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Which is the right choice to boost your business management career: an MBA (Master in Business Administration) or EMBA (Executive Master in Business Administration)? When delivered by highly-ranked accredited business schools, both programs open doors to new opportunities and career successes. They offer similar learning to create real value for business executives, such as high-level management skills, strategic analytical skills and leadership skills. The practical differences rest with who they are meant for, and how and when they are taught. So the answer comes down to who you are and how your life and career fit with an MBA or EMBA program.
Here’s an overview by IMD Business School to help guide your reflections. IMD is a world-leading business school based in Lausanne, Switzerland and in Singapore. Both our MBA and EMBA programs consistently rank among the best in the world.
Some people take an MBA after working only a couple of years or even directly after their undergraduate studies. They could be as young as in their mid-20s, with little or no management career experience. For them, the MBA is seen as boot-camp preparation for a selected career goal. However, we recommend getting at least 5-7 years’ professional experience under your belt. Everything you learn will be more relevant. You’ll be able to consider your learning through the lens of your experience, and reflect back on your prior interactions with new insights from your MBA learning.
Solid experience is the norm for IMD’s MBA class of only 90 participants. Our candidates are actually at the top of the age and experience range compared to most top business schools. Of course we look at the quality of the work experience, not just the years put in. We also aim to choose a complementary mix within each class, with diverse professional and national backgrounds. While our philosophy is small, personalized and global, others take an approach of scale. The highest profile American MBA schools, for example, have classes of nearly 1000 students.
Executive MBA participants are usually a bit older at 35-40 years old, with typically about 12-15 years of management experience. Part of the reason they – and their employers, who are frequently footing the bill – choose an Eexecutive MBA rather than an MBA is to be able to study in parallel with their work. Getting away for one or two years for an MBA can be complicated for these candidates who are older and more established in career and life. The full immersion experience is also perhaps less necessary: EMBA participants are usually looking to solidify the career path they are on. By contrast, many MBAs seek the experience to launch in a new direction or find the path that’s right for them.
I think, above all else, I really value the open-mindedness and the globality, the global nature of our community here.
Women are slowly increasing representation in business school classes.[i] Women make up about 35% of participants in MBA classes; the figure is slightly lower for EMBAs. Some top US schools have achieved female participant rates of as high as 40% for MBA classes. [ii]
The profile parameter that we think is particularly important to consider is diversity in terms of culture, nationality, geographic background and industry. “Above all else, I really value the open-mindedness and the globality, the global nature of our community here,” says Seán Meehan, Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management and Dean of IMD’s MBA Program. “The MBA class is ‘One Best Group of 90’ – 43 different nationalities represented in that, 12 nationalities represented in our MBA office. We have 34 nationalities represented in our faculty group. We have 8,000 executives that we’re doing business with every single year – they come from 98 countries.”
With greater diversity, an international business school will be invaluable in terms of growing your global perspectives, and cultural knowledge and sensitivity. These skills are paramount to a successful global business career.
When you think about the time you spend on an MBA or an EMBA, you are in many ways hitting on the biggest difference between the two programs. But not for the reasons you may think. It’s not how long it takes to get your degree that matters, but rather how you spend the time getting your degree.
Although online MBAs have hit the scene, most accredited MBA programs are taught on-campus – usually over two years full-time, or as 1-year programs for more experienced candidates. By contrast, EMBA programs are built on some combination of modular courses, evening classes and distance learning.
To take an MBA program for two years full-time means making some important decisions. You will need to quit your job or take a leave of absence. There’s a good chance you’ll need to move at least temporarily to take the program of your choice. Do you have a young family who will be affected by that move? Aside from the financial impact (cost of the program, living expenses and loss of salary during your time away), the time investment is not insignificant.
These considerations are in many ways even more significant when you are further along in your career. This is precisely the reason behind the more flexible delivery style of EMBAs. Employers are eager to support their top talents… and EMBA programs mean that’s possible with less time away from the job. Our EMBA program at IMD, for example, requires nine weeks out of office during the 15 months (or spread over more time if you wish). This time away includes intensive learning modules at IMD’s Switzerland campus, as well as Discovery Expeditions to China, Silicon Valley, and a third of your choice. So it’s time well-spent.
Working on an Executive MBA program will of course affect your daily life (be prepared for late-night hot beverages), but in many ways less so than with a full-time MBA. Many people find the more intensive one-year MBAs – this is what we offer at IMD – to be a good compromise.
