Bucking the Trend

When the Yale School of Management revised its EMBA program, it chose not to follow popular options like online, modular, and global formats. Instead, it built a new program grounded on its own distinctive strengths.
Bucking the Trend
When I joined the leadership team of the Yale School of Management in 2012, the school faced a hard choice about the future of its weekend EMBA. The program, launched in 2004, combined general management training with an emphasis on healthcare, but it had yielded mixed results. Academic quality, student satisfaction, and alumni achievements were all high, but enrollments had remained stubbornly low. The average class size had been 21 students, but the class of 2012 had only 16 students, and just 14 were slated to earn their degrees in 2013. To be clear, like Yale University as a whole, the Yale School of Management (SOM) prefers a low student-faculty ratio and the sense of community made possible by a modest program size. But at this level, the program barely covered its direct costs. One faculty member even quipped that we ran it for charity.

Obviously, we needed to redesign the program—we just had to decide how to do it. Strategy is about making choices, and every choice entails trade-offs and opportunity costs. We chose the strategy of bucking the trends instead of fol­lowing the zeitgeist and emulating the EMBA programs offered by many of our peer schools.

We only needed to look at the schools featured in special issues of the Financial Times to get a clear sense of what was in vogue for EMBA program design: modu­lar programs, global locations, and at least some digital delivery. But we took to heart these words from A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin in Playing to Win: How Strate­gy Really Works: “Some organizations define strategy as benchmarking against competition and then doing the same set of activities but more effectively,” they write. Yet sameness isn’t a strategy, they say; it’s “a recipe for mediocrity.”

Therefore, we reviewed our options with these considerations in mind: our founding mission and strategic aspira­tions, an honest assessment of our exist­ing program’s strengths and weaknesses, and a careful scan of the unmet needs in the current EMBA landscape. We sought input from students, faculty, staff, alum­ni, and our board of advisors about how we should revise our program.

The result? Our reinvigorated program launched with 52 students enrolled in the class of 2016. We’ve identified a sustainable growth path and—most important—our program has become a highly visible part of the school’s portfolio and mission. And yet our program remains a single-school, single-campus weekend program.


One of our first steps was to honestly as­sess our existing EMBA program, which had a focus on healthcare as its most distinctive feature. It had sprung from a close collaboration between SOM and Yale’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health. Most program partici­pants came from the healthcare field and included physicians, nurses, insurance executives, managers in the pharmaceu­tical and medical device industries, and health IT specialists.

Even though the program devoted only about 20 percent of its curriculum to healthcare topics, it was positioned and marketed as one for healthcare leaders. It was advertised through conservative channels such as radio and print commercials and sponsorships of healthcare-themed events.

The 22-month program started in July so it would culminate with the university-wide graduation ceremony in May. It was delivered on the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut, first with a two-week residency, then on alternating weekends. The EMBA was virtually identical to the full-time MBA program in every other way: admissions requirements, contact hours, core curricular structure, teaching faculty, even the degree that participants earned.

When we assessed the program’s structure, we realized the compound effects of our choices. By delivering the same core content in the EMBA as the MBA, we maintained the program’s rig­or—but we also turned the GMAT into an indispensable admissions require­ment. By convening class on-campus on alternating weekends, we gained administrative advantages—we allowed faculty to teach full-time MBA and EMBA cohorts and we took advantage of unused classroom capaci­ty. But we also required par­ticipants to come to New Haven, not the easiest place to get to.

By adhering to our format and loca­tion, we restricted our catchment area, so that almost three-quarters of our participants came from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The pool of potential program partici­pants was limited even further to people who were inside the healthcare field and could afford Yale’s tuition. All of these factors, highlighted in the graphic below, had combined to create a great program with a very narrow appeal.

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Once we’d assessed where we stood, the available options stared us in the face.

The first possibility was to make the program less rigorous or at least to divorce the EMBA curriculum from the full-time template, thereby reducing the required contact hours and possibly broadening appeal. Over the years, many candidates had told the admissions team they decided to look elsewhere because other schools did not require the GMAT, so we knew that was a potential lever.

Another option was to move to a modular design. This would allow us to increase the catchment area by enabling candidates to fly in from farther afield. It also would allow us to build in modules that took place overseas, as many of our peer schools had done.

