Learning from the best

Executive MBAs are fast-becoming the development programme of choice for senior leaders who want to move even further up the ladder. HRM Asia takes a closer look at the added value these degrees provide through their keen focus on group learning

Humaira Hayat says she would not be where she is today professionally if she had not undergone a 14-month executive MBA programme in 2011.

At that time, she had found herself at a personal and career crossroads, having taken a two-year sabbatical from her work at oil and energy conglomerate Shell to tend to a young family.

She had always wanted to do a full-time MBA degree, but never found the time or opportunity to. So during the break, she started to explore alternatives that would allow her to balance the demands of family with those of the studies.

That was when she came across the Global Executive MBA programme at Insead.

Today, Hayat is global marketing lead of Shell’s business-to-business fleet sector, and she credits the executive programme for giving her “the right platform to bounce back into her career”.

“In a company this big, it can be difficult to move into a completely new area. But now I’m using the knowledge of other industries that I gained through the programme to work across our retail and fuel businesses in value-chain optimisation,” she said.


Certainly, one of the key benefits of executive MBAs is their ability to equip seasoned professionals who have already progressed to the top of their respective specialisations with the knowledge and skills needed to make the jump into general business managerial roles. 

It also enables veterans like Hayat to make career switches and move into new functions.

These transitions are possible because executive MBAs allow students to learn in-depth about a range of different aspects of business management, from accounting and finance, all the way through to business law and operations management. So says Jochen Wirtz, Vice Dean of Graduate Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

“The aim is to ensure that you have the know-how to get promoted to the level of a divisional head, general manager, Chief Operating Officer and CEO,” says Wirtz, adding that these roles often require individuals to run finance, HR, sales, and marketing disciplines.

“So you have to be equally competent across functions.”

NUS Business School’s Executive MBA programme offers a total of 14 modules across a broad range of subjects, including leadership, corporate strategy, business analytics, managerial economics, corporate governance, and business strategy stimulation.

Students learn a mix of soft skills and technical concepts, says Wirtz.

The modules are conducted over a 15-month period, spread across six intensive two-week residential segments, consisting of 10-hour classes each day.  

Week One of each residential segment is held at NUS Business School, before the cohort flies out to the campuses of an overseas partner university in China, India, Australia, or Indonesia for Week Two of classes.

During the overseas portions, students participate in immersive learning through site visits to companies like L’oreal and Hero Motorcorp, and dialogue sessions with industry and political leaders.

Life after the executive MBA: Bigger paydays 

The Financial Times’ annual global executive MBA rankings in 2016 found that the top 30 programmes all reported an average salary growth of at least 30% after students graduated.

The Tsinghua-Insead Executive MBA and the Insead Global Executive MBA placed second and fourth on last year’s rankings, recording 63% and 52% salary rises respectively.

The National University of Singapore Business School meanwhile came in 17th place, with graduates commanding an average annual salary of more than S$380,000 three years after graduating, an average salary increase of 48%.

The highest salary increase among the top 100 schools was seen by graduates of Kedge Business School, whose incomes more than doubled.

Career acceleration

French graduate business school Insead’s Global Executive MBA programme also has a core focus on leadership development, designed to accelerate participants’ career progress into leadership positions.

The Leadership Development programme, in particular, consists of group coaching, 360-degree assessments and team activities, aimed at developing unique and effective leadership styles.

“If you are further along in your career, the executive MBA will help you acquire the bigger business knowledge and skillsets needed to help you develop and grow within your career track,” says Steven Burton, Managing Director of Executive Degrees, Insead.

“Executive MBAs are meant for people who want to move beyond their functional roles into more strategic and leadership roles.”

Under its Global Executive MBA, students learn about 11 fundamental business practices including economics, strategy and business ethics, through an approach that combines theory and practice.

“Our modules are developed to help students apply the theoretical frameworks into their work,” says Burton.

This has made unfamiliar curriculum much less daunting for students like Hayat. She says she was initially intimidated by the complexities of the finance function, but found herself breaking down the self-imposed barriers soon after classes began.

“My comfort zone got bigger and bigger with every subject and class we completed,” she says.


Similar to NUS, Insead’s programmes also see postgraduate students travelling to each of its three campuses in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and France, providing a global context for class concepts.

