Event summary produced by the Globe and Mail Events team. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.
Executive MBA programs can be expensive, time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. But they’re well worth it, at least according to four successful executives who took to the stage at The Globe and Mail’s second annual EMBA Summit in September.
The event, organized for mid-career individuals considering executive education, covered key questions about EMBAs: What are the benefits? How can prospective students choose the right program, pay for it, and juggle work, school and life?
“I can’t lie, it’s a tough sled,” said Rodney Cheung, chief information officer with ObvioHealth, who participated in a panel of EMBA alumni. “The key is to prioritize...Some balls are going to drop and you just have to know that.”
Mr. Cheung embarked on an EMBA in 2017, financing it himself after years of saving. As an engineer, he felt he was being viewed solely as a “technical person" and not necessarily as a business leader. His EMBA gave him an expansive view of business strategy, boosted his emotional intelligence and taught him to how to be a better leader, he said.
“I would do it again, hands down,” Mr. Cheung added.
Elfreda Pitt-Hetherington echoed the notion. She found herself working in the banking sector with a degree in music. “I wanted to pursue executive leadership," Ms. Pitt-Hetherington recalled, noting an EMBA is a prerequisite for executive leadership roles at her company. She is currently senior director of omni-channel and transformation with RBC’s digital engagement centre.
Ms. Pitt-Hetherington was partially reimbursed by her employer for her EMBA, which she earned in 2014. She financed some of it herself through the federal government’s Lifelong Learning Plan, which allows withdrawals of up to $20,000 from a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) without penalty to pay for education. The money must be repaid to the RRSP within 10 years. She has since moved into progressively more senior roles at RBC.
The panel also featured Cecile Chung, general counsel and corporate secretary with Samuel Group of Companies, a metals distributor and manufacturer in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, China and Australia. Ms. Chung pursued an EMBA in 2017, primarily to understand business and finance beyond her legal perspective.
“I was getting boxed in as ‘the lawyer’,” Ms. Chung said, recalling her inability to grasp business concepts in meetings with other executives. Citing a math phobia and lack of knowledge about financial concepts, she also wanted a “safe environment” to develop these skills. Her EMBA program proved to be a supportive place to layer on executive skills, she added. Fortunately, her employer paid for her EMBA.
During the program, she was tasked with expanding the company’s business in Mexico and was able to draw, in real-time, from her EMBA courses and group work to successfully steer the project. “It was a lot of lightbulbs going off...seeing all the connection points,” she said.
Companies who pay for employees’ EMBAs are in the minority, noted Michael Desiderio, executive director of the EMBA Council, a global association representing EMBA programs around the world. “You’ve got 15 per cent who fully reimburse and 31.8 per cent who reimburse partially,” Mr. Desiderio said during the event.
EMBA programs can cost in the range of $100,000, so the EMBA Council conducts research on the return on investment. According to its 2017 data, 72 per cent of EMBA alumni say the degree had a significant impact on their career. Five years out from their degrees the average salary increase was 28 per cent, Mr. Desiderio noted.
That payoff is important given EMBA students hold down full-time jobs during the program, investing hours of classroom and homework time. For Spencer Orr, a rigid routine throughout the 18 months helped to balance work, school and life. Friday nights were always reserved for family. He devoted early mornings to his EMBA before heading to work, then spent more time on school in the evenings.
“I stayed in the moment,” said Mr. Orr, President of Canada Goose Innovation Lab. He focused on work while at work, family while with family, and school while in class. Canada Goose fully reimbursed his EMBA and Mr. Orr said it has boosted his executive management abilities.
“I find myself slowing down. I used to be very decisive - solve a problem and move on to the next one," he reflected. His EMBA taught him to collaborate, ask the opinions of others. “It has made me a better leader.”
All four panelists were unanimous on the benefits of being part of a group. EMBA schools typically organize students into cohorts, who stay together throughout the program. Students typically get to know each other on a deep level, staying in contact long after the program is completed.
“You create an intense bond with your cohort...you’ve been through the trenches,” Ms. Chung said.
As for choosing the right program, Ms. Chung, being part of an international enterprise, chose the Kellogg-Schulich EMBA for its global focus. Mr. Orr attended EMBA lectures to get a feel for the dynamic before settling on his program at Ivey. He also looked for a program with heavy case-study content. Ms. Pitt-Hetherington selected Queen’s and Mr. Cheung chose Rotman, in part due to its Creative Destruction Lab - an appealing facility for a tech-minded professional.
The speakers agreed EMBA degrees have enhanced their careers and transformed who they are as leaders. Given it’s a big decision, they advised potential students in the audience to do their research on why, when, how and where before taking the EMBA leap.