A third choice was to reduce the time students had to spend in New Haven, or to remove that requirement altogether. We could rely more on technology, flip the classroom, or build in synchronous online elements. Even more obviously, we could move the program to a more accessible location.

Fourth, we could broaden the program’s appeal by dropping the healthcare focus. And finally, we could boost enrollment by committing significant scholarship resources to the program.

Armed with this equation of potential change factors, we spent a year seeking input and guidance from current students, alumni, faculty members, and the school’s board of advisors. All stake­holders agreed that Yale should offer one MBA degree only, thereby eliminating any consideration of scaling back rigor, reducing the number of required credits, or lowering admissions standards.

In a survey, our students ranked the factors below as "important" or "very important" to their choice of an EMBA program:

>Click to view full size PDF

Opinions diverged on questions of program structure and the role of tech­nology. While many agreed that a mod­ular design would reduce the frequency and cost of travel, many current stu­dents and alumni stressed the benefits of continuous learning as opposed to the stop-go dynamics of modular programs. Moreover, most faculty and students agreed that Yale’s signature core curric­ulum would be hard to squeeze into weeklong modules.

Stakeholders also debated the benefits of offering the program in a different loca­tion. New York City was the obvious alternative, and the Yale Club of New York offered an attractive home away from home. However, even New York-based students enjoyed com­ing out to the Yale campus, the commute from New York airports to downtown Manhattan was not much shorter than to New Haven, and Yale SOM was about to move to a state-of-the-art new build­ing, making the on-campus option even more attractive. Meanwhile, New York is already home to more top EMBA pro­grams than any other city in the world. These factors combined to make a New York location less appealing. But stake­holders agreed that the regional mar­ket—which includes 22 million people in the New York metropolitan area and more than 50 million in the Washing­ton-Boston northeast corridor—should be large enough to sustain the program.

We considered the role of tech­nology. While many faculty members had begun to incorporate more technology in their teaching, we felt we were not ready to move big parts of the program online. Instead, we decided to develop our capabilities by experimenting with online and hybrid modes for certain electives and nondegree offerings.


Eventually, stakeholders converged on program content as the key lever for change. Our focus on healthcare was at once a distinguishing feature and a growth-limiting factor.

Quite a few were in favor of moving to a pure general management program without a specific content focus. Howev­er, not only did the emphasis on health­care make the program distinctive, that emphasis aligned with the school’s mission to educate leaders for business and society. In addition, one of our stra­tegic aspirations is to be the business school most involved with our home university, and the EMBA’s healthcare focus enabled us to partner with faculty from two other Yale schools. Last but not least, healthcare represents almost 18 percent of the U.S. economy, and it is changing so fast that organizations are in desperate need of management talent.

We had found our solution. We shouldn’t eliminate the healthcare focus; we should expand to additional focuses. So we posed three questions in the form of a Venn diagram: In what other areas does Yale have distinctive expertise?

Which ones demand fresh management thinking? And which ones also sit at the nexus of business and society and thus align with SOM’s mission? Our future would lie in the section where the answers overlapped.

Brainstorming sessions generated a list of possibilities, including envi­ronmental sustainability, asset man­agement, education management, and arts and entertainment management. None of these are traditional majors at business schools, nor do they represent traditional sectors. Sustainability cuts across industries and is about preserving resources for future generations. Asset management allows society to preserve the things we cherish, such as museums, universities, and dignified retirements. Education management requires leaders who can head complex organizations in a volatile and closely watched policy environment. And arts and entertain­ment management relies on leaders who are comfortable with both economic and cultural conceptions of value.

As we began to make the case for an EMBA program with multiple focus areas, some worried that we risked com­pounding the earlier problem of a highly circumscribed market. But others were confident that distinctive options would not only spur more interest, but also strengthen our overall brand positioning. If our peer schools offered only general management EMBA programs, we could use our multiple focus areas to differen­tiate ourselves from them in a way that was meaningful and authentic.

In the fall of 2013, the senior faculty voted unanimously to add sustainability and asset management as new EMBA focus areas to complement the existing healthcare track. The school also made a modest scholarship commitment to make the program more accessible to participants, particularly those from nonprofit organizations.


