Mark Allen
Entrepreneurial ambition: Mark Allen is thinking of starting a business after doing the Stanford MSx © Charlie Bibby

Mark Allen admits he never had much use for an MBA. “I didn’t think they were necessary,” he says. Besides, being in his mid-40s, “there was no way I was going to go back and do a two-year course with people in their 20s”.

But a couple of years ago, Allen, who worked in Cape Town as an engineering manager for an oil and gas exploration company, was becoming restless. He was ready to leave South Africa but was not interested in a sideways move to his company’s London headquarters.

“I began to look into one-year mid-career breaks that would give me time to reflect and reconsider the plan for the second half of my career,” he says.

For Allen, the solution was Stanford’s Master of Science in Management for Experienced Leaders programme. Students on the Stanford MSx, as the programme is also known, have on average 12 years of work experience.

“In class there was always someone who had been there and done that in a leadership role — whether we were talking about how Swarovski develops its crystal, how the military drops its bombs or why Wall Street blew up,” says Allen, who graduated from the MSx in June. “Everyone had a different perspective and different expertise.”

As MBA programmes around the world pursue younger applicants, some leading business schools — including Yale, MIT Sloan, London Business School and Stanford — are heading in the opposite direction with specialist masters programmes. These programmes, some of which were inspired and initially funded by Alfred P Sloan, the General Motors chief executive, about 50 years ago, target mature candidates who have held senior positions in their organisations.

Unlike executive MBAs, which managers typically complete while working, these are full-time, residential programmes. And unlike many other masters in management degrees, which focus on an industry or function and are designed for pre-experience candidates, these programmes fall into the category of “general management” and are targeted at mid-career professionals.

The result, says Mike Hochleutner, director of the Stanford MSx programme, is “a very rich learning environment” in which “students offer their distinct perspectives and experience” both inside the lecture hall and beyond.

“The world of business education has been pushing people to get basic management education at a younger and younger age, but someone who is 23 or 24 years old may have difficulty appreciating some of the subject matter [compared with] someone who has been in the workforce for 10 or 12 years and who’s already faced tough management issues,” he says.

“The core curriculum is similar to the core of our MBA, but because of the nature of who is in the room — as well as our customised content that targets this demographic — the conversation is different,” he adds.

In recent years, MBA providers have turned their attention towards younger, less experienced candidates in an effort to increase applications and lure the best students away from other subjects, such as law and public policy. Many top schools have done away with their admissions prerequisites of four years of work experience and increasingly have admitted recent college graduates and “early career” professionals.

But this strategy can exclude mid-career professionals. Indeed, most applicants with eight or more years under their belts may be considered “too old” and “too experienced” for a traditional MBA.

Stephen Sacca, director of the MIT Sloan Fellows programme, says candidates are a self-selecting group. “This programme is about introspection, and that’s not for everyone,” he says. “These are people who see themselves as a work in progress. They’ve done well, but they know they can do better, so they step back and take stock.”

London Business School
Shared experience: the average age of Sloan Fellows at London Business School is 42, says Silvia McCallister-Castillo © Charlie Bibby

Students are drawn to these courses for a variety of reasons, says Silvia McCallister-Castillo, director of London Business School’s course, also known as the Sloan Fellows programme. Some wish to switch careers or change location; some are keen to start something entrepreneurial. Others are unsure what they want the rest of their professional lives to look like, but the opportunity for open-ended study with other mature, like-minded students is compelling.

“For many Sloan Fellows from abroad, the year at London Business School becomes a family adventure — a chance to introduce their partners and children to a new culture, a new language and a different lifestyle,” she says.

This year, the average age of the Sloan Fellows class at LBS was 42, with an average of 18 years of work experience. “The value of having a year out [of the workforce] in your 30s, 40s or even 50s is that it gives you time to reflect on your personal and career development goals and explore new ideas in a supportive yet competitive environment,” adds McCallister-Castillo.

Yale launched its one-year Master of Advanced Management (MAM) degree three years ago with recruiters in mind. (Its programme is exclusively for international MBA graduates of Yale’s global network, comprising 27 member schools, including IE Business School in Spain and Fudan University School of Management in China.)

“We created this programme in direct response to what we were hearing from recruiters,” says David Bach, senior associate dean at Yale School of Management. “Many US business graduates are not as interested in opportunities around the world as you would hope. Recruiters are looking for talent that has the benefit of having been in a place like Yale but also, for instance, really knows Indonesia, or has a deep understanding of Turkey.”

Juan Cogorno received his MBA from Incae in Costa Rica and graduated from Yale’s MAM programme two years ago. A Venezuelan, he now works in Miami with Visa, the credit card company, as digital marketing manager for Latin America. “It’s very valuable for recruiters to see you have US experience but also that you can work with people from different countries and cultures,” he says.

Many students are attracted to the “liberal arts element” of this programme, according to Prof Bach. The required core curriculum is about 20 per cent of the programme; students spend the remaining 80 per cent of their coursework on electives, which they take across the university. “The vast majority of students have not had a liberal arts experience where they could study disparate fields and explore the connections between them,” he says.

Muriel Schwab, a recent graduate of the programme, earned her executive MBA from Insead in Singapore. During her year at Yale, she took classes in photography and architecture — two subjects she’s “very passionate” about. “Those classes were not necessarily related to my job,” says Schwab, who works in commodities in New York, “but they did bolster my creativity and also helped me to look at things from a different perspective.”

These MiMs are often career-altering. Take Allen, for instance. “I never thought I’d start a business,” he says. “I thought: ‘I’ve been an employee for 20 years; I’m not an entrepreneur.’” But as the MiM progressed, he reconsidered. “I am thinking about starting a business,” he says. “[The programme gave me] the connections, contacts and confidence that I could do something like that.”

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