Best Advice For Executive MBA Students From EMBA Graduates

“When you’re ready to say no to everything else, you’re ready for business school.”

Todd Hellman wasn’t expecting such candor when he asked a friend for advice about business school. A self-described “social connector and cocktail enthusiast,” Hellman had spent the past eight years as managing director for Battelle for Kids, a not-for-profit with a mission to empower teachers and learners. Like many executives, he wondered how he could possibly squeeze an MBA into an already-crammed schedule. Sure enough, the 2017 Booth graduate found a way — but it wasn’t easy.

As he learned, saying “no” turned out to be the hardest part. It meant turning down invites to social events when he needed to spend nights and weekends studying. It also forced him to set expectations with loved ones that might seem cruel to those who’d never taken on the endless demands and agonizing sacrifices of MBA life. For example, friends would join him for a meal and then leave soon after so he could return to studying. In the end, restricting access and cutting commitments freed Hellman to thrive in one of the world’s most difficult business programs.

Emory’s Bill Fagan

“Understanding the “no” and adapting it to “no for now” or “no unless” helps balance the competing demands while making clear your priority – school,” he tells Poets&Quants. “While there were many good tips, this one piece of advice echoed throughout my studies and helped guide me to make successful decisions.”

YOU CAN’T DO EVERYTHING

There is an art to saying “no.” It requires diplomacy, honesty, and (most important) consistency. In business school, time is a prized commodity and its usage separates the fearless from the frazzled — and this year’s “Best & Brightest Executive MBAs” from everyone else. Of course, says Emory University’s Bill Fagan, there is no “how-to” book on time management. In Fagan’s case, he had to learn from trial-and-error. A COO for a $200 million dollar sports marketing group, Fagan admits that he tried to do everything as if he were filled with endless energy. After reaching his limit by the 75-day mark, he sat down with his employer and family to carve out a schedule that enabled him to give his all in every facet of his life.

“The key component of the schedule was that I dedicated one entire day (typically Friday) to MBA studies,” Fagan explains. “Then on the other days of the week, I would balance work and family. I learned to say ‘no’ at work to extended travel and ultimately cut back my travel 40% during the course of the MBA program. Losing my ‘Platinum’ status as a Delta Skymiles member was the best thing that happened to me.”

For Arizona State’s Brandon Bingham, time management involved less science and more dedication. The 29 year-old general manager of a 210 employee auto dealership, Bingham offers a simple maxim to would-be executive MBA students: Get ready to work. He admits that it can be tempting to take days off from studies, particularly when classes can be a week or more apart. The end result is far worse than just simply falling behind, he adds.

GET YOUR LOVED ONES ON BOARD

“You miss out on the application part of the course. Doing the coursework is one thing. Applying the coursework to your business is where the real value is. The only way to do that is to get out in front of the assignments. This will allow you to take the time to think about the topic and apply it.”

Emory University’s Angela Fusaro

That can be difficult when a student has a demanding boss, reports, family, and a mortgage. Something has to give, right? For IESE Business School’s Jean Cyrille Droin, the MBA experience called for him to scale back his workload by 30% to enjoy the full benefit of the program. In contrast, Lai-Ling Lee Rodriguez, who headed operations the Ottawa region of the Canadian Red Cross while she studied at the joint McGill-HEC Montreal program, suggests that prospective students hire a “cook, nanny, cleaner and assistant at work” to take over those chores that can quickly pile up.

At the same time, Northwestern’s Jeffrey Brunton urges students to make sure their spouse is on board with how their home life is going to change. “Your partner is going to do most of the parenting while you do your EMBA,” he admits. “Treat them well, and make sure you go into this with eyes wide open. Expect to the busiest you have ever been.”

Emory’s Angela Fusaro knows how this plays out all too well. A physician, professor, athlete, and entrepreneur, Fusaro regularly endured 18 hour work days during business school. How did she make it through this gauntlet? She had a supportive husband who would hand her a hot plate of food when she’d finally walk in the door. However, that wasn’t her only secret to success. “Eliminate all the noise from your life before you start,” she counsels. “You won’t have surplus emotional capacity anymore so I learned to be selective about what brings value to my life.”

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