It is great to be distinctive, but only if the market is aware of your attributes. We knew we had to change our market­ing strategy as well as our content, so we deliberately repositioned our revised program as the “Yale MBA for Execu­tives.” In this way, we were highlighting the school’s brand and mission ahead of any of our three focus areas.

Even so, to raise awareness of our program, we used digital marketing tools to target prospects with backgrounds in healthcare, sustainability, or asset man­agement who had previously shown in­terest in EMBA programs. We stressed that, in our program, they would find a critical mass of kindred spirits, con­nect with faculty experts, and acquire distinctively relevant skills beyond the general MBA toolbox.

The combination of a repositioned program, broadened appeal, enhanced digital marketing, and new scholarships enabled a step change in our recruiting efforts. Compared to the previous year, we more than doubled the number of program leads, from 1,198 to 2,637; increased the number of attendees at in­formation sessions and webinars by 136 percent; and grew appli­cations by 118 percent over the previous three years’ average. Moreover, GMAT scores were up among applicants, admitted stu­dents, and enrollees.

Lacking a control group, we don’t know if a subset of these changes would have sufficed to reinvigorate the pro­gram. Yet all told, they enabled us to recruit 52 students to the class of 2016—27 who picked the healthcare focus, 15 who picked asset management, and ten who chose sustainability. We surveyed enrolled participants to learn what their key decision factors were. Virtually all of them said that it was “very important” or “important” to them that ours was a Yale program, that they would earn the same degree as full-time students, that the quality of peers was high, and that they would be taught by the same faculty as full-time students.

However, the single factor most often mentioned as “very important” was that the program included a focus area aligned with a candidate’s background and interests. In short, though we offer a single Yale program, we still appeal to candidates interested in specific subject areas. In contrast, participants let us know that program format and schedule were far less relevant to their decisions.

Naturally, the new focus areas have required us to make some additions to the teaching roster. Two leading faculty members have assumed director roles for the asset management and sustain­ability focus areas. Half of the sustain­ability faculty comes from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, while Yale alumni have provid­ed critical input for course development in the asset management section. In ad­dition, the curricula we’ve developed for the new focus areas have led us to create more electives in our full-time program and have paved the way for us to develop non-degree opportunities.

Recruiting momentum has contin­ued for the class of 2017. By early summer, with two months left to go in the recruiting cycle, we had seen leads grow by anoth­er 50 percent, attendance at information sessions rise by 60 percent, and applications double again. Moreover, we believe that the program architecture and market positioning will enable us to grow in the future, by adding new ones.


While we expect that the program will continue to evolve, we’ve already learned seven important lessons:

First, don’t start with the solution. While we remained open to early sug­gestions, we wanted to look at our full range of options and be very clear on the trade-offs that each option entailed.

Second, capitalize on strengths; don’t obsess about weaknesses. We embraced what set us apart.

Third, synergies matter. By deliver­ing our program entirely on our campus, we could involve our best faculty and remind participants that they were stu­dents at Yale—something they realized every time they strolled across campus.

Fourth, business programs should support the business school’s brand. Even if we wanted to serve multiple audiences through tailored programs, we needed a core brand that informed them all. In other industries, the product mar­keting might be successfully separated from the brand, but not in management education. Our programs are our brands. Our unique attributes must be reflected in all of our programs if we’re going to create enduring distinctiveness.

Fifth, smart people like each other, even if—and sometimes especially if—they come from different backgrounds. We did not know how doctors would mesh with chief sustainability officers and Wall Street traders. But the feed­back we have received has indicated that, universally, the students love the diversity of perspectives.

Sixth, whether or not a school fol­lows trends, it still has to innovate. While we decided to retain our existing pro­gram format, we innovated substantially on the content side. We also changed the way we communicate about the program and how we reach potential candidates.

Finally, as I said at the start, strate­gy is about choices. And to make good choices, a school must understand its strengths, its weaknesses, the world around it, and the mission at its core.

David Bach is the senior associate dean for executive MBA and global programs and senior lecturer in global business and politics at the Yale School of Manage­ment in New Haven, Connecticut.