What is an Executive MBA and is it right for me?

March 5, 2020 - Helen Szyra

So what exactly is an Executive MBA (EMBA)?  Simply, it's an MBA designed for a cohort with 10+ years experience, who will be studying part-time, and who will still (officially anyway) be working during the programme.

Why do you need over 10 years experience?  After having gained a considerable amount of business experience, the EMBA candidate wants to update their knowledge with peers of similar or greater experience. They will usually be implementing this knowledge in their current role or on some new project at their current company/association/institution.  It may seem unfair to some lesser experienced candidates who like the sound of this programme and want to attend too, but imagine if you were a senior manager with 20 years of automotive industry experience, paying nearly £100K for your place on an top EMBA, only to find yourself sitting next to a peer with only 3 years of experience; this  could possibly be frustrating, as you want to learn from your cohort as much as from the lecturer or speakers. I say "possibly" as being young nowadays in certain areas such as technology may actually be an advantage, especially if that person has had many more years of tech experience than their work years suggest, as their interest and experience could have  started many years before actually working in a sector. I have, in fact, worked with successful candidates who have had only 7+ experience, but normally these candidates have demonstrated people management roles or have experience in an industry or role where they can add value to the classes and share networks. This includes people such as a successful entrepreneur who started their first business in their teens or who have great experience from an industry or sector that is less represented on MBA programmes, such as elite sport or the military.

MBA school websites often state "managerial" experience is a necessary condition of entry,  and yes it helps your candidacy if you've had some management experience, but don't panic yet. Management experience doesn't necessarily mean "people" or "departmental management" experience, (although that helps). It can also include project or  budgetary management experience, and even leadership of a different type; an army officer who has led men and women in Afghanistan has much to offer their MBA cohort. It's how you frame your experience in your application that will get you noticed, even if you aren't CEO, CFO or any other "O". There are some industries, sectors or activities that are particularly attractive to schools right now, such as renewable energy, entrepreneurship, Corporate Social Responsibility and philanthropy, and any disruptive industry. Senior leaders on the programme will welcome any relevant information and networks from their EMBA peers in these new-"ish" spaces. 

What does part-time actually mean? This varies, so, alongside the usual criteria for selecting your schools, (described in previous blogs), your choice of EMBA programme is likely to be influenced by how these programmes are structured. This includes start dates, and whether the programme is delivered over single weeks, Friday and Saturday, weekends, evenings/after work, and/or  overseas modules (or a combination of all these). Said Business School programme (Oxford University) for example has 16-18 week-long modules, and 2 intakes (September and January). LBS EMBA has a combination of Friday/Saturday sessions, 4 to 5 day sessions (Wednesday to Saturday) and overseas sessions depending on course/elective choices. Some schools may give you a choice of study options. Cass, for example, offers either a twice weekly evening MBA  over 24 months, so you can still work full-time without interrupting your work schedule at all, or you can choose a long weekend (Friday to Monday ) once a month, over 24 months - and even get an extra elective offered annually to you as an alumnus after you graduate.   

What are the added benefits of an EMBA rather than a full-time programme? Below are some of the many benefits for candidates;  some unexpected!  

  • First, you can continue working at your company or in your role whilst studying for your MBA. This means you can immediately put into practice what you're learning, and address specific  issues that are related to your own company, with your MBA peers , lecturers, and guest speakers. This interaction, across industries, roles or culture, can create innovative solutions or ideas that may be new to you or your industry.   
  • As you will still be working in your company, there is no risk from leaving your role and finding a new role after graduation. 
  • You still get paid all or part of your current salary so you won't have such a large "opportunity cost" (if you don't know this term, it'll come up on the MBA)!
  • Your network will grow to include new managers across industries and cultures and you will enjoy the opportunities from being part of a wide and senior alumni network. 

