The most common concern I have heard from employers regarding sponsoring their managers in executive MBA programs is that the managers will leave the organization as soon as they finish their studies. After more than 20 years of being a professor and administrator in executive MBA programs, I’m here to tell you that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy created by employers’ indifference and poor planning. Importantly, it’s an outcome that can be avoided. In fact, not only can it be avoided, but it can be turned around so employers can enjoy a substantial return on their investment in this sponsorship.
In a nutshell, organizations create the post-EMBA sponsorship retention problem with two dysfunctional practices. First, organizations don’t create a centralized, coordinated policy to integrate EMBA sponsorship into the grooming process for promising managers. Instead, they allow uncoordinated, localized decisions regarding this support to be done in a hodge-podge and inconsistent manner. This squanders the opportunity to extract the greatest benefit for the organization and suboptimizes the overall budget for managerial development.
Second, many organizations treat sponsorship in an EMBA program like a perquisite or employee benefit rather than as an investment. This leaves managers who devoted a great deal of time and effort to complete an EMBA uncertain how both they and their employer will get a return on this joint investment.
HR Buries Its Head in the Sand
Let me highlight the first issue with a story. In 2004 I joined Cornell University to launch a new EMBA program. The business school had launched its first EMBA in the metro New York City area five years earlier, and I was leading the work to launch a second EMBA that would use a technology-enabled learning model to create an international footprint.
Looking over the history of the students who had been sponsored by their employers in the New York City-area program, I reached out to these firms to see if they would like to continue this practice with managers based in other cities. I managed to get a call arranged with the senior HR manager at a Fortune 25 company who was responsible for the development of the organization’s top 500 managers globally. In the first 60 seconds of our call, she stated, “We don’t sponsor managers in EMBA programs, we don’t encourage managers to earn MBA degrees and we don’t reward managers for having an MBA.”
A bit taken aback, but undaunted, I responded by pointing out that I had done my homework and I had the names of eight of their managers who had been sponsored in our EMBA over the previous five years. I added that if her organization had sponsored eight managers in the Cornell EMBA program, they probably had sponsored other managers in other schools too. After a pause, the only response she could offer me was, “I don’t know anything about that.”
This anecdote highlights a key problem with most organizations’ policies about EMBA sponsorship. Too often, central HR buries its head in the sand regarding EMBA sponsorship. This leaves the leaders of various unit-level responsibility centers on their own to handle requests for sponsorship from their up-and-coming managers. Often, these unit-level leaders see a benefit in investing in the development of a rising star and find the budget to offer some financial support.
In other words, just because central HR management doesn’t have a policy about EMBA sponsorship doesn’t mean sponsorship isn’t going on somewhere in the organization. This situation leads not only to a missed opportunity to formalize the plans for developing managers but also to having poorly crafted sponsorship agreements in place. After all, the unit-level leaders aren’t the experts in formal managerial development — central HR is supposed to fill that role. It’s no wonder that sponsored managers, coming out of this ad hoc process, question their future progress at organizations that are so disorganized at developing their managers. When these sponsored managers move on to other organizations, central HR sees that as proof that EMBA sponsorship was the cause rather than holding up a mirror to their own inaction to see what really contributed to the departure.
Sponsorship Treated as a Benefit
The second problem is symptomatic of organizations that approach EMBA sponsorship under the heading of general tuition support. Contributing financial support toward studies is a common benefit enjoyed by many employees, but approaching EMBA sponsorship with the same approach misses the point.
A manager who wants to join an EMBA program wants to make an important investment in his or her career. This investment has two components: money (the cost of the program) and time (the effort to successfully complete the program). Regardless of any financial support offered by an employer, a significant part of this investment is borne by the manager. The ROI for that manager is career advancement. An employer considering sponsoring a manager in an EMBA program has to similarly consider the ROI for this investment rather than just consider it a benefits-related expense. The worst-case scenario is that the employer has no plan at all about how the manager, with his or her new skills acquired through the EMBA experience, will be assigned to new challenges and given new responsibilities.
Once again, it should come as no surprise that a manager sponsored in an EMBA program and then left in the same job he or she had before this investment might look elsewhere for the opportunity to apply new skills and move forward in their career.
Retention and ROI
So, what are the steps any organization can take to turn the (inevitable) requests from managers for sponsorship in an Executive MBA program from a negative experience for managers, potentially driving them into the arms of other employers, into a great way to retain and develop managers and experience ROI?
- Formalize an EMBA sponsorship policy: This doesn’t mean that an employer has to pay 100 percent or even the majority of the cost of an EMBA program. It does mean, however, that an employer cannot simply ignore the desire and interests of its managers to learn and grow through an EMBA experience. Creating a formal policy allows organizations the chance to consider all of the dimensions around sponsorship, not just the financial contribution. For example, a sponsored manager will also need time away from work — should that come out of vacation time or will it be provided by the employer?
- Include EMBA sponsorship in formal development planning: It’s one thing to have a policy on EMBA sponsorship; it’s another thing to ensure that policy is integrated with formal development planning for managers. Of course, formal development planning has many dimensions, including internal training, mentoring and short executive education programs. Sponsorship in an Executive MBA program likely represents the most extensive — and expensive — form of development that an employer can make in a manager. This is as it should be, as no other development activity has the same potential to change and transform up-and-coming managers into leaders. Treating sponsorship in an EMBA simply as a perquisite with no post-graduate outcomes is more than a missed opportunity — it’s a formula for forcing managers to look outside the organization for career advancement.
- Enter into retention agreements with sponsored managers: It isn’t unusual for employers to ask managers sponsored in an EMBA program to sign a retention agreement. This would require the managers to remain with the organization a set amount of time after completing the EMBA or refund some portion of the tuition support. Depending on the level of financial support provided, these time periods vary from one to four years. But don’t confuse the quid pro quo for which the manager is being asked to stay as financial support alone — a well-designed retention agreement will also address the post-EMBA opportunities the manager will be provided. The real benefit for both parties in signing such an agreement is in the planning and discussion that goes into creating the agreement. This allows everyone to describe what each expects to get out of the sponsorship arrangement. If an employer is sincerely interested in post-EMBA retention, then the opportunity to address that is before the sponsorship is in place, not after.
Ignore EMBA Sponsorship at Your Peril
No organization should be reluctant to sponsor an up-and-coming manager in an EMBA program if this is part of a plan to groom and develop that manager and leverage his or her new skills. On the other hand, no organization should sponsor a manager in an EMBA program if there are no plans for that manager or it is simply expected that the manager will keep doing the same job after he or she finishes the EMBA program.
Recently, I read the following:
Question: “What happens if we sponsor managers in an EMBA and then they leave?”
Response: “What happens if we don’t and they stay?”
Relentlessly upgrading your team is a great way for an organization to succeed. The benefits of a carefully considered EMBA sponsorship program will far exceed the lost opportunity when, occasionally, a sponsored manager leaves. The best way to retain strong managers is not to keep them locked away or deny them development support, but to grow them, train them and develop them nonstop.
Daniel Szpiro is dean of the School of Professional Programs and assistant vice president at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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