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Working executives such as James Rutherford get an up close and personal view of international business by taking a global executive MBA. Mr. Rutherford, at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, has been to China as part of his GEMBA program.Moe Doiron

On the morning of Nov. 10, 2017, James Rutherford, a design firm associate from Toronto, woke up bright and early while on a trip to China. On the agenda that day? Visiting a stretch of the Great Wall of China about two hours north of Beijing where he was staying.

The China trip was a requirement of his global executive MBA (GEMBA) program offered by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Mr. Rutherford and a group of other student executives were set to take some time off as tourists and visit the Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square that day. Yet when the tour bus eventually arrived at the entrance to the Mutianyu section of the wall, it was barricaded by heavily-armed security.

“It was because Melania Trump was at the wall that day for a photo opportunity,” he explains now. Indeed, when his group arrived to park, the U.S. first lady was strolling along a tract of wall for about a half hour, surrounded by aids, security and the press. “I remember thinking, ‘Of course we get blocked by the president and his group.’”

The irony of the moment didn’t go unnoticed. In an era when physical border walls are tearing political systems apart, university business schools around the world are embracing globalism by encouraging students to travel and get a close-up view of other countries and their cultures.

“We recognize that to be successful, every country and every economy has to trade across nations and borders,” says Brian Golden, vice-dean of MBA programs and the co-academic director for Rotman’s GEMBA program. “All around us, we see countries building walls. This program is intended to build bridges across nations, corporations and cultures.”

Now the school is creating an even tighter relationship with other cultures by launching a new, combined GEMBA program with Bocconi University’s SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy. Students earn two credentials: an MBA from Rotman and a global executive MBA from SDA Bocconi. Rotman has already started accepting applications for the program, which will begin in October of 2019 in Toronto before moving to Milan the following month.

Like other international executive MBA (EMBA) programs, students from around the world take time off from work to travel with faculty, often every few months for a week or a couple of weeks at a time. Meanwhile, they work on class assignments together remotely between jaunts. The programs are designed for working professionals so there’s no need to leave a job to study.

Ferdinando Pennarola, a management and technology associate professor at Bocconi University and the director of the SDA Bocconi global EMBA program, says adding a international component to an EMBA program is needed more now than ever. He lists off the challenges many businesses face – potential trade wars and tariff discussions, among others. To navigate these choppy global waters, it’s important that companies employ managers who have a deep understanding and respect for other cultures. Travel to other countries allows them to stop, learn and reflect.

“We need wise leaders who understand the big picture,” says Dr. Pennarola. “They have to be equipped to understand it.”

The GEMBA program Mr. Rutherford is taking has meant he has travelled to places as far flung as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Delhi, Budapest, Milan, San Francisco, and Sao Paulo in Brazil. In early 2019, he travelled to his final two destinations, Johannesburg and Dubai, where he could work within sight of the Burj Khalifa, the famed skyscraper. He’ll be finished with all the modules this April.

Although the students have been known to play tourist when they visit each country, most of the time is spent working and visiting local businesses. Mr. Rutherford maintains that the courses dealing with diversity, empathy and compassion were strengthened while exploring other countries. He was able to take theories and turn them into practice, and maintains that he’s already seeing an impact on how he now approaches his work in Toronto.

As Mr. Rutherford’s experience shows, it’s not only executives in large corporations who sign up for global business programs. Steve Foerster, faculty director for the EMBA program at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont., says that everyone from leaders at financial institutions and mid-sized companies to entrepreneurs, not-for-profit managers, and even medical professionals and lawyers, have taken their courses that expose them to places such as China and Vietnam.

“It’s quite a cross-section, which makes for a really enriched experience,” he says.

Learning side by side with other business leaders from around the world helps to foster relationships, but so does stepping out of the classroom or company boardroom and kicking back outside of school hours. Those moments of shared relaxation offer deeper bonds and networking opportunities, says Andrew Gemino, associate dean of graduate programs at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C. The school offers a global EMBA, too, that incorporates travel to Mexico City, Nashville, Tenn., and Sao Paulo.

He says the students go to parties and have dinners at host students’ homes. (He calls Sao Paulo “pretty intense.”)

“It’s not about just working with these people at a hotel. You get to see executives with their families, relaxing and having a beer. That’s a really great way to get to know people and make connections,” he says.

Plus, students get to learn the ins and outs of each country’s culture firsthand and can figure out how to deal with culture clashes before they become problematic, says Dr. Gemino.

For example, “We now know that for Brazil, deadlines aren’t so important,” he says.

Although Dr. Gemino says he’s only ever heard alumni rave about the international EMBA programs, he is quick to point out that it isn’t for everyone. Getting away from work to travel for weeks at a time can be tough. So is saying goodbye to family, particularly if children are still young.

“My wife is a superhero,” Mr. Rutherford admits, mentioning that his spouse has taken on more of the work at home and the caring of their young daughters since he started travelling 17 or 18 days for each trip with the Rotman school. His brother-in-law is now living with the family, too, and pitches in to help.

“He’s not allowed to leave before I finish the program,” Mr. Rutherford jokes. “We’re keeping him captive.”