Some unexpected benefits: 

  • You have less competition to enter a great school.  Few senior managers can afford or are able to take so much time out of work (or risk taking time out of work) to study at that stage of their career. This means that fewer candidates will be applying for EMBAs than for full-time MBAs.  This does not mean though that top schools will give places to candidates who don't meet their tough requirements. They are still looking for high calibre students to maintain the high level of the programme and their reputation. This gives excellent candidates a statistically better chance of being accepted than on a full-time programme, where there are many other excellent candidates to compete with from across the globe.  
  • Your undergraduate grade, and GMAT or GRE score, are less important for EMBA entry than for the full-time programme. Experience trumps a stellar GMAT (although still aim as high as you can, as it will help your overall profile).  To give an extreme example, if a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk applied to an EMBA programme, would a school really reject them because of the GMAT score? (Although to be fair, they'd probably ace the test!). You may have the option to take the Executive Assessment (EA) instead of GMAT, as the schools recognise how time consuming it is to study for a great GMAT/GRE score. Although the schools say you don't need to study for the EA, frankly it is a good idea to do some GMAT practice as it helps you get a decent score. 

Now some disadvantages:

  • Top EMBAs are generally more expensive than full-time.  Having said that, you hopefully offset the difference by gaining a great MBA, with all the skills, wide network, and career opportunities that go along with that.
  • There tend to be less scholarship opportunities, and with some schools, there are no scholarships at all. Your company may have an MBA fund, or you may even be able to make a business case and get your company to sponsor you. A company  sponsorship helps your application enormously because if your company is paying part, or all, of a large EMBA fee, this shows their confidence in you, and the value you must have to the firm.
  • The location of the school and programme may limit your choices. For example, if you live far from an airport and need to work most days in Norwich, it's unlikely that you'll be applying for the Chicago Booth EMBA (where the world's first EMBA program was created). However, the journey to  Judge Business School, Cambridge University, will be relatively easy. (Yes, I know that Stansted Airport is relatively close to Cambridge but it's not quite so close to Norwich, and US destinations are off the airport's website for now!)
  • You'll be studying intensively while working, and probably have to balance or even sacrifice some family time. During my full-time MBA at Cass, EMBA students would come in to study in the evening, still dressed in suits. This might be a personal bias or projection, given the stage of life I was in when I did my own MBA, but I did feel slightly sorry for EMBA students, as they missed out on some of the "fun" of being a full-time student. EMBA students do however have access to the same sports, professional, and social clubs and the numerous events and guest speakers that full-time students have access to. The issue is they aren't likely to have as much  opportunity or time to participate. Having said that, perhaps someone with 20 years’ experience is happy to forgo full-time student life, and I'm confident that you'll still enjoy your time with peers on your EMBA! 

Some top MBA schools don't offer EMBAs at all. HBS doesn't,  for example, however they do have a Program for Leadership for Development programme that is similar, which gives an online and on campus combination.  Interestingly, even though many top schools have EMBAs, these programmes are often placed higher or lower in the global rankings than their full-time programme; sometimes much higher or lower.  Some schools such as Cass have an even higher reputation for their EMBA than their full-time offering. MBAs rankings do tend to vary from ranking to ranking due to different methodologies, so, as mentioned in previous blogs, ranking is only one criteria for selection.

Finally, online MBAs and EMBAs. These are  designed for people who have no, or little, possibility of physically attending a class, or for people who just want to learn this way.  There are different formats for these so do check specific schools to see their formats. Is it internet forum based, mainly web seminars,  weekly home study units, and do they have an option for onsite study or international elective to attend using your holiday leave? Do make sure though that you choose the best school you can, as there seem to be quite a few lower tier institutions offering this type of programme. You can decide which is a good school by comparing rankings (such as FT, QS) for full-time programmes against the same school's online rankings.  It is likely that an online MBA from a good school will be better than an EMBA from an obscure school. Online study can, in fact, teach you a great deal. For example, I'm doing an excellent continued education online course at Oxford University that has exceeded my expectations. It consists of home study with discussions on a web forum made up of a fixed number of students, and where the tutor feedback on our comments. This type of forum is, of course, better than not studying at all, but for an MBA and EMBA, I do feel that the network and interaction you will experience on a physical programme gives a massive added-value, plus opportunities that you have yet to discover or even dream of!