Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Executive programs and ‘micro-learning’ can expand your leadership toolkit, but won’t necessarily fatten your paycheque.skynesher

During the pandemic, Hanadi Usman checked off an item from her professional development bucket list and successfully completed an online master of business administration (MBA) degree.

Ms. Usman, a 41-year-old project manager working in the health-care industry in Toronto, had put off pursuing the MBA for over a decade because she was wary of being burdened with student loan debt. She also needed a flexible curriculum that could accommodate the demands of a full-time job.

Even though her MBA degree did not result in a significant raise or promotion, Ms. Usman has no regrets about taking the plunge.

“My MBA degree has definitely helped me to understand business strategies, branding, sales and leadership because we had CEOs and executives from well-known companies share their experiences,” she says. “It was very interesting and I learned new ways of looking at things.”

However, while mid-career education can be valuable, it isn’t necessarily a shortcut to a more senior position, she adds.

“I have taken several professional certification courses during my stint in the financial industry because it was an expectation,” Ms. Usman says, noting that getting her MBA was a personal choice. “But [in] my experience, education doesn’t make a big difference when it comes to career advancement.”

As students across the country head back to school after Labour Day, education is likely top of mind for many in the working world. But is pursuing additional education worth it to further your career prospects?

Benefits of a ‘growth mindset’

Dr. Catherine Chandler-Crichlow, dean of University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, says that women who aspire to career success can benefit from having a “growth mindset” and an interest in lifelong learning. And that doesn’t necessarily mean getting another degree.

For instance, micro-learning, an educational strategy that offers short-form, stand-alone units of study, can help women who want to develop capabilities but may not have the time or money to pursue a full certificate program. Over time, each mini course can lead to a certificate, she says.

“Careers are changing due to changes in the workforce, environment, the pandemic [and more],” Dr. Chandler-Crichlow says. “It’s important for women to think about how they can obtain portable skills and knowledge that can be used anywhere and anytime in their career lifecycle.”

Katherine Parks, director of business development, Queen’s Executive Education at Smith School of Business, notes that many post-secondary institutions in Canada have courses designed for mid-level professionals because being an effective leader in today’s evolving business environment requires skills that go beyond the “traditional” leadership toolkit.

Today, leaders need skills such as influence, strategic thinking and decision-making as well as emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, resilience and empathy, she says. Women in particular can benefit from pursuing executive education – shorter format, non-degree courses and programs – because it can help build their confidence and connect them to professionals across a range of organizations and industries, says Ms. Parks.

“Sometimes women are reluctant to try for promotions or have been met with resistance in the past, but learning new skills, understanding a changing market or emerging trends and developing a more robust personal leadership profile can enhance their capabilities and bolster their confidence,” she says.

Does experience trump education?

That’s not to say that mid-career education is the only route to advancement. Jennifer Mackintosh, founder and executive recruiter at Glengarry Group Consulting, has more than two decades of experience helping her clients land senior roles within the sales and marketing industry. She says that when her clients land plum jobs, it’s usually because of their experience, references and ability to clearly articulate their accomplishments during the interview process.

These factors, coupled with work ethic, personality and resiliency are most important, she says.

“I’m much more interested in a candidate’s track record of historical success; what they’ve accomplished professionally in the past and how confidently they can step in and execute the job,” Ms. Mackintosh says. “In my world, once you have more than 5-7 years of relevant experience, real work or on-the-job training trumps a degree.”

Harsimran Kang, 38, works as a manager of technology adoption with a retail company in the Greater Toronto Area. She credits on-the-job learning as key when it comes to honing her skills.

“Every job taught and helped me to refine, improve and build on my skills,” Ms. Kang says. “The initial challenge was in understanding the nuances of the business, but once I was able to do that, I continually adapted and innovated.”

Ms. Kang has a bachelor’s degree in engineering (computer technology). Five years ago, she completed a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) course that gave her an understanding of project management methodology and introduced her to a new approach to managing projects and collaborating with team members. She says she uses the fundamentals in her work daily.

The Oakville, Ont., resident considered pursuing an executive leadership degree but abandoned the idea because it would mean juggling the needs of her family and managing a full-time job. Earlier this year, her company invited her to participate in an in-house leadership program.

“It’s my personal belief any learning you do will eventually give you returns at some point or the other,” Ms. Kang says. “But if you can’t apply what you have learned, then it’s of no consequence. A master’s degree can probably get your foot into the door of a company, but after that, it all depends on your performance.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at

Question: I am feeling very drawn to the freelance life. I like the idea of more flexibility and freedom and I think I could make some good money. But I would like to keep working for my current employer. It feels like a very tricky conversation, to convince my boss that it’s a good idea for me to quit and continue working for him on a contract basis. Any advice?

We asked Lissa Appiah, founder and career strategist at WeApply Canada Inc., to field this one:

I’ve worked with a few people who recently left their full-time employment to become freelancers, but I have not yet encountered someone who wanted to work for the same employer as a freelancer. That’s a unique position to be in!

There are a couple of things you may want to consider. Firstly, review the terms of your employment contract with this employer. Ensure no language in there precludes you from being able to work for the employer or their competitors following departure.

Secondly, your employment status as an employee and a freelancer are viewed differently in the eyes of the law. The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) has a great resource on their website that breaks down the difference between being an employee and a freelancer.

If you’ve considered all this and deemed this shift is doable within your organization, let’s talk about having the conversation with your manager. You would approach the conversation similarly to when asking for a raise or promotion, in the sense that you should do your research and outline the reasons why you want to make this move. You will have to convince them of why this shift is beneficial not only for you but for the company as well. Take stock of your skills and accomplishments and share how they can benefit the company. Additionally, it would be good to explain how you envision this transition will go.

If both parties decide it’s a good match, it will be essential to formalize things in writing. You may also need to establish some boundaries to make your manager and team know that you are no longer an employee. Also, consider your next steps if the conversation does not go as expected. Are you willing to walk away?

To conclude, I would encourage you to create a budget and start saving. Also, expand your network and have other long-term clients lined up.

Open this photo in gallery:

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe