One of the most loudly trumpeted advantages of the executive MBA is the opportunity for people who are already successful and well established in their business careers to learn alongside those of equally high calibre from vastly different sectors and backgrounds. The current crop of people on the executive MBA programme at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge is probably as diverse as they come – it includes a former captain of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team, a British veterinary surgeon specialising in horses and a female Malaysian banker who is an expert in Islamic finance.
This diversity is exactly what the former All Blacks star Anton Oliver was looking for having moved into the commercial world where he runs a start-up that supports the alternative energy sector. "I wanted exposure to a broad array of occupations, so I was grateful that Judge makes a point of recruiting participants from very varied backgrounds, not just banking and finance. I feel I can contribute leadership experience from my time in the All Blacks and I recognise that I have just as much to learn from the senior managers and CEOs on our course."
Baljeet Kaur Grewal is one of the few bankers on the programme. Based in the Middle East, her peers' varied backgrounds was also one of the most appealing factors about this executive MBA. "This mix of professionals from across industries and continents creates an atmosphere which is exciting and intellectually stimulating," she says.
Julian Samuelson is also studying at Judge. "When they heard I was a veterinary surgeon, my fellow participants asked why I wanted to do an executive MBA," he says. "My stock reply was that I run a business just like them. Our practice near London has over 30 staff and a turnover of around £3m. I have learned something from everyone on my course in different ways. We have some very senior business people and it's been quite comforting to see that we face similar problems. You tend to devalue your own profession. Deep down, we all have the same insecurities, inadequacies and anxieties. The contact with this diverse group has also taught me a lot about myself."
Such a carefully orchestrated mix of professions is a hallmark of executive MBAs, says Simon Learmount, director of the Judge programme. "We don't necessarily only want to admit those with traditional blue-chip business backgrounds. This programme may be unique in terms of the number of people from different countries it attracts. We have 28 nationalities with people flying in for a study weekend once a month from as far away as Brisbane, Los Angeles, Moscow and Beijing. To challenge world views, you need to have internationally-focused people in the classroom."
Learmount admits that teaching these groups can be challenging. "We go a long way to offer them new approaches and ideas, but to get these very senior people to believe us, they need to have experienced voices around them confirming that there are many different ways of doing things in business. These people may be more likely to trust the judgement of their peers rather than our faculty, however clever they may be. So it becomes important that you have people with a range of experiences and global outlooks on the same course. You have to be able to understand other people's perspectives in order to solve your own problems. This is a very strong message to give them early on. The trick is to create an environment where the knowledge can be truly shared."
Placing a collection of highly motivated people together in this sort of learning environment is not necessarily a recipe for constant harmony. According to Adeline Daly, a programme manager in a technology company who is studying on the weekend executive MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, varying degrees of conflict have sprung up within her group. "It's inevitable that there will be personality clashes and conflicts in priorities while pressure is mounting at various stages of the MBA," she says. "For me, this in fact adds to the experience, as it is a microcosm for the situations you face in business. However, the MBA allows you to learn to deal with them in a relatively safe environment. I have come to see exposure to conflict as an added bonus outside the curriculum."
When Samuelson embarked on his executive MBA at Judge, he would have put course content first and the range and quality of fellow participants second in order of importance. He explains: "Now I've almost completed the programme, this order has been reversed. It's participants, with their breadth and depth of experience, that come first." He has also found that the opportunity to make connections at high level of business to be one of the major benefits of the executive MBA experience.
For Kaur Grewal, who flies from Kuala Lumpur once a month to take her classes at Cambridge, the personal and professional contacts that she has made have similarly assumed a great importance. "This is part of the allure of the executive MBA," she says.
However, to be worthwhile to the participants and their businesses, the insights from these intensive, highly demanding part-time courses must be able to translate into daily life. "The experience of working with such a diverse and clever group of individuals has made me much more aware of the possibilities that surround us in the business world, which we may otherwise leave untapped due to either ignorance or fear of the unknown," explains Daly. "The executive MBA has taught me different ways of working with those who don't share the same language, and the benefits of random conversations about how things are done in other sectors that can eventually lead to light bulb moments in your own business."