Partnership: Robin and Claire Hardy, who both studied for an EMBA, would takes turns attending family events to allow the other space and time to work © Charlie Bibby/Financial Times
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Going back to the classroom when you have established a career is daunting enough. Returning to study when you are balancing a career with family life is harder still. Yet that is what many of those who embark on executive MBA programmes are doing. Prospective EMBA students are often in their thirties, and they have a lot going on in their lives. The pressures are immense — there is a reason why the EMBA has been nicknamed “the divorce course”.

Working out how you, and your partner, are going to manage study and travel while finding time for commitments to family and friends, ought to be an integral element of planning for an EMBA. Part of that process is getting your partner’s agreement and understanding: from the application process, right through the course, which lasts up to two years, and beyond. Some business schools are upfront about the toll that an often long-distance EMBA is likely to take on loved ones with its combination of evening study, compulsory weekend, or longer stays on campus and the social and other events that keep study groups and others in the EMBA cohort closely connected.

It is an intense, demanding time, when these new friendships may seem more important than home life — no wonder that spouses as well as friends and family can feel left out. Arnold Longboy, executive director of leadership programmes at London Business School, oversees its EMBA recruitment. “I did [the course] many years ago and I always thank my wife for having supported it, and the children — who were wondering where I was every fourth week,” he says. “I can sympathise a lot with what the students are trying to juggle.”

Longboy says that “even before they apply, we say that EMBA is ‘a marathon not a sprint’ and a lot of what we provide for them is in that mindset . . . It starts in the application process — on the form is an essay question about ‘have you thought about how you will juggle work and family?’” At interview, candidates are asked again how they will manage their family life and whether work colleagues are on board with their EMBA plan.

Some students choose a business school near home, which helps to minimise disruption. Location was an important factor in Claire Hardy’s decision to pursue her EMBA studies in 2017 at Imperial College Business School in London. She is corporate affairs director at Worldpay, the FTSE 100-listed global payments processing company, and the campus is easy to reach from the City of London. “After work I could spend a couple of hours in the library if need be.”

Hardy’s husband Robin, who co-founded BasePower, which makes small power stations for UK manufacturing, stresses the positives of seeing her take the course. “Watching her did not put me off . . . and if anything, seeing all the positive changes in her over the past year as she has taken various parts of the course has spurred me on.”

He was so enthused that he is also studying for the Imperial EMBA. Both agree that when they need to fit in so much study, it is social life, and sometimes obligations to their wider family, which may be curtailed.

“Rather than both of us going to family events,” Robin Hardy says, “one or the other will represent us and allow the other one space and time, during times of peak work.”

Social and family commitments have to be scheduled a long way in advance — there is little room for spontaneity in an EMBA’s family life. As well as self-study, Imperial asks students to be on campus for one weekend a month and there are also international residencies, three a year, in China, Germany and the US.

Balancing act: Stephan Gallon watched his wife Ann doing her EMBA for a year before he chose to take one on too

Stephan Gallon, now Asia-Pacific regional manager for The Designory advertising agency, and his wife Ann, who works for Toyota, were both working full time in California when she started her EMBA in 2015. She chose the degree at UCLA-NUS, a programme based at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in the US and the National University of Singapore.

He says: “I saw all the work she put into studying, doing group work on evenings and weekends. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand at the time why she had to commit so much of our family time to study.”

A year later, he too entered the programme — and found it a shock: “Despite that direct experience for about a year, I was still very much unprepared for what would come my way.” A few months into the course, Gallon felt he had got to grips with it: “By then I knew the amount of study that was required and had to devise strategies to find extra time.”

Choosing an EMBA that fitted with family life was vital for the Gallons, who now live in Japan and have two children. UCLA-NUS worked for them because, as Gallon says, “we wanted to minimise the impact of the programme on our family unit. I felt that a two-week intensive teaching programme every quarter allowed me to focus on studying while away, while providing me with a semi-normal life upon my return.”

Ann Gallon says that balancing the course with her other commitments, “was not an easy feat and by no means a balancing act, but rather a trade-off exercise”. For this couple, as Stephan says, “what made it all possible was the support Ann and I gave each other, as well as the support from our kids.”

There will inevitably be a lot of time when the partner at home is spending evenings and weekends looking after children, or going alone to social events. Arnold Longboy at LBS says schools can help to support the non-student spouse, including campus visits where families can meet.

“We have a family day when they have a chance to tour the school, sit in on a class. If they bring children we have face-painting, clowns and a bouncy castle,” he says. “What is really helpful [for spouses] is having a chance to meet some of the students that their partners will be studying with and also the other partners. They can get the moral support of that group.” LBS also offers programming for partners, who often form their own friendship groups.

As Robin Hardy says, if family members can meet and get to know the business school cohort “they tend to be a bit more understanding about why they are there and who they are spending [time] with, rather than it just being a faceless bunch of people who are taking mum or dad away”.

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