Make time for professional growth

Michael Desiderio on how Executive MBAs are helping business executives develop in COVID-active times.

As business leaders survey the uncertainties post-COVID, self-development may not be first item on their agenda. Yet, perhaps it should be?

As I talk to working professionals in and outside of my network, I have been struck by how many of them are considering formal professional development. Whether C-suite or the frontline manager, all have been impacted by COVID-19. Is now the right time to be thinking about a roadmap for professional development?

Perhaps it’s not surprising business leaders are wondering whether they have all the answers and capabilities to navigate challenging times. Some may consider taking a few courses; others may think about how normalcy has been disrupted so much, that bolder steps are needed.

Executive MBA (EMBA) programmes seem well suited to this latter group. Enrolment in these courses has been solid for years. The most recent Executive MBA Council (EMBAC)’s 2019 Membership Programme Survey showed a 31.6% increase in people applying for EMBA programmes since 2015, the highest yet.

Working professionals need much more cross-disciplinary guidance as the push to integrate AI into business confronts ethical challenges

While the lockdown may have paused new enrolments earlier this year, business schools are beginning to see students return in good numbers as courses are taught online or in a hybrid format.

For senior managers, EMBA programmes are more suited to their pattern of work and unlike traditional full-time MBA programmes, are aimed at working professionals who have progressed in their careers and are looking for a qualification that can help them reach the next step.

The typical EMBA student is 38 years old with an average of 14 years of work experience and nine years of management experience. Like full-time MBA programs, most EMBA programmes last for under two years (20 months on average).

Because of the significant work experience of those attending EMBA programmes, the level of discussion in the classroom, virtual or otherwise, tends to be of a higher level.

Whether pre-COVID, post-COVID, or even now during COVID-active times, EMBA students interact with each other throughout the programme, enabling them to improve their teamwork skills, their leadership acumen,  and build a valuable network they can tap into for years after they graduate.

While this is moving online or happening in socially distanced settings, the working professionals in EMBA programmes come from a variety of backgrounds, industries and organisations creating a learning environment which is difficult to replicate elsewhere.


Since EMBA programmes are focused on accelerating professional growth, they offer relevance to current workplace challenges making the student an even more valuable asset to their organisation. A great example of this is EMBA courses that cross-fertilise often divergent disciplines to give students insights that are immediately applicable.

For example, one business school teaches an Improv for Leadership an EMBA course that transfers improvisational theatre techniques into business life. This better prepares students to manage the unexpected – an almost daily experience in today’s business world.

The need to dig deeper into finding answers extends to how business managers are being asked to re-think business models around greater use of automation and artificial intelligence; another trend accelerated by the pandemic.

Again, working professionals need much more cross-disciplinary guidance as the push to integrate AI into business confronts ethical challenges about job losses and decisions being made without human intervention. 

Research into how 20 global business schools are answering a surge in demand for AI studies is that courses are looking at integrating inputs from departments like computer science, philosophy, and sociology. 

According to the same research, the focus on the conceptual is complemented by the importance of hands-on experience with AI itself. This also reflects a need for students to unpack the hype around AI and give them the opportunities to see how humans and AI can work together, plus work with the tools themselves.

The latter is valuable for leaders who need to grasp the issues of AI ethics and bias, as well as understand the human in the machine angle of training and retraining AI.

The importance of these EMBA programmes to how businesses seek to return to stability and growth is exemplified in some of the course content which was emerging pre-COVID.

For example, at Kellogg, the school added a ‘human machine learning program’ where students explore the intersection of cutting-edge tech and strategic human decision making. Other institutions have classes like: digital transformation; AI strategy; and digital immersion. All these topics speak to the urgency of how to do business well before, during, and after COVID-19.

Enrolling in an EMBA programme to respond to today’s uncertain business environment is not a decision for the faint of heart; EMBAs are rigorous and intellectually demanding. However, EMBAs are particularly valuable for working professionals seeking growth and the opportunity to gain new perspectives in perhaps the most uncertain of times ever.


About the author

Michael Desiderio is executive director, EMBA Council


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