The Executive Edge

EMBA programs have come on strong as win/win/win initiatives. Business schools, students, and corporations all stand to enhance their positions when executives return for higher education.
The Executive Edge

Executive MBA programs have been around for close to 60 years, but they’ve only recently been recognized—formally and informally—as critically important school programs. Formally, both the Financial Times and BusinessWeek introduced rankings for EMBA programs in October 2001, using this set of rankings as one of several platforms to rate business schools and their strengths.

Informally, schools themselves have realized what big platforms these EMBA programs can be. With some schools charging upward of $100,000 for a two-year program, and most schools cementing their alliances with corporate stakeholders by grooming their executives for better positions, EMBA programs are sound investments, both financially and strategically. They represent an opportunity for schools to carve out a niche for themselves regionally, even if they’re competing against powerhouse international schools. And while they might not be entirely recession-proof, historically EMBA programs function well in a poor economy, as corporate workers strive to make themselves more valuable in their current positions—or more employable elsewhere.

The first surge of EMBA programs came in the ’70s and ’80s for U.S. programs and in the following decade for European schools, according to Maury Kalnitz, executive director of the EMBA Council ( But schools worldwide are still adding EMBA programs, albeit at a slower rate than in the past ten years. One reason for their sustained growth is that these programs can offer generous revenue streams; another is that EMBA programs, which depend so much on peer learning, clearly fit the concept of integrated curricula and a broader approach to management education.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, we focused on the silos of industry, finance, marketing, operations, and human resources,” says Kalnitz, who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. “I used to be in product development. At one point my vice president said, ‘Technically, you’re great, but you’re in a position now where you’ve got to communicate with VPs of marketing and CFOs. You don’t speak the same language, and they sure aren’t going to learn yours.’ An EMBA offers executives that chance to broaden their knowledge.

“In addition, as companies have flattened their organizations and gone to team-based concepts, they’ve recognized the value of learning to work in teams,” Kalnitz continues. “All EMBA programs have a strong team component, and that’s another reason the programs have grown.”

Joining the Team

In fact, team projects and peer learning are two of the hallmarks of EMBA programs. Most are lockstep cohort programs that require participants to interact with fellow students for lengthy projects and force them to understand the strengths and weakness of each team member. Even when they’re not working on projects, participants are thrown together through intensive study periods and residency stays that range from two days to a week. These residencies often kick off the program or occur at the beginning of middle semesters.

“We begin our program with a one-week residency,” says David Ravenscraft, associate dean of the executive MBA program, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “During that period we help the students bond as a class through outdoor challenge exercises, interactive class exercises, and social functions. We set the tone with regard to our expectations for the students and give them a foundation in both quantitative analysis and the case study method.”

The residency facilities are often high-comfort, high-tech centers that offer every amenity and are located right on campus. At Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio, there are no on-site facilities for the EMBA program, but residency stays are still important. Students check into top-quality hotels in Cleveland for short overnight stays, and in more exotic locales for longer residencies where less travel is involved. Isolated from distractions, students are obligated to interact with each other and focus on their material.

At the Graduate School of Business Administration Zurich in Switzerland, the approach to residencies is significantly different, and programs are not lockstep. “Our EMBA consists of six two-week, full-time modules—about 1,300 classroom hours,” says Albert Stähli, dean of the school. “Each module is taught by two professors and is on one area of business administration.” Students can take up to four years to complete their EMBAs, though most complete the course in two to three years. They generally take three modules per year.

As the economy stumbles and corporations rethink their strategies, business schools strengthen one of their most attractive programs.

Even in non-cohort programs, EMBA directors know that the makeup of each individual class directly affects the quality of learning for all students, since students will learn as much from each other as they will from the professors.

“The way I look at it, I’ve got about a thousand years of business experience in my EMBA classroom. If I don’t find a way to use it, I’m crazy,” says Edgar Leonard, senior associate dean and director of the executive MBA program at Goizueta Business School, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. “About 20 percent of our class already have corner-office titles. They’re already CFOs or COOs or principals in the firm.”

Participants bring a wide range of experience to the classroom— or at least that’s the goal of the administrators. Says Neil Sicherman, director of the new executive MBA program at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, “You don’t want to bring in a group of people who all come from the same background, who are all going to look the same, speak the same language, and have the same functional area of expertise, because they’re not going to learn from each other. I can fill a class with finance people, but that would be an incredibly bad thing to do.”

Diversifying the Approach

Despite the emphasis on diversity, participants tend to fit a certain profile. Figures compiled by the EMBA Council’s benchmarking survey of EMBA programs indicate that the median age for participants is 37. Women represent 22 percent of the group, and 33 percent come from a company with more than 10,000 employees. The average participant has ten years of management experience.

Program directors are acutely aware of these statistics, and many are working to change them.