This resulted in over 50 nationalities being enrolled in its 2016 cohort, with that diversity also becoming a powerful peer-to-peer learning tool.

Because most executive MBAs only accept professionals with at least 13 years of work experience, students often find themselves in good company, among very senior auditors, finance managers, brand directors, and other experts from a large number of industries.

This allows them to learn from each other’s experiences, rather than from textbooks alone.

“A lot of the learning actually comes from the interaction, not so much from the professors,” says Wirtz. “You gain insights beyond book learning,”

“In every module, there are people who are real experts in that subject area, who can tell you how it works in a dotcom company in the US, versus a commodities company in Australia.”

Steven Ng Ngai, Chief Corporate Officer of OUE Limited, who graduated from the NUS executive MBA in 2015, says the classes provide a platform for “deep-dive” discussions with other busy senior executives about a wide range of topics. 

“As executives, most of the time we do not have to opportunity to consider deeper issues and appreciate other perspectives, and views of fellow classmates,” says Ng.

“Also in our day-to-day business, we have a tendency to dismiss academic discussion.”

He says the visits to different countries around the region, in particular, has helped him to gain deeper insights into how other businesses are run.

As Arnold Longboy, Executive Director, Leadership Programmes at London Business School (LBS) further explains, the requirement of a 35-year-old senior manager in an executive MBA programme differs from a 28-year-old MBA student just embarking on their first management role.

This means executive MBA students have the advantage of “learning from others who have been executing at the highest levels, not just those who aspire to be at the highest levels”, says Longboy.

But LBS’ postgraduate study curriculum also gives participants of both its MBA and executive MBA programmes access to a number of electives. It is thus not uncommon to find both levels of students interacting with each other.

Exposure for employees

It is often the employers themselves who send their staff for further studies.

These organisations believe executive MBA students can bring fresh insights back to their jobs, says Dr Tan Boon Leing, Head of School of Postgraduate Studies, PSB Academy.  

They also feel the added education will help their high potentials to become even more confident and knowledgeable at making difficult decisions for the business, he says.

Executive MBA programmes also expose employees to a larger network of senior executives, which will in turn bring about multicultural and multi-disciplinary perspectives on business strategy.

The University of Hull’s executive MBA programme, offered at PSB Academy, also focuses on coaching and leadership training, where students learn more about their managerial styles and return to the office as more effective leaders, Tan adds.

“The executive MBA curriculum is created to enable working professionals to identify new trends and swiftly turn them into opportunities for the organisation,” says Tan.

Moreover, while regular MBAs generally have to be entirely self-funded, the tuition fees of EMBAs can be covered by employers who stand to benefit from the new skills that attendees acquire from the programme.

All breadth, no depth?

One common argument against executive degrees has been their lack of depth. But it’s an issue these programme directors quickly put to rest.

The impression that executive MBAs are less comprehensive or rigorous than a full-time MBA comes largely from the fact that modules are condensed into 14 months, with only six weeks of hands-on learning.

But this is a misconception, says NUS’ Wirtz, who is adamant that the Singapore university’s executive MBA curriculum is just as rigorous as that of its MBAs.

“Both programmes have very clear-cut learning objectives. Even in the executive MBA, if they don’t put in the time and don’t perform up to standard, we will still take them out of the programme,” says Wirtz.

Insead’s Burton says this type of thinking “has largely gone away”.

Ten years ago, the belief was that executive MBAs were an option for people who could not qualify for an MBA, he suggests. But executive degrees have since developed and strengthened to the extent that they are highly recognised and equally valued today.

At LBS, executive MBA participants earn the same degree as MBA students, so Longboy says the school has to “be sure that EMBA students abide by the same academic rigour for quality assurance purposes”.

“Thus, we put a lot of emphasis on setting the right expectations at the admissions stage because we will not compromise on quality.”

High entry criteria – from having at least 13 years’ experience, to being in specific management roles – have also increased the prestige of executive MBAs.

In fact, EMBA students often express the challenges of balancing both the demands of work and studies.

Ng recalls how difficult it was to juggle both the study and his ongoing work.

“The requirement to do pre-course assignments and readings, class presentations, exams and post-course assignments were most definitely a big drain on our mental resources,” he says, adding that he used to run in and out of class to answer work calls.

“But it is a mental exercise that strengthens our resolve to overcome all hurdles put before us, and it’s all been worth it!”

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