Today’s executive MBA students are more exposed to leadership development than before. Traditional MBA courses are still thenucleus of the degree, but leadership development — often presented at the beginning of the program and again at the end of the experience — has fundamentally changed the academic outcome. It has become the red thread that runs through the curriculum.
That means learning organizations can look to EMBA programs as effective leadership development opportunities. The EMBA’s more specialized focus that functions as a laboratory to develop an understanding of leadership and to test and view the learners’ effect on organizations in real time.
Not Your Mother’s MBA
“The person that we’re seeing within the EMBA world is a much different person from MBA world,” said Roger Hallowell, affiliated professor of strategy and business policy at HEC Paris. “They’re more intrinsically motivated than extrinsically motivated, which has a profound impact on how they approach the topic of leadership. The ability to look inward to see how their behaviors affect other people — what one colleague of mine calls the ‘leader’s emotional wake’ — is significantly greater for an older person than a younger person.”
Hallowell earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1984 and, after earning a doctorate there as well, taught in the Harvard MBA program. Today, Hallowell said he sees some key differences in the EMBA experience vs. traditional MBAs from 30 years ago.
One, the pedagogy has evolved with more experiential learning, enhanced interaction with peers and mentors, an emphasis on global business, respect for cultural diversity and a greater commitment to social responsibility.
Personality assessments and one-on-one feedback— developed over the past decades in corporate environments with the help of organizational psychologists — are now standard. The goal is to gain self-awareness, emotional intelligence and the ability to extrapolate decisions amid the ambiguity of real world business environments.
“We certainly have a new pile of tools,” Hallowell said. “The EMBA programs of today are more focused on 360-degree reviews, such as the Leadership Versatility Index, which is a fantastic tool to understand how you’re being perceived by the people around you. In my experience getting an MBA, we never did anything like that.”
Combined with a core curriculum of traditional masters level study in accounting, marketing and strategy, the leadership lessons prepare students to take on challenging roles in their jobs. It also improves the total learning experience. With the emphasis on experiential learning, there is less time spent in lecture halls. Executive MBA programs require that candidates study independently and in small groups with a high degree of accountability placed on each student to participate and lead in turn. EMBAs often involve broad international travel that places students in corporate environments challenging their cultural biases while increasing knowledge and skills through practical observation.
Many programs call on learners to apply their experience in a months-long capstone project. “If the project is going to be eight months, I thought I better make it a company I would be willing to build,” said former GE executive Swaady Martin, a graduate of the TRIUM EMBA program, a degree jointly taught by New York University, London School of Economics and HEC Paris.
Her TRIUM capstone became her new enterprise, Yswara, a socially responsible firm that processes African commodities into luxury products and distributes them globally. Yswara launched in 2012.
Martin still follows the strategy developed in her EMBA. She also relies on regular meetings with a former classmate and mentor, a top executive withluxury brand Hermès, for feedback and advice, which is not uncommon for EMBA graduates. She exemplifies the intrinsically motivated and sometimes idealistic EMBA. Her example is not extraordinary. A sizeable percentage of graduates eventually launch their own companies and nongovernmental organizations, while others return to their jobs and lead major changes that benefit their employers.
Changing Corporate Leadership
As this new model proliferates, it is likely to change corporate leadership and redefine executive development in a number of ways. Leadership ability develops from emotional intelligence, mastery of interpersonal communications and, in general, people skills. EMBAs provide a practical learning environment in which each of these traits can be practiced and developed.
Mary Logan, past academic dean of TRIUM and now a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said leadership development is fundamental to all aspects of the leading EMBA programs. “There is a focus on leadership through all the courses, no matter if it’s accounting or marketing or a leadership-specific course,” she said.
Further, it’s focused more on the “why” and “how” than just the “what” of leadership. Logan said through final projects at TRIUM — these are startup projects are done in teams — students go out into the world and try to collect all the data they need for a project. Plus, they work together, getting guidance and hands-on experience figuring out how to get their teams to move in a desired direction.
Before students graduate, they have a chance to practice how to lead effectively both when they return to work during breaks in study, and while completing coursework. The EMBA programs create an environment that makes leadership growth hard to avoid.
“The concept of ‘the lesson is in the room’ is amplified tremendously in an EMBA class,” Hallowell said. “As a professor, when someone says, ‘I think this is what we should do,’ I turn as facilitator and ask the class, ‘What do you think?’ The most profound learning is where the different class members are teaching each other.”
Whereas Hallowell said a traditional MBA can be thought of as a career “turbocharger” that immediately propels a graduate up to a better job, he said EMBA students are more driven by personal challenges and a desire to recalibrate their lives through their work. These factors tend to pack classes with very experienced and successful executives from diverse backgrounds and cultures who tend to be generous with their knowledge.
The Real Value to the Organization
It might not be practical for most companies to offer full tuition reimbursement for an EMBA. According to the Financial Times, currently a majority of EMBA students personally cover most of their tuition and expenses. What organizations can do is target EMBA graduates in recruitment efforts.
Still, many corporations do provide some underwriting of degreed education, and sending high-potential candidates to earn EMBA degrees is not out of the question. Marina Kundu suggests it might be worth the investment. She was instrumental in developing the EMBA program at HEC Paris and is now vice president of methods, learning technologies and efficacy at the Financial Times/IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance.
“If the program does its job right, the EMBA graduate will have spent several intense months opening the horizons of his/her mind and being confronted by people from all over the world with very diverse backgrounds who have different outlooks and points of view,” Kundu said. “Graduates will have been enriched by the sharing and benchmarking of best and worst practices across different industries and businesses and global contexts.”
It is commonly reported that graduates bring innovative thinking back to their jobs, sometimes challenging business models for the better. “Before my EMBA, I was completely focused on my job at GE, but I felt like I wasn’t bringing anything new,” said TRIUM alumna Martin. “When I finished, I had fresher ideas and broader vision, and I was more equipped to contribute to an organization.”
Who Should Get an EMBA?
Executive MBA degrees are expensive but valuable. Organizations are likely to get back executives who are impassioned about bringing new ideas and not averse to disruption and change. It’s an opportunity best reserved for promising performers who can build on their strengths, but probably not the best way to fix weaknesses or rescue derailed executives.
“Life-long learner,” is how Logan describes the ideal candidate. “Put your energy on your stars. Look for someone who is already spending their own time on learning and is already committed to improving themselves.”
One of the risks of underwriting advanced degrees is the possibility that the graduate will leave the company for a better offer.
“We know that candidates are choosing EMBAs today to further their professional development,” Kundu said. “In my experience, 30 to 40 percent of EMBA participants in any given cohort are looking either to start their own business or to get a general management qualification which will allow them to switch career paths entirely.”
However, Kundu said the majority of graduates hope their degrees will allow them to move into new roles within their current companies. “Companies that are serious about continuing education and talent management for their employees can complement their corporate learning programs by supporting select top executives to do such degrees,” Kundu said.
“But they need to be realistic about their expectations,” she said. “The success of their investment will depend not only on the individual graduate, but on the space they create for him/her to come back into the organization and use what they’ve learned.”