Where you study your MBA is important, but only if you get the right experience

For most ambitious managers "global" is a buzzword that needs to appear somewhere on their CV. But finding the most effective way of gaining your global stripes isn't easy. Should you go abroad to study for an MBA, opt for a programme that includes an overseas exchange or choose one of the more recent - and more expensive - global MBAs run by groups of business schools?

For most ambitious managers "global" is a buzzword that needs to appear somewhere on their CV. But finding the most effective way of gaining your global stripes isn't easy. Should you go abroad to study for an MBA, opt for a programme that includes an overseas exchange or choose one of the more recent - and more expensive - global MBAs run by groups of business schools?

But whichever you pick, Terence Perrin, a director of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), says it's important not to become seduced by the glamour of studying abroad unless it's part of your long-term career strategy. Many large companies , he says, rate any kind of MBA strictly in terms of its relevance to a job.

"The most important thing from a recruitment point of view is tangible work experience. If there's a really meaningful, meaty project that they've been involved in as part of the MBA that carries most weight." He adds that the best way of choosing how you will gain global experience is to decide what you want to be doing three or five years after your MBA: "You have to think through to that endpoint before you start."

Once you've fixed on a long-term plan you have three options. The first - deciding to move to a foreign country to study for a full-time MBA - shows a high level of commitment which some employers will find compelling. It can also increase your chances of obtaining a job in that country or give you a deeper insight into an industry or company that has strong ties with a particular geographic area.

Francois Kolb, Director of MBA programmes at the European School of Management, ESCP-EAP, which has campuses in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Turin and London, says many students underestimate the problems of obtaining a job in a foreign country. "But if someone really wants a job in another country they will get it - it just might take a year longer than for local MBAs," says Kolb.

Kolb says that when looking at an overseas MBA - in whatever form - it is important to make sure that the teaching approach offers something new. Names like Harvard and INSEAD, the Fontainebleau-based international business school, carry enormous prestige and the opportunity to build a global network of future contacts. But their critics argue that high profile programmes are not necessarily as global in content as they could be.

"The course needs to be designed and organised to get the best out of the local context. Otherwise it's irrelevant whether you're in a classroom in Paris or Harvard," he says.

The European School tries to offer this local approach by building links with institutions "on the ground". In the Indian part of its European Executive MBA, for example, it relies on close ties with the Management Development Institute which is based just outside New Delhi. MDI arranges a 10-day seminar which looks at the issues global companies face when developing projects in India and organises corporate visits in Delhi and Bangalore.

An exchange programme on a traditional MBA course can offer a halfway house between the huge commitment of full-time study abroad and exposure to a different culture. But, again, Perrin of the Association of Graduate Recruiters warns that the relevance of what you do on the exchange is still key. "If you've finished a project and worked in groups of people from different nationalities, it's about selling what you learnt from them. But if it's fairly broad-brush stuff there isn't a great deal of advantage there."

China's growing economic importance is making it a popular player in MBA exchanges. Anwar Jappie, a brand manager for Unilever South Africa, chose to study for his MBA at Durham Business School partly because he could go on an exchange programme with the Chinese European International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai. Like many multinationals, his employer is interested both in China as a new market and as an investor in other countries.

A third option is a global MBA. This is usually aimed at experienced managers and is often divided into modules so that the student can study in several different countries while continuing with their day job. IESE, which has campuses in Madrid and Barcelona, offers a part-time Global Executive MBA for managers who have at least eight to 10 years' experience. The 16-month programme includes seven two-week modules in Spain, California's Silicon Valley and Shanghai.

London Business School was one of the first institutions to see the benefit of teaming up with a school in another country when it launched EMBA-Global with Columbia Business School in 2001. The schools believe they offer a truly global approach by recruiting students from around the world and by including a week in Asia when managers visit local companies and government leaders.

Since then, more and more schools have joined forces to offer global programmes. Rotterdam School of Management has linked up with top business schools in China, Brazil, Mexico and the USA for its OneMBA. The Trium programme, an alliance between Stern, London School of Economics and HEC in France also offers a North American/European mix.

These programmes tend to be more expensive than traditional MBAs (EMBA-Global charges $115,000, for example) and more students are being forced to fund themselves. Employers' reluctance to sponsor managers is probably due to economic uncertainty which Lyn Hoffman, Director Sloan and Executive MBA Programmes at the London Business School, feels is also making women think twice about studying for a global MBA.

"Sadly still, when women have reached positions of seniority for which they've had to work very, very hard for, if there is any sense of fragility in the workplace women are less likely to put their heads above the parapets and say OK I want this kind of development."

She adds that studying for a global MBA can also be more gruelling than a traditional programme. Because students are older, many will be struggling to balance family and corporate life with an intense study programme.

For LBS's Lyn Hoffman, where you go to gain your global stripes is not as important as who you mix with when you're there. "Whatever you do next, you're going to be part of the global market place and increasingly this is a global economy," she says. "You're going to have to be aware of what's going on different markets and I can't think of a better way of doing that than working side by side with other nationalities."

'I've become a much broader person'

Ernie Poku, 33, is the founder and CEO of Isohelix, which provides hi-tech ways of collecting and transporting medical samples. He obtained an MBA from Rotterdam School of Management. Sainsbury Management Fellows' Society funded his studies

As a self-employed drilling engineer in the oil industry, I'd been round the world but I'd learnt operational management rather than commercial skills. The internet was bringing down barriers and increasing the opportunities to work globally, but no-one was going to hire me to do anything other than drilling an oil well.

I considered London Business School but I'm from London and felt I had to go abroad. I didn't think the USA had the cultural variety I would get in Europe. An exchange programme is only good if you're not very well travelled or if you're interested in a job in a particular country. Rotterdam appealed because it was one of the top programmes in Europe and had students from all over the world. I was keen to become involved in the Dutch lifestyle and to get to know one country very well. The other students were a little bit older because British people finish their degrees very quickly.

My MBA experience means there is someone in most parts of the world I can phone to discuss a cultural issue. I've just been in Korea on business so I called a Korean friend and asked about the etiquette of business cards, presents and negotiations - just those silly things about how business is done and about which I didn't have a clue. I've become a much broader person after doing my MBA abroad and now I'm working in a company that, although small, is very global.

'It's given me exactly what I set out for'

John Collins, 40, is a financial analyst at Citigroup in London. He is studying on the Trium programme, an MBA offered jointly by New York University Stern School of Business, London School of Economics and HEC School of Management in Paris

I felt that after 15 years of IT I was too narrowly defined; I lacked that wider commercial frame of reference. Everyone's got an MBA and for a person of my age, from a financial background, it had to be either Wharton, Stern or Columbia. The thing that really swung it for me was the LSE which was offering more than just the nuts and bolts. They were looking at what's happening in the macro economy.

I chose Stern because I'm from a very working class background and Stern is a little bit more aggressive; it's not Ivy League. Its proximity to Wall Street is very important. At the time, the French element didn't seem important, but I really enjoyed the HEC experience. Its reputation in the world is so strong and anyone who's anyone in commerce in France goes to HEC.

Trium's faculty are stellar. I had some questions on financial modelling and I was able to speak to the best professor in the world. It's an awesome upside to be able to do that.

I like the fact that you're lifted out of your day-to-day existence and put in these places for weeks at a time. But it's a nightmare combining study and your day job. I haven't had a day off for two years. I can be working on my MBA at 4am before going in to work at 6am. My private life is non-existent.

I get the standard contribution from my employer towards the MBA but I'm paying most myself. Will I ever recoup it? I've no idea, but it's given me exactly what I set out to achieve.