“Women are underrepresented in EMBA programs across the country, which is not surprising, considering they’re underrepresented at the senior executive level,” Sicherman. In his current EMBA class at Villanova, 30 percent are women. “I’m both proud of that number and disappointed by it,” he says. “We want to become known as an EMBA program that is very inclusive. We’re doing things like targeting professional groups, African American professional groups, and women-in-business groups. I talk the talk of diversity, and I really believe that’s where you learn; but I want to walk the walk. I want to really get the kind of group that would allow me to go out and say, ‘See? We really mean it.’”

Administrators also want a diverse ethnic mix, and Leonard notes hopeful signs at Goizueta. “Part of that is due to the fact that diversity programs in corporations over the past five years have pushed finding and promoting good minority candidates,” he says.

Diversity is equally important in terms of the nationality and background of the students participating. At New York City’s Columbia University, a new EMBA-Global program seems designed to draw a mixed group of students. Held in conjunction with the London Business School, this dual-degree program brings students together several days a month in concentrated blocks of time that alternate between New York and London. Thus, it appeals to executives from all over the world.

“This class is 50 percent non-U.S., as opposed to our local options, where classes are 25 percent to 30 percent non-U.S.,” says Dina Consolini, formerly associate dean for executive MBA programs at Columbia. “With a schedule like this, it’s easy for us to get people from Latin America, Europe, and Africa.”

Going Global

Columbia’s EMBA-Global program is new, but it’s part of a growing trend among schools all over the world. Kenan-Flagler has joined with four other institutions to create OneMBA, which will give EMBA participants a chance to study in Asia, Europe, South America, and North America. At GSBA Zurich, many modules are taught in both German and English; and a certain number of courses must be taken at GSBA’s partner school in America, the State University of New York in Albany.

Case Western is planning to offer a Global EMBA program in the fall of this year as Weatherhead partners with several other schools internationally. “It won’t involve as many face-to- face meetings. Students will meet only so many times over the whole program, each time in a different location,” says Marilyn Chorman, senior program manager of the school.

Other schools are joining in worldwide alliances that allow participants to take some of their EMBA courses on campuses of the partner schools. Such schedules expose executives to a wide range of cultures and business practices, increasing their ability to conduct international business.

“I think nowadays people are really global managers,” says Consolini. “They’re not just doing a job out of New Jersey. They need to have exposure to global concepts in strategic management, in finance, in accounting. And it’s not just what they learn from their professors, whom they expect to have experience from around the world. They really want to be in a classroom with somebody who represents a global company.”

EMBA program administrators also emphasize foreign travel, whether or not part of their programs take place at alliance schools. For instance, Columbia’s EMBA students have gone to China and various parts of Europe. Case Western students visit two European countries, one with a solid economy and one that is in transition. Goizueta’s students have also traveled all over the world.

“We’re not married to any one particular place,” says Leonard. “I’ve said, ‘You guys pick the regions of the world, and I’ll pick the cities.’ I’ll say why I think a combination of Eastern Europe and Western Europe might be interesting. I’ll tell them what might be interesting if we went to Southeast Asia or South America.”

“Our goal is to explore and contrast the cultural, historical, political, and economic issues,” says Case Western’s Chorman. “We look at how history has shaped the practices of that region. So definitely they have to experience some of the culture of that country. That might include opera. It might include shopping.”

In their travels, students study everything about the way business is done, from hours of employment to paternity leave policies. Some students might meet with business executives and do factory tours, then write papers on how a particular company could improve its marketing. Programs vary, but each one is designed to get students to see that life—and business— is likely to be very different outside their own country’s borders.

Spotlight on Sponsorship

While the international trip often caps the EMBA experience, most students begin their pursuit of an EMBA by looking for help a little closer to home. Although some schools offer nighttime and weekend EMBA programs that don’t require a student to take time off from work, it’s more common for programs to meet on Fridays and Saturdays, or for weeklong sessions every month or two. Thus, program participants must have the blessing of their employers before they enroll. In fact, many corporations are partners in the EMBA process, not only selecting promising executives to push toward these classes, but sponsoring the students by paying all or part of the tuition.

While some students still make an individual commitment to come to Case Western and then secure the backing of their employers, Chorman envisions a day when that could change. “We hope to be able to go to companies and create partnerships with them so that we can say, ‘Okay, XYZ Company’s plan is to send us two people a year.’ We’d like to work with five or ten companies a year that way, so they include tuition in their development plans for their employees.”

The majority of employers do pay for some or all of the degree, though economic factors can affect those percentages. According to the EMBA Council’s 2001 benchmarking survey, 19 percent of students enrolled in EMBA programs received no reimbursement from employers. That was a big jump from 2000 survey results, in which only six percent did not receive any reimbursement. It was, however, more in line with figures from the 1999 survey. High sponsorship in the year 2000 may have been a response to a boom economy.

“Certainly when times are tough, companies cut back on training,” says Kalnitz of the EMBA Council. “We’re seeing more companies saying, ‘I can’t give you 100 percent. I’ll give you 80 percent,’ or using tuition reimbursement to support the programs.”