Taking a 1-year MBA, of course, still means time away from your job and probably your city or country. At IMD, about half our participants bring partners and/or families along, so the school offers a partner program to make the transition easier. Some see the MBA year as an adventure for the whole family – time to experience a different life, in a different country, with different peers. And for some people, the year away is seen as an opportunity to transform in a more holistic way – perhaps to take stock of one’s values and ambitions, or to launch a new career direction.
“I found that I needed to, well, basically reflect upon myself, to add to my toolbox and basically to take a little bit of a step back and think about myself and the future,” said IMD 1996 Alumnus Bjarni Ármannsson. “And I felt IMD was a great platform – a whole year for learning and for reflecting on myself.”
“MBA programs must deliver the technical competence that allows executives to assess the state of a business and devise an adequate response,” says Ralf Boscheck, IMD Professor of Economics and former Director of IMD’s MBA program. “These skills and context knowledge must be based on sound theoretical foundations, empirically tested across diverse industrial and cultural settings, and be integrated and ready to meet the requirements of everyday business practice.”
Sound analytics alone do not deliver results. Business is a team sport that calls on effective business leaders to be aware of their own motivations, behavioral pattern and derailing threats.
The core studies of an MBA or Executive MBA program are similar. What changes is how much time is spent on what subjects. Since most people who take a 2-year MBA are fairly early-career, these programs go deeper in general management fundamentals like operations management, finance and marketing. Management skills training will include such things as business development, business analysis and team management. You’ll hit on topics like stakeholder engagement, negotiations and crisis management. For those taking 1-year MBA or EMBA programs, the goal is to solidify that knowledge while focussing on the skills that can make you an agile, strategic leader. (Here’s where we get to the good stuff.)
“Sound analytics alone do not deliver results,” says Boscheck. “Business is a team sport that calls on effective business leaders to be aware of their own motivations, behavioral pattern and derailing threats. They must also recognize the same in their team members and counterparts. This goes beyond the usual leadership curriculum. It forces the rational ‘rider’ to acknowledge and explore the subconscious world of the ‘elephant’ that he or she is attempting to stir. It calls for deep, personal introspection.”
The idea is to shift participants into situations for which they cannot prepare. They learn to quickly, adapt their leadership style appropriately, make correct decisions and communicate clearly.
“We have a mission for developing leaders who desire to make an impact in our world,” says Meehan. “Leaders today need to have a global mindset, be entrepreneurially oriented and be digitally competent. Given all the uncertainty in the world, we develop people who can cope with ambiguity and play an important role in the shaping of our society.”IMD puts an emphasis on a leadership stream that uses experiential exercises, peer learning and one-on-one coaching (each participant has three personal coaches for different areas!).
An example of an out-of-the-box learning experience for IMD’s EMBA participants is a crisis management simulation run with the Swiss Armed Forces.[iii] Participants must switch instantly from day-to-day business management mode to crisis management. They get continuous feedback by military and civilian crisis managers, as well as debriefings to help each participant look at their own behaviour and that of the group, to be able to integrate and transfer it to their own practice. “The idea is to shift participants into situations for which they cannot prepare,” explains Stefan Michel, Dean of the IMD Executive MBA. “They learn to quickly, adapt their leadership style appropriately, make correct decisions and communicate clearly.”
Education that doesn’t come from a book
The funny thing is, when you start to ask MBA and EMBA graduates about their experience, very few are going to talk about the things they checked off in their finance or marketing class. Instead, you’ll hear about soft skills like self-awareness and personal leadership, as well as “peripheral” experiences like networking.
“The better you know yourself, the better you can lead in personal and group settings,” says Dominic Liechti, who attended IMD’s EMBA program. “I learned a great deal about finance, marketing and strategy, but leadership and the personal reflection that accompanies it, along with peer feedback and coaching sessions, were the most rewarding aspects for me.”
“We were all very well accomplished by the time we arrived here at the school, and each one of us had had our own careers, our successes and had really great educations up to that point,” says Richard Slovenski, an IMD MBA grad from 1999. “But we’re also quite different – and learning how to deal with one another was also another really great lesson for me and has actually helped me since I’ve left IMD and gone on into the professional world.”
Is an EMBA program less impactful when it comes to networking and learning from classmates? Not if you ask Liechti, who drew great value from international discovery trips with his multicultural group of classmates: “Leading in an international environment will be one of the many features that will be directly applicable to my career and I’m even able to tap into all these lifelong relationships.”
