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One size does not fit all:

Mid-career managers seek advancement through executive MBA programs

By Daniel Szpiro and Thomas Hambury

The quotation, "only change is constant," has been attributed to everyone from Isaac Asimov to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Of course, we have all heard this observation applied to the landscape facing organizations today. But even if change itself may be constant, many feel that the pace of change is accelerating. Intensive globalization and the regular introduction of disruptive technologies are just two examples of mega-trends that lead modern managers to face challenges that their counterparts in the recent past may not have even imagined. Not surprisingly, this increased pace of change has led established managers and professionals to seek out business schools later in their careers in order to gain the skills and tools necessary to succeed in such a demanding environment, and many such mid-career managers have increasingly been attracted to Executive MBA (EMBA) programs.

vp_tomdanny Danny Szpiro (left), senior lecturer and director, Cornell-Queen's Executive MBA program, and Tom Hambury, director, Cornell Executive MBA program

Full-time, on-campus MBA programs continue to target managers in early stages of their careers. In 2007, for example, the average participant joining the Johnson School's two-year MBA program in Ithaca was 28.5 years old, with 4.5 years of post-undergraduate, full-time organizational experience. Moreover, since there tends to be little variance within this group, that average describes the typical MBA student fairly accurately. It follows that organizations coming to campus looking for MBA graduates expect to attract candidates at this early stage in their careers to fill suitable positions.

But what about established managers who did not return to school after 3-5 years to earn an MBA in this traditional format? How does this large group of mid-career professionals access the concepts and skills that can be developed in a leading MBA program such as Cornell's, and address the challenges and changes they face in their existing careers? Executive MBA programs were developed precisely for this group.

The overwhelming majority of our graduates report back to us that they experience significant advancement in their careers while still enrolled in the program and within the first year after graduation.

Some key demographics differentiate EMBA participants from full-time MBAs. For the most part, EMBA participants are fully employed while they complete their studies. They believe that the knowledge and credentials gained by earning an MBA will enable them to take the next step in their career evolution (rather than switch careers or enter new industries, as is the case with many full-time MBA students). A few are independent professionals (doctors, lawyers, independent consultants, or entrepreneurs), but most work in established firms. They average 35 years of age on entry, but the age range of an EMBA class typically runs from late 20s to mid-50s or beyond.

EMBA programs have historically been considered the core vehicle for grooming middle managers for positions in the senior ranks of large organizations, and the majority of participants were fully sponsored by their employers. Recent growth in EMBA enrollment, however, has come from self-sponsored or only partially sponsored participants. BusinessWeek reports that 52 percent of EMBA participants were fully sponsored and only 16 percent were self-sponsored as recently as 2001. Today, the Executive MBA Council reports that these proportions have shifted, with about 33 percent of EMBA participants in each category. This trend suggests that more mid-career managers and professionals see the EMBA as an opportunity to proactively manage the process of achieving a diverse set of career goals — goals that are just as likely to include climbing the corporate ladder as leaving big business behind and starting a new entrepreneurial venture.

The Johnson School viewed this growing area in management education as a great opportunity to both expand its footprint outside of Ithaca and reach a set of managers different from those who join our two-year, on-campus program. Acting quickly on a strategic initiative proposed by a task force in 1997, the Cornell Executive MBA (CEMBA) program was launched in 1999. Thirty-two students enrolled in the first class of this 22-month program, which delivered courses taught by Johnson School faculty through a combination of residence sessions on the Cornell campus and alternate weekend sessions near New York City.

By 2001, the CEMBA was successful, experiencing strong enrollment growth, and had moved to the IBM Executive Education Center in Palisades, N.Y., for weekend classes. That year, Queen's School of Business in Canada approached the Johnson School with a proposal to create a joint Executive MBA program to be offered in both the United States and Canada, simulataneously expanding the reach of both universities while responding to the growing demand for EMBA programs. Queen's University is one of the most prestigious universities in Canada, and Queen's School of Business had long been a pioneer in EMBA programs delivered through simultaneous, interactive videoconferencing technology. It had unparalleled success using this technology to forge a program that was unique in the world. Beyond this strategic fit, Queen's promised to be an excellent partner in other respects. For example, in 2004, and again in 2006, BusinessWeek ranked its full-time MBA program as the best international MBA program in the world (outside of the United States).

vp_gragh The Johnson School's executive MBA programs have seen steady growth since their inception. The Cornell Executive MBA, launched in 1999, serves participants in the New York City area. The Cornell-Queen's Executive MBA program serves participants throughout the United States and Canada; the program's growth trajectory reflects its broad and ever-expanding geographic reach.

In 2004, the Johnson School and Queen's School of Business launched the Boardroom Executive MBA program, later rechristened the Cornell-Queen's Executive MBA program (CQEMBA). The CQEMBA delivers instruction to "Boardroom Learning Teams" of five to nine students in small-group settings on three Saturdays per month through state-of-the-art, interactive videoconferencing. The program begins in the summer with residence weeks on the two campuses, and continues uninterrupted for 17 months. Professors teach from the Johnson School's studio in Sage Hall, or from Queen's studio in Kingston, Ontario. Graduates of the program receive MBA degrees from both Cornell and Queen's universities. In 2007, 93 participants, spread across more than 15 cities in the United States and Canada, enrolled in the CQEMBA program.

Both EMBA programs offered by the Johnson School are designed to meet the needs of mid-career managers and professionals. Both have curricula that are lockstep, stressing general management rather than specialized, functional knowledge. With courses in all the functional areas of business, our EMBA programs provide the breadth of strategic knowledge appropriate for the general manager of an organization. Participants have the opportunity to customize their MBA experience when they undertake major projects, focused on new venture management and global business, which are built into the curricula. The Executive MBA Council reports that the average payback period for participants in EMBA programs is about 44 months. The overwhelming majority of our graduates report back to us that they experience significant advancement in their careers while still enrolled in the program and within the first year after graduation.

What's the future for the EMBA programs at the Johnson School? One option is to expand the number of sections for both the CEMBA in metropolitan New York and the CQEMBA. The CQEMBA has a ready-made potential for growth through expansion to U.S. cities where it is not currently offered. This year, the program opened new sites in Georgia and Texas. For several years now, the school has been actively considering its global strategy: What are the right ways to take Johnson School products and education into new global markets? The dynamic technology of the CQEMBA program provides one ready-made answer to the problem of international expansion: The program's videoconferencing technology enables the school to provide instruction to distant locations without the exhausting process of moving faculty around the globe. If faculty members can teach courses in Asia without leaving Sage Hall, we have a competitive advantage that will allow the school to expand its footprint even farther.

Few would disagree with Asimov or Hercalitus regarding future expectations for the change that managers will continue to face. Through its Executive MBA programs, the Johnson School offers established managers and professionals the leading-edge concepts and tools essential to succeed in this challenging, ever-changing environment.

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