Tailoring your EMBA: How the right focus can boost your career

But choosing the right electives is just one half of ensuring you get the most out of your executive education

REGARDLESS of why you may choose to study an executive MBA (EMBA), the experience can make a huge difference to ambitious professionals wanting to progress past middle management. But moving up the career ladder via an EMBA comes with a pricetag: the Kellogg School of Management/Hong Kong UST programme, currently top of the global EMBA rankings, costs $152,625 (£91,703). So students need to strategically tailor their studies to make it worthwhile.

Not only will the EMBA provide core management education, it also gives students the opportunity to specialise in a particular field, with schools offering a similar range of elective courses for their executive programmes as for the more popular full-time MBA.

But they will have a very different focus: EMBA students have reached a different level in their professional lives, and the quantitative and qualitative (those focusing on leadership, managing teams, communication) subjects on offer will reflect that. “EMBA students want more than just a quick dip into the hard subjects. They want to learn how best to take strategic decisions that affect the leadership of the company, how to deal with a crisis, how to communicate a vision,” says Kathy Harvey, director of EMBA at Said Business School.

To give an example, a recent student at the school was a senior executive applying for chief executive roles. He tailored his electives accordingly, opting for strategic leadership, strategy implementation and corporate turnaround. “As a result, he came out of the course with knowledge of all the decision-making processes that you would need at the helm of a company,” Harvey says.

And increasingly, schools are offering electives to help students overcome the complexities of globalisation. Of the 27 EMBA electives at Cass Business School, seven are international. Its South Africa course, for example, will teach students about the challenges of managing political transformation, improving the quality of service delivery, and internationalising businesses.

However, Clare Astley of Cass thinks the best opportunities can be found outside the classroom. “The best way to advance your career is by networking with people from the sector you’re hoping to move into.” With most schools now reporting that 30 per cent of their students change jobs while studying or within a year of graduation, those connections are essential.

And Zoya Zaitseva of QS Top MBA thinks applicants should prioritise a school’s alumni above even its ranking. “The alumni community is a club, and you’ll be a lifelong member. So you need to think strategically about who else is in that club – be it presidents of large firms or senior managers in your chosen sector.”

The networking potential is even greater on collaborative programmes (where two or more schools offer a single programme together), as students could get access to a far wider range of connections. “It’s another way that students can tailor the programme to suit their needs,” says Zaitseva. Trium – a collaboration between HEC Paris, LSE and NYU Stern – can give students a whole range of skills. “NYU Stern is based in one of the world’s leading financial centres. HEC Paris will provide key entrepreneurial skills; and LSE focuses on social studies.”

And schools are finding other, creative ways to differentiate their offering. With the number of EMBA students taking corporate sponsorship on the decline, many are now launching career centres, offering job advice and placement. And some schools, like University of Chicago: Booth, have found another way to give students more bang for their buck: EMBA alumni can return to the school and take one course each year after graduation, meaning they can keep knowledge development and skills fresh.

All this means that it is, of course, essential for prospective students to research a range of EMBA programmes to find one that suits their career needs. QS Top MBA offers a personalised ranking tool which allows candidates to search schools according to criteria important to them – such as length of programme, cost and return on investment. And its world EMBA fair, where top business schools showcase their programmes, comes to London on 8 March.

But it’s during the course that the right tailoring can make all the difference. As the programme progresses, students will start to establish which of the core subjects matter most to them, and which they find most challenging. “A common mistake, due to the pressures of combining work and study, is to take the electives that are easiest. But the best way of structuring your course is to think: ‘What gaps do I need to fill?’ and ‘What am I trying to achieve?’ You need to have both breadth and depth,” says Harvey.

It’s precisely this knowledge that will help high-calibre managers and executives propel their career to the next level.

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