home after his week on the course he would crash with exhaustion.
One cost was to his health. Staying out late with his peers for late-night whisky-fuelled conversations meant he lost valuable time other students used for exercise or sleep.
Meeting her husband’s peers at LBS helped Laura cope, making her feel part of his community. “If I hadn’t met them I might have been a little bit resentful because I would have felt he was making friends and they were not my friends,” she says.
Mao’s optimism and adaptability stem from his background as a son of Chinese immigrants. The family moved frequently in the US and usually being the only Chinese-American meant he had to work hard to fit in. The experience gave him a love of novelty and, according to his wife, he “performs best under excitement and change”.