You're never too old to learn

Senior executives have a lot to gain from returning to the classroom and networking

When John Haddon, 57, left a 22-year career in financial services in 2004, like many of us, he wasn't expecting the storms that lay on the horizon. One financial crisis later, he realised that, despite his years in the field, as an entrepreneur he was still lacking some of the skills required to navigate through choppy economic waters and a global business environment. "Although I'd been in financial services for a long while, I didn't have all that was required to 'speak the language'. I concluded that I needed to upgrade my skills," he recalls.

His solution was to spend a year on London Business School's Sloan Masters in leadership and strategy course, and his story is far from a one-off. While a full-time MBA is often seen as a way for 30-something professionals with some experience to further their careers, business management qualifications of all kinds also have much to offer senior executives who are already higher up the ladder. In fact, Masters programmes across the board regularly attract older, more experienced professionals. The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) reports annual GMAT test submissions from up to 1,300 over 50s.

Likewise, business schools see a broad age-range across many programmes, with some seemingly more suited to senior executives. "Our part-time MBA is where we would see slightly older students," says Dr Susan Balint, director of MBA programmes at Westminster Business School. "This is mainly due to a difference in life stages: many of those on the part-time programme are in positions where they can't stop work for a year."

Professor Amir Sharif, director of MBA programmes at Brunel Business School, reports a similar story. "A number of older and more experienced executives have joined and successfully completed the MBA programme, often with flying colours," he says. "Typically, such students want to ground their deep experiences in the context of the core subject disciplines in MBA study, while others are truly using an MBA as a third or fourth career move."

GMAC CEO Dave Wilson says that, as well as specialised qualifications like the Sloan Masters, senior executives could benefit from global MBA and executive MBA programmes. These tend to offer flexible study options, including distance learning, and present an exciting opportunity. "In some cases it's for sharpening skills, in others it's for picking up new knowledge, where an executive's previous experience hasn't covered a particular field."

Whatever course they choose, Wilson stresses the key element is "graduate management education, and providing the skills that the market needs. This in turn will make graduates very attractive in the job market."

Ian Pearman, CEO of advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and a graduate of Harvard Business School's advanced management programme, agrees. "I think formal business education is something all business leaders should now consider investing in, regardless of their industry. It has certainly contributed to my career, helping me to understand good governance, management principles and business ethics."

And the benefits to older graduates can go beyond this. "It's a wonderful opportunity to reflect on your own practice and experience," says Dr Kerry Sullivan, MBA director of Surrey Business School. "It encourages broader and more rigorous thinking."

There are also opportunities to develop vital skills that have only evolved in the past few years, says Wilson. "Social media is very much a part of what you need to understand. Literally, the jargon: what the hell does crowdsourcing mean, for example?"

Wilson raises the wider issue of communication as one of the greatest challenges facing business. How will senior executives communicate worldwide with a generation they haven't worked with? "Every generation communicates differently, and today's generation thinks dramatically differently too." Neither is right or wrong, he adds, but this is where education can form a common language between executives from different ends of the career spectrum; and it will make for stimulating exchanges. "Bringing that diversity into a single classroom gives you an incredible dialogue."

Executives can feel other benefits from this dialogue, says Sujata Madan, director of the MBA programme at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. "They will learn the latest in business thinking and equip themselves with a deeper understanding of some areas, while updating and enhancing their skill sets," she says, adding that spending time with younger counterparts "could lead to refreshing, novel ideas".

Working in study groups was a significant part of the experience for Haddon. "By the time you get through the whole thing, the bonds that have formed are incredibly deep, as is the trust that builds up with your classmates. They can be your fiercest critics, but your most staunch supporters. If I wanted some honest feedback, I know where I would go!"

Beyond learning new skills and networking, there are more practical reasons for older professionals to consider management education. With the retirement age drifting upwards and many senior executives remaining healthy and happy to work well into their sixties and beyond, two factors come into play, says Wilson: the economic imperative to keep earning and "the boredom factor".

"These things weave together," he explains. "You're going to live longer, need to drive more income, and you're going to be bored stiff." Gaining a management qualification might help on all counts, he suggests. "You're taking the skills you've gained in the marketplace and taking them to a new environment, and that's pretty exciting." Freshly graduated, there are new options, he says. "You've got the opportunity to be a coach or mentor; you're not on a treadmill aiming to be the president or VP in ten years. You're saying, 'I don't care what I am, I want to give you my life experience.'"

"What was most important was a desire to strike out in a different direction. One of the main things I got from going back to school was a belief in myself, and the confidence to give new things a go," says Haddon.

The future could see more programmes like the Sloan Masters, tailored to those with more experience under their belts, suggests Wilson. "There needs to be some innovative thinking around the structure of courses, maybe organising programmes for seniors that interact with younger programmes. Business schools need to be hot on this."

Wilson is adamant that senior executives should not simply think business management education doesn't apply to them. "Nothing strikes me as more dangerous than thinking you have all the answers. People should think, 'Maybe I don't know what I need to know to be a part of the new culture,'" he says.

For Haddon, who graduated last year and is now embarking on a range of entrepreneurial ventures including an art investment advisory business, it was the right step. "I'd absolutely recommend it. Better late than never!"

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