The development of expertise in general management – typically, for promising specialists in their mid-30s – may be one of the more obvious aims of an EMBA programme for sponsoring companies. Yet participants are keenly aware of the hard benefits, too, and they know how important it is to achieve them.

Mike Holliday-Williams, residential and marketing director at Onetel, a UK communications service company, finished his EMBA at Ashridge Business School last December.

He had a clear idea of what was expected of him: “Onetel have invested £30,000 in me, I felt I needed to bring an extra £1m to the business,” he says.

Mr Holliday-Williams reckons he has achieved that aim, through the contribution he has made to setting up new customer channels and reducing churn rates. He has now sent one of his team members on the course and a colleague from parent company Centrica is also attending.

The payback for Onetel depended to a large extent on the company-related projects and assignments that Mr Holliday-Williams undertook during his two years at Ashridge, mainly consisting of a week at the UK school every month. Between 60 and 70 per cent of his assignments related to Onetel, he says, and the products of that work were fed directly back to the company.

In sheer quantity, that amount of thinking about a company is rarely possible in a work environment. Yet it is the quality of the work undertaken on EMBA projects that participants and their employers feel often makes the real difference. “When you are at work, you tend not to look beyond your own business,” says Mr Holliday-Williams.

“In an EMBA you learn about the mistakes other companies have made in the past, such as IBM and Apple [Computer], and you learn how to apply critical analysis to that, within a strategic framework.”

Part of the payback for companies is that participants become “internal consultants” on their own company, working on projects that are often sponsored by the company’s board, as well as developing broader managerial abilities. “One student last year identified over £1m of savings and that is not unusual,” says Anthony Mitchell, director of Ashridge’s European Partnership EMBA.

A spin-off benefit from this project-based approach, he says, occurs when companies bring in external consultants to undertake strategic reviews. In these situations, the company’s own EMBA graduates are often asked to work alongside the external consultants, because they tend to speak the same language.

Companies can also benefit from the common approach to critical analysis of business issues that results from sending more than one person on an EMBA. The involvement of ABB’s power electronics unit in IMD’s EMBA programme illustrates the advantages both of developing a cadre of like-minded managers and having specific company-related projects to work on.

Remo Lütolf, manager of the business unit, was based in Switzerland when he did the EMBA, which he completed in 2000. The programme included a “discovery expedition” to Shanghai, which he says was a “real eye-opener” for him. So when the next member of his team, Peter Guggenbach, signed up for the programme in 2002, they decided to look into the Chinese market in more detail.

Mr Guggenbach started joint venture discussions in Shanghai as part of his EMBA project, resulting in the signing this year of a venture in high-power rectifiers between ABB and Xian, the Chinese manufacturer based in the city of the same name..

Mr Lütolf relocated to Shanghai in April this year and now has local responsibilities as well as his global business unit remit. Another team member, Ernst Roth, graduated from the IMD EMBA at the end of last year and a fourth, Barbara Frei-Spreiter, began the programme this year.

“If you have several [EMBA graduates] in the same business unit, you get a common way of thinking, and they have also had common experiences,” says Mr Lütolf. “That’s very helpful if you are developing projects.” The Xian joint venture was concluded in near-record time for a Chinese joint venture, he says, due in part to the team’s common approach.

The more general benefits of an EMBA programme, meanwhile, remain an important attraction for participants and their companies. Accenture, for example, sends between three and eight people each year on Madrid-based Instituto de Empresa’s programme. Participants are generally already top performers in the consultancy and IT services company’s different operating groups.

“The extensive experience achieved by the people who attend the programme, and the reinforcement of their skills and management capabilities, allows them to . . . become the successful leaders we want to have in Accenture,” says Teresa Albertos, the company’s human resources director.

At the Bank of New York, which currently has seven people on the Cass Business School EMBA programme in London, a similar view is expressed by Michele MacKinnon, European head of learning and development.

“The Bank of New York uses MBA programmes as a transitional bridge for those we have recognised as having high potential as future leaders. It is an excellent way of moving raw general managers into senior management positions, especially because it exposes them to industries and disciplines outside of financial services,” she says.

Grooming potential senior managers is also the aim at ING Investment Management in the US, which began a programme last year in which up to two employees each year are sent on EMBAs. Participants can choose one of six schools, based around ING’s three main US locations of Hartford (University of Connecticut), New York (NYU, Stern, Columbia and Fordham) and Atlanta (Emory: Goizueta and University of Georgia).

The company has three employees in the system, and feedback has been very positive, says Dan Rowland, director of human resources.

“They really appreciate the company stepping up to do this,” he says. “We look at it more as an investment, with the return coming in the future. All the participants will be of high potential, and with the right experience and training can go to very high levels in the company.”

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