MBAs and Executive MBAs are both degrees that will have a positive impact on your career trajectory. They’re game-changers.
Some MBA graduates will return to previous employers but most are off for new adventures. According to the Financial Times Global MBA Rankings 2018, a very high majority of graduates from the top 100 schools found employment in the first three months.[iv] What’s more, after three years, graduates had increased their salaries by as much as 100% post-graduation. It is important to remember that while the experts who compile ranking make things as comparable as possible (for example by weighting salaries), your employment prospects and salary will vary based on your chosen field and geographic location. Plus, if your salary was higher going in, your percentage increase may not be as high – it’s still a success!
Of course, another way to look at the questions of salary and employment is in terms of return on investment. Because an MBA program is expensive. Even if you are supported by your employer or by a scholarship, you will have to invest (cold hard cash, along with the time and proverbial blood, sweat and tears). If an intensive 1-year MBA makes sense for you, you will enjoy a faster return on investment. Indeed, the payback period can be as little as just over two years – Forbes found IMD’s “payback” period to be the best in the world at just 2.3 years – but even a more typical 3 or 4 years’ “payback” can be worthwhile in the long run (this number played a lot in earning IMD Forbes’ top spot among 1-year international MBAs in 2017). Remember, your career post-MBA will be more lucrative over the long-term… and also more exciting, more rewarding and more fun, we hope!
“Many of our participants are already in a management or even director role, but often want to move into a position where they feel they can make more impact,” says Meehan. “Examples of post-graduate titles from the 2016 class include: CEO Program Associate for Siemens in Germany, CEO of IPG in Japan or CFO for APT Advanced Potash Technologies in the USA. Recruiters hire for leadership potential and we have the advantage of being able to offer tailored solutions to companies so that they connect with the right mix of participants for the roles they want to fill.”
And what about EMBAs? The question is viewed a bit differently because people taking EMBAs are coming from a different place. They are further along in their careers, and more importantly, many are financially supported in their studies by their employers. This means they are usually committed to a certain period of continued service post-grad. But whether you stay with your company or move on, you can reasonably expect employers to recognize that you have taken the time and considerable effort to up your skill set to deliver more as a business manager.
A look at the Financial Times 2017 EMBA rankings[v] shows that depending on what school you attend and where you work (geographically and industry), it’s not unreasonable to expect your salary to go up by 40-60% after your EMBA. And on top of that, those with an EMBA are more able to apply their skills in a variety of industries. An EMBA degree, added to your work experience, broadens your scope and knowledge – you won’t be hemmed in by having all your experience in one industry. Head-hunters and other potential employers will call, possibly taking you places you never even thought of.
A survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council for its 2018 Alumni Perspectives[vi] showed that 89% of EMBA graduates felt that the skills gained in their program had advanced their careers – slightly more than graduates of 1-year MBA programs and just one point behind those who had attended 2-year programs. To a question asking respondents if they felt they “could not have gotten their current job without the degree, 73% of grads from the 2-year MBA agreed with the statement; 63% for the 1-year MBA grads; and 58% for EMBA grads. These numbers aren’t surprising: those with more experience were already able to count more on that experience to impress employers. But overall, a strong majority felt their degrees were really worth it in terms of career advancement.
Okay, in terms of having a degree that solidifies salary and career potential, MBA and Executive MBAs are pretty good bets. But we’d like you to consider another parameter. To borrow the term from the Financial Times rankings table, it’s the column called “Aims Achieved”. In the chart for 2017 EMBAs, the numbers effectively show that approximately four out of five EMBA grads report that they reached the goals they sought through their degree. For the survey of global MBAs in 2018, students who had attended the top 100 schools put their sense of achievement at 80-90%. Your degree is ultimately about aims achieved – by your definition.
Bryan Hassin was already a successful tech startup CEO before he came to IMD. He wasn’t looking for career change, or even more income. His definition of aims achieved? Improved leadership skills. “It had become pretty evident to me that the difference between the successes and the failures wasn’t because of business models or technologies – it was because of people. So if I wanted to be a more effective entrepreneur and a more effective CEO, it really came down to leadership.”
“It was really impactful for me,” says Hassin, who got his MBA in 2008. “Helping me shore up my strengths – because I was a natural leader but clearly still had a lot of room for improvement. It also helped me shore up my weaknesses. It helped me even identify what those weaknesses were in the first place. And the proof has really been in the pudding: I’ve been a profoundly more effective entrepreneur and leader ever since IMD.”