“About 75 percent of our executive MBA students receive some funding from their companies, but the level of support varies greatly,” says Ravenscraft of Kenan-Flagler. In addition, he says, “there has been a definite trend toward more company diversity in our program. We used to be dominated by executives of large companies. Increasingly, we are seeing executives from medium and small businesses, start-ups, government, and nonprofit organizations. This variety has greatly enhanced the classroom experience.”However, he adds, many of these smaller organizations cannot provide the sponsorship or tuition reimbursement benefits that larger corporations can afford.

Seeking Out Students

To fill their classrooms, program administrators court both corporations and individual students through a combination of open houses, advertising, corporate visits, and alumni networks. “We have a two-pronged approach,” says Sicherman of Villanova University. “We go to local companies and visit with high-level executives, often their CEO and senior human resources people, to find out what their needs are. We also have information sessions that target alumni and professors in the area.”

“We’re seeing more companies say, ‘I can’t give you 100 percent. I’ll give you 80 percent,’ or they’ll use tuition reimbursement.”

“We run ad campaigns on the radio and in the newspaper, and in certain kinds of weekly papers like Crain’s Cleveland Business,” says Chorman of Case Western. “We also hold open houses, and we have a very active Web site.”

Members of the EMBA Council share recruiting brochures with each other. At conference workshops, they explain what marketing approaches worked for them and what didn’t. Attendees at regional conferences also may discuss other issues, such as layoffs at the financial institutions that provide most of the students to EMBA programs in their part of the country. Armed with this knowledge, administrators can fine-tune their marketing efforts.

Because EMBA students are working professionals who can’t stray far from other responsibilities, most programs tend to draw students locally and regionally. “Weekend EMBA programs tend to be regional markets, and evening programs tend to be local markets,” says Ravenscraft of Kenan-Flagler. “We see the potential reach of our weekend program as any city in the Eastern or Central time zone with a direct flight to Raleigh-Durham.”

Other program directors estimate that most of their students come from within a 25-mile radius, though a two- or three-hour commute is not uncommon. Programs with extended blocks of instruction, like Columbia Business School’s EMBA-Global, can attract students from a greater distance because participants only have to travel once a month. Chorman is looking forward to a change in the current program, “from a weekly meeting to what will probably be a monthly meeting. This way we will be able to reach out to people outside a two- to three-hour drive time, and we will be shifting from a local to a regional program.”

For the most part, however, when students have to get to class once a week, they choose a school nearby. Consequently, says Ravenscraft, “EMBA competition has not turned out to be a numbers game like the daytime MBA competition. Working executives have fewer choices. Thus they can perform careful due diligence on a few select schools. They can visit the school and talk to faculty, staff, current students, and alumni.”

Focus on the Future

With so many schools courting participants for existing EMBA programs, or adding new programs to their schedules, is there any danger that the market might become oversaturated? Industry observers have noted a slowdown in the creation of new programs, and they have given some thought to the effects of the September 11 events in the United States and the subsequent downturn in the economy. Nonetheless, they foresee a continuing need for degreed executive education.

“Business school enrollment sometimes tends to run counter to the economy,” says Kalnitz of the EMBA Council. “In good times, people say, ‘Why do I need a degree? See how successful I am.’ When times get a little rough, people begin to think, ‘I have to add to my portfolio. I have to add value to myself.’ And they view an MBA as a way of doing that.”

However, the recent terrorist attacks and resulting economic woes don’t translate into your average run-of-the-mill recession. “We’re wondering if people are going to feel the economy is so awful and the world is so uncertain they just don’t know if they want to commit to a year-and-a-half or two-year program,” says Kate Livingston, a member of the Board of Trustees of the EMBA Council and chair of the committee’s benchmarking task force. Livingston, who is also director of the Executive MBA program at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, is concerned that a bad economy might have a domino effect on schools offering EMBA degrees. Executives could be less interested in pursuing a degree if they’re worried about their company’s stability or its ability to reimburse them for tuition, Livingston says.

Terrorism also has led to fears about international travel, Kalnitz points out. He expects some schools that previously made travel mandatory will now make it optional, but he also expects that attitude to be short-lived. More damaging to some programs, he says, might be the fact that military reservists are being called up to serve in the armed forces. Whether the reservist is the EMBA student or the spouse, the result could mean students pulling out of programs.

Nonetheless, in the long haul, Kalnitz and others believe EMBA programs will thrive. “I expect them to improve as we all learn new ways of doing things,” Kalnitz says. “I expect curricula to adjust as they continually have adjusted to new things. I expect growth in international alliances. I also think that over time schools will be adding more elements with nonacademic value, like career planning. This doesn’t mean changing jobs— but teaching executives that it’s fine to have a career within the company. Schools should help students and companies recognize the value of what the student is learning, so that the company recognizes and utilizes all their knowledge.”

EMBA programs also will prosper because they offer schools so much: a chance to strengthen ties with local corporations; an opportunity to expand course offerings by appealing to a whole new set of students; and an avenue for improving their status within the business school community. EMBA programs also offer schools a chance to increase their name recognition worldwide when they partner with institutions across the globe. Even in an uncertain economy, these advantages add up to success.