The signalling effect is one of the key attractions of an executive MBA. Securing the qualification can tell people both in and outside your company that you are ready to step up another level in your career.
Take the example of Linda Jackson, profiled by Peter Campbell, the Financial Times’ motor industry correspondent. The chief executive of the Citroën car brand had chosen not to go to university after she found that she enjoyed working at Rover, the now-defunct British marque, more than she fancied campus life.
A non-traditional trajectory such as this might have become difficult to sustain at the more elevated levels of management. But in Jackson’s case, achieving an EMBA at Warwick Business School seems to have underlined her credentials for further advancement — in her own eyes as well as those of others.
“I had gone into the industry without a degree, so having an MBA gave me much more confidence,” she recalls.
That is not to say that she did not find intrinsic value in the subjects covered on the programme, or the people she was studying them with. Jackson speaks approvingly about how her course focused on underlying principles of management that could be translated from one industry to another, while the breadth of fellow students helped to balance the tendency towards insularity that most industries encourage.
Others echo this need to broaden skills from a narrow specialism. Carly Weil, a pricing specialist at American Express Global Business Travel, said she was motivated to do an EMBA at Columbia Business School by the need to “broaden my toolkit and get a broader education”.
Weil was one of a dwindling tribe — an EMBA student who was able to persuade her employer to pay for at least part of her course.
But although the days of companies routinely dipping into their pockets to support hordes of EMBA hopefuls are over, the qualification itself is managing to rebound somewhat after relatively flat demand since the financial crisis.
Figures released in September by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) showed a strengthening trend in 2016, when 51 per cent of EMBA programmes reported increased applications. This was the first time that a majority of programmes had said that applications were up since 2008, when Lehman Brothers went down. “What we are seeing is strong demand,” says Peter Henry, dean of NYU Stern School of Business in New York.
“[With] the demographic of the executive MBA, which is late 30s, early 40s, we are seeing that [this] group of accomplished professionals is valuing more than ever the chance to be in a rigorous academic environment and to really build a network of like-minded professionals,” he adds.
Prof Henry also highlights what he sees as a healthy volume of people coming in from professional groups that would not normally be the target market for an EMBA, such as doctors.
The improving trend identified by GMAC was most pronounced for the larger courses and was stronger in Europe than in the US; the median number of applications for each EMBA place available was 1.5.
Meanwhile, the likes of Jackson and Weil stand out for their gender as well as their funding arrangements — only a third of EMBA applicants in 2016 were women, GMAC found.
But even amid the mood of cautious optimism around applications, recent weeks have contained a reminder that, like all business school qualifications, EMBAs can be at the centre of negative headlines, just like the disgraced MBA-holders who peppered the financial crisis.
Like the story of Jackson, this particular saga involves an absent degree, however the circumstances could hardly be more different in the case of Heather Bresch, chief executive of Mylan, the US company that makes the EpiPen emergency injection for allergy sufferers.
As Mylan’s unpleasant strategy of pushing through drastic price increases for EpiPens was ripped apart by politicians and parents, an older scandal involving Bresch’s time at business school was dredged up.
Bresch, a senator’s daughter, was billed by Mylan as having an EMBA from West Virginia University, but it subsequently emerged that she had not completed the course.
As I said at the start, EMBAs, both real and imagined, can send a signal that it often pays to heed.