Executive MBAs: Rhyme and reason

Whether it involves poetry or role-playing, the executive MBA is an increasingly sophisticated course.
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The Independent Online

If Professor Jane McKenzie has her way, executives will soon be studying poetry as part of their MBA at Henley Management College. Using poets such as Robert Frost to open students' minds to new ideas is just one of the novel approaches schools are considering to inspire experienced managers.

Henley is one of several schools either relaunching their existing executive MBA or offering new programmes. Its latest course is a new distance learning MBA, which McKenzie prefers to call "blended" rather than " distance". That is because it has face-to-face learning as well as online sessions, says McKenzie, director of studies of the executive MBA. The MBA focuses on the greater levels of complexity and uncertainty that managers face as they become more senior.

"Essentially, the programme is built around the fact that the problem for all senior executives is they need to cope with dilemmas," says McKenzie. "They have many stakeholders, all of whom have particular interests and values which create dilemmas and ambiguity because people are interpreting rather abstract words like 'reputation' or 'relationship' in different ways."

The internet is one of the major factors driving change, she says. " Your reputation stands or falls on what people are saying. Your ability to make decisions is very strongly driven by their interests as well."

She has been using poetry in her work with a Government organization as a way of developing senior leaders and hopes to introduce similar workshops into Henley's MBA programmes.

"Exploring the ambiguity in a poem and the contradictions can help you learn to manage the discomfort before you go back into the situation where you need to make the decision."

Manchester Business School's "Real Life" Global MBA also aims to bring managers face-to-face with dilemmas in their working life. Students must have at least six years' relevant managerial experience and can complete the course in two to five years.

The programme tries to mirror today's corporate workplace by combining individual research, group work and face-to-face meetings. Professor Michael Luger, Director of MBS, says the new programme has a stronger curriculum because it's been written by the faculty. It emphasises the Manchester Method which includes placing students with real clients. "We're developing real-time, interactive components of educational processes, not just static business cases."

MBS isn't the only school to offer a mix of academic and real-life solutions. The Paris-based HEC has teamed up with the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal to offer an executive MBA major in aviation.

Durham Business School is building on the success of the executive MBA it already runs in Germany (see case study below) to link up with the European Business School for a two-year, part-time programme. It will focus on leadership issues such as strategic thinking and intercultural awareness.

Insead has also gone abroad for its latest offering. Its joint executive MBA with Tsinghua University in Beijing is aimed at international leaders. China seemed the obvious place in which to launch the new MBA because of its growing presence in the world and because of Insead's campus in Singapore.

Of the first 45 students over 30 per cent are women – compared to between 10 to 15 per cent on most executive MBAs. Insead has worked hard at pushing the percentage of women on its other executive MBA courses up to about 25 per cent, says Mark Norbury, director of the executive MBA.

There are three types of executive MBA student, he says: established managers who want entry into the "executive suite"; senior managers hoping to speed up their progress and the young managers who have great potential but who don't want to take time off work.

Stephan Chambers, MBA director at Saïd Business School, says that managers can take an MBA only when they can afford both the time and the money.

"They may be able to afford to resign and do an MBA but they may be too busy to do that."

McKenzie believes schools must adapt to fit in with executives and companies. "It's almost just-in-time learning, getting it done quicker and at the point of need – which is quite a challenge for any institution."

Doing all that without losing the poetry will indeed prove quite a challenge.

'It was a time-consuming programme, but my company gained a lot'

Dr Dirk Klonus, 40, is Global Registration Team Manager, BioScience at Bayer CropScience. This summer he graduated from Durham Business School's executive MBA with distinction.

"It's rare for someone in my company to do something like this. It's a time-consuming and tough programme – and expensive. But the company gained a lot.I wanted to learn about general management and I now contribute more to strategic discussions.

I manage about 30 people located in 12 countries and I wanted to learn how to manage in a remote situation. The answers came from different students who were on the course. This has been very helpful and refreshing.

It was tough trying to remember how to work towards exams. But my managerial experience made it easier for me than it would have been for young people who have no idea what it's really like.

I specifically liked the boardroom simulation. We were an international brewing company – I was CEO – and we had to work on a new strategy. There were some surprises – the chairman asked about a strike within one of the breweries in North America and how we were going to manage it."