Your Executive MBA: what you need to know

Considering an Executive MBA or graduate school?  These tips, that I recently published on LinkedIn Pulse, will help you make the most of the experience.

Recently I have found myself consulting with professionals looking for career advancement, professional credentials, and the insight that comes from an executive MBA program.  I went through the same decision making processes myself and have been happy to share advice on how to make the most of these programs.

1.        The class is the professor.  Choose wisely.

Executive education programs appeal to working professionals who have years of experience to bring to the class discussions.  As a result, you are likely to learn as much from your classmates as you are from the reading and the lectures in class.  As a result, the constitution of the cohort is critically important to the value of the program.  So, when you are deciding on a program, ask about who else will be in the class, what businesses or industries they recruit from, and what kind of alumni programs they have for graduates. 

And don’t forget the value of the post-graduation alumni network you are building.  I decided, for a variety of logistics and timing reasons, to choose to travel out of state to attend Pepperdine University’s executive MBA program, who operated a satellite campus in Santa Clara, California.  I’d fly every three weeks down to class.  Because of the location of the program in the heart of Silicon Valley, the program had a lot of technology companies represented.  This was great for me, as I had begun a career in high tech and had intended to stay in electronics.  However, I did miss out on networking opportunities with my classmates during our program and after graduation, because I lived and worked in Portland, Oregon, instead of Mountain View or San Jose.  I have kept in touch with many of my classmates, but not as closely as I would have if I had attended a program in the Pacific Northwest instead.  Some programs have well-developed alumni networks, that host events, share a job board, and offer opportunities to network and collaborate.

2.       Don’t wait to network.  Use the alumni association before you are an alumni.

One of the reasons that you are likely considering an MBA is to build a professional network outside your current employer.  It could be to broaden your business acumen to make a larger contribution where you are or possibly to make a career change.  In any case, the network of your classmates and program alumni is critical to that effort, but you don’t have to wait until graduation.

Ask the recruiter for the school for alumni references for the program.  If you are considering a career change, ask to speak to an alumni who used the degree or certificate program as a springboard to a new career.  If you are wanting to change fields (from marketing to finance, from engineering to marketing, etc), ask to speak to an alumni who found the program useful with their own career moves.  Not only will you start building your professional network now, but it will demonstrate to the recruiter your sincerity and resourcefulness and you are likely to learn valuable insights into program.  Be sure to ask everyone you meet with for their advice on how to get the most out of the degree program.  You are paying the tuition, so get the full education!

3.       Use your capstone project to further your career

Most executive MBA programs include some sort of capstone project.  Sometimes a team is asked to start a business.  Some programs have individuals or groups do a full strategic analysis of a business, along with their recommendations.  Some have projects that are presented to a panel representing industry partners, for feedback.  In any case, I would encourage you to think about your assignment as a platform for your career development.

For instance, if you are looking to make a career change to a new industry, pitch a well-respected business in that industry the opportunity to work with you on your capstone project.  They get free business consulting and you build your network and knowledge in this field of interest. 

If you are looking to gain more responsibility at your current employer, use the capstone as an opportunity to get to know different executives and leaders at the company.  For instance, if you are looking to make a move to finance, reach out to meet with the CFO and ask their advice about what finance projects might be worth your time and energy and offer to share the results with them and their staff.  You gain instant visibility, you position yourself as a go-getter, and you get valuable resume-building experience that will serve you in your next role.

When considering my capstone, I met with several from the management team at my company to get advice about where I should focus.  Looking back, I could have done more.  I could have gone higher in the organization.  I could have reached more broadly across different functions.  I could have used the project, or any class assignment or the fact that I was in the program overall, as an excuse (and a good one) to connect across the organization. At the time I was enrolled in my MBA program I worked at Intel, who had 80,000 employees worldwide, and having a strong internal network helped you get things done and find your next opportunity.  I see now, how I could have used the program to position myself as an emerging leader in the organization, even more than I did.  My advice is don’t leave opportunities like that on the table.

Students are afforded great latitude in the business community, so if you take the risk to ask for advice or for opportunities, I have found that people are generous and will join you in your efforts to better yourself and better their business.  Remember, you are helping them, while they are helping you!

An executive education is a valuable tool in your career.  The purpose of education, especially the traditional case method format that is popular in business schools, is to benefit from the experience that others gained the hard way: through trial and error.  You have a great opportunity to gain poise, confidence, to build your business vocabulary and skills, and build your network along the way.  You will be able to measure significant personal and professional growth as you progress through your program.  Identifying your professional goals is critical. Picking the right school is the start.  The rest is up to you!