What an Executive MBA Is and Reasons to Get One

Seasoned business leaders sometimes come to a realization that, although they are already experienced managers, there are aspects of business that they wish they understood better.

Executives who are interested in increasing their leadership skills sometimes make the time to attend a graduate business program, despite their busy schedules and heavy workloads. However, because these full-time managers have significant work experience and already understand the essentials of business, they often desire advanced business courses that delve into the intricacies of various management challenges.

As a result, they often prefer grad business programs called executive MBA programs that are designed for leaders like themselves.

What Is an Executive MBA, or EMBA?

Unlike the traditional full-time Master of Business Administration programs that ambitious young professionals often choose, executive MBA programs tend to focus less on business basics and more on the nuances of business. While a conventional MBA may prepare someone to enter a management career, an EMBA is intended to teach a current leader how to be a more effective manager.

According to the Executive MBA Council, or EMBAC, a nonprofit coalition of business schools that offer executive MBA programs, the average executive MBA student is 38 years old and has about 14 years of work experience, including roughly nine years of management experience. Because this type of student tends to have significant work obligations, EMBA course schedules are designed to accommodate demanding jobs, with classes often occurring on weekends and weeknights.

“These are programs that are designed so that working professionals can fit them into their lives, so you’re not going to go on campus during the day four or five days a week,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of EMBAC. “There’s a myriad of formats: everything from meeting monthly for three immersive days to meeting biweekly for one or two days.”

Desiderio notes that EMBA class sessions often last for long stretches of time, which allows coursework to be compressed into a fewer number of days than a full-time MBA program often requires.

He says the academic diploma that EMBA students receive after finishing their program is typically identical to the credential granted to full-time MBA students – a Master of Business Administration degree. Schools include the word “Executive” in the formal degree in rare cases, a practice more common in Asia than in the U.S., Desiderio adds.

“The degree is the degree,” he says, noting that the primary difference between a full-time MBA and an EMBA program is the type of student that the program targets. Desiderio notes that an EMBA program is tailored to the needs of experienced business people who want to continue their careers while they pursue graduate education.

What Is the Cost and Payoff of an EMBA?

The price of an EMBA tends to be substantial. The average cost of an EMBA, according to EMBAC’s 2019 Membership Program Survey, is £82,796. However, many business schools charge significantly more than the average rate. Among the ranked EMBA programs that were evaluated in the U.S. News Best Executive MBA Programs rankings, the price of an EMBA often exceeds £100,000 and occasionally – in rare instances, at highly prestigious B-schools – the cost surpasses £200,000.

Some EMBA students are fully or partially sponsored by their employers, while others finance their own education.

It is more common now than in the past for EMBA students to self-fund their education, according to EMBAC. In 2019, nearly 53% of EMBA students were paying for their own degrees, up from 41% in 2015.

Although full corporate sponsorships for EMBA students are rarer than they used to be, the demand for an EMBA is increasing, according to EMBAC, which notes that the number of applications to EMBA programs was 31.6% higher in 2019 than in 2015.

The average EMBA grad received a 13.5% increase in compensation between the start and end of their executive MBA program, according to the 2019 EMBAC Student Exit Survey. Moreover, during their EMBA education, 40% of students received a promotion.

How Executive MBAs Compare to Other Types of MBAs

The topics covered in executive MBA coursework tend to mirror those of traditional MBA programs, Desiderio says. “The core curriculum, for the most part, is the same,” he says. “You’re going to take accounting and finance and all the things you would think of in a traditional sort of MBA.”

However, an important distinction between a traditional MBA and an EMBA is that the classroom discussions sound and feel different, Desiderio notes.

“The level of discussion, when it comes to business cases, tends to be at a higher level (in EMBA courses),” Desiderio says. “People just have more real-world experience.”

Greg Hanifee, associate dean of the Executive MBA Global Network at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says the business school offers some courses that only EMBA students can take.

“We offer an array of electives available exclusively to Executive MBA students: 52 electives in 14 countries and across 5 continents,” Hanifee wrote in an email.

Kellogg’s executive MBA electives include courses on a variety of topics, including a class on the causes of leadership successes and failures.

One advantage of an EMBA, Hanifee adds, is that students can immediately apply the lessons learned in class at their workplaces.

“We work hard to teach what is theoretically proven with what is practically applied,” he says. “For example, we have several courses that address customer needs and marketing frameworks that students often incorporate into their jobs the next day. Similarly, there are students that walk away from our Mergers & Acquisitions class and are ready to build their companies or create a leveraged buyout.”

Patrick Sweeney II, an entrepreneur with an MBA degree who serves on the board for the business school at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, says the primary difference between executive and traditional MBA programs is the cohort of students in the programs.

Executive MBA students are typically trying to polish the job skills they already possess, Sweeney observes. In contrast, full-time MBA students are often either attempting to lay the foundation for obtaining a leadership position or are attempting to switch careers by – for instance – moving from banking to entrepreneurship, he says.

“Practically, the difference is that a full-time MBA is as much about the journey as the destination, whereas an executive MBA is very specifically about meeting a couple of goals, really, in the quickest amount of time,” says Sweeney, who previously served on the board for the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. He wrote the forthcoming business book, “Fear Is Fuel: The Surprising Power to Help You Find Purpose, Passion, and Performance.”

Sweeney notes that executive MBA programs are demanding but rewarding. He warns prospective executive MBA students that they will have significantly less time for personal hobbies when they are executive MBA students. “They should expect that, during the time that they are doing this, it’s not the time to be starting a business or planning nomad vacations,” he says.

Hanifee describes the time commitment for the EMBA program at Northwestern as serious. “Students can expect to spend four to five days in class per month, and an additional four to five days per month outside of class on activities like homework, group work and studying.”

According to Desiderio, most executive MBA programs are year-round. He notes that an EMBA differs significantly from a part-time MBA because in a part-time program, “you can go take a class, maybe take a semester off, come back (and) take another class when it’s conducive to your schedule,” Desiderio says.

That kind of flexibility is not usually available in an executive MBA program, he says. “These are lock-step programs, meaning you start with a group and you end with the same group. In between, you might take a different elective, but you’re with that same peer group for the bulk of the program, which is different than a part-time MBA program.”

Cheri DeClercq, assistant dean for MBA programs at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business, notes that EMBA programs typically last 18-24 months. “EMBA students routinely indicate that the knowledge and networks they gain in an EMBA position them to make a bigger, better and broader impact inside their organization,” she says.