The Best Advice For Executive MBAs

You’re only as good as your support system. Just ask any Executive MBA. Question is, how do you get your support system – your family, friends, and work stakeholders – to support you in business school?

Fact is, many EMBA programs are equivalent to working a second job. That means you’re going to be leaning on key people in your life. To pull it off, you’ll need a deft diplomatic touch. Two years ago, the Class of 2019 wondered how they could squeeze in graduate school without falling behind at work or alienating their loved ones. Looking back, they have some advice on how to leverage your support system to ease your load.

SET EXPECTATIONS AHEAD OF TIME

That starts with sitting down, managing expectations, and getting everyone on board. That’s what T. Robert Zochowski did after he enrolled at Columbia Business School. A project director at Harvard, Zochowski’s first order of business was setting boundaries with his staff so he could keep his time free.

University of Maryland’s Gretchen MacLeod

“I told my work colleagues that when I was in class, I would not be checking emails so that I could be fully present for the discussion. However, if there were urgent items, I would always get them done by putting in extra time in the mornings, evenings, or weekends. I was fortunate to have a track record and rapport with this team that allowed them to trust me in fulfilling this promise.”

Bosses, reports, and peers are only one side of the issue, notes Gretchen MacLeod, a non-profit finance manager. While earning her MBA from the University of Maryland, she enjoyed the support of two indispensable allies: her spouse and her boss. MacLeod’s advice? Be sure both give you the room to make education a priority.

“You must be willing and able to attend every class, to be prepared and to be on time,” she explains. “This is nearly impossible if the people in your life are not fully supportive. When deciding whether I should embark upon this journey, my spouse and I recognized this had to be a priority in our lives—like putting an addition on our house—and that it would consume our free time; she would need to step in more often as a parent and to deal with most household issues. My boss had to support my MBA to the extent that she catered to my workload and afforded me leave for class days.”

YOU CAN’T GO IT ALONE

Jameelah Melton applied a strategy of intensive planning and regular communication to help her through Duke University’s EMBA program. The consulting physician designed daily plans and empowered her team to take action in her absence. At the same time, the London Business School’s Alither Rutendo Paidamoyo Mutsago made it a point to carve out time for her family whenever she could. “I used to listen to audiobooks with my husband and kids during our morning school run commute,” she remembers. “We had debates about different subject matters. It aroused their curiosity and they felt valued.”

Coming together and sharing the load isn’t just a nicety. Ultimately, it becomes a necessity, warns Stephanie Tanous, who worked as chief of staff to a Fortune 500 CEO as a Chicago Booth EMBA student. “There will be days (weeks, maybe months) you just cannot do it all. You will need them to get you through those days.”

Once you’re done, adds Southern Methodist University’s Amy Byalick, don’t skimp on saying thank you. “Make sure to show [your supporters] gratitude and share your successes around homework assignments and testing scores. They were the biggest reason I was successful. I referred to my support group as “my Village”. I consistently remind these individuals (friends, family, teachers, etc.) that they are the foundation of my success, and I find ways to thank each of them individually.”

Among the Class of 2019, ‘Build a strong support system’ was the most common bit of advice to future executive MBAs. However, it wasn’t the only piece that they suggested. Each year, Poets&Quants reaches out to the top business schools to nominate students to represent them among the Best & Brightest Executive MBAs – the class members whose academic prowess and professional achievements set the bar for their peers. As part of the nomination process, P&Q asks graduates to share their best advice for future executive MBAs. Here are nine more nuggets to help make your time in business school more successful.

1) Enjoy Being Uncomfortable: “Be willing to stretch his limits and be open-minded. Contribute significantly especially during groupwork – to be an asset to the team and the class instead of a drag. Act with humility and curiosity so as to emerge from the program more enriched in thinking, with a broader perspective of the world and a greater sense of responsibility to effect positive change.”
Jennylle Sorongon Tupaz, University of Chicago (Booth)

Southern Methodist University’s Rika Kari

2) Make a Great Impression: “MBA programs are largely group projects and faculty are connected to executive teams across the country. If you don’t pull your weight or deliver bad work, your peers and faculty will begin to cement impressions about you that could cost you opportunities in the future. By being easy to work with and delivering high quality work, you may find yourself being invited to projects or recommended for job offers often unsolicited.”
Rika Kari, Southern Methodist University (Cox)

3) Live In The Moment: “At 3 p.m. on the Thursdays of each class weekend, I leave my home for the campus in Austin. For about 60 hours, I maintain 100% focus on my studies and my peer relationships. When I return home at 8 p.m. Saturday night, my books are closed, and I give 100% of my attention to my wife and kids.”
Israel Askew, University of Texas (McCombs)

4) Learn To Say No: “If your schedule is already fully loaded, something must give way in order for you to succeed in the executive MBA program. You should do this before the program starts. For my part, I was on two nonprofit boards and left each of them prior to entering the program. I also had to make adjustments once in the program, and say “no” to several proposed new commitments. However, making adjustments beforehand helped prevent having to make these adjustments midstream at an inopportune time.”
Chris Bellotti, Texas A&M (Mays)

5) Ask For Help: “I find most people in this program are overachievers and have not often been in the position of needing to rely on anyone.  Now you are going to need help with group projects in class, meeting deadlines at work and just keeping your domestic life in order.  It’s a lot to manage on your own. Don’t be too proud.  It’s a useful lesson to recognize that people want to help you too.”
Denise Carter, Wharton School

6) Don’t Neglect Your Health: “You need a high dose of energy so take time out to recharge your batteries. You need stamina and the will power to remain tenacious and focused on the ultimate goal. Getting top marks brings a self-gratifying feeling, but focus on the learning. Most importantly it’s not a race, enjoy the journey, you will miss it when it’s over.”
Alither Rutendo Paidamoyo Mutsago, London Business School

7) Put Yourself Out There: “Do not wait until you graduate to start pushing your personal goals and brand. As you are working your executive MBA, every assignment is also a chance to earn your “street MBA”. Go out and build your personal brand and network in order to create positive change in your professional circle and beyond.”
William “Prime” Hall, USC (Marshall)

8) Don’t Wait. Do it Today: “I think of the MBA as a concentrated experience that is all about you. Especially for leaders, there are few opportunities where you can learn and stretch yourself in such a safe environment. In an executive MBA program, you can make mistakes, learn from others, and break some bad or outdated leadership habits – and in their place, make new and better ones that will fuel the next chapter of your growth. While in school, everyone is invested in your success: the faculty, your classmates, the program and career offices. How many other times or places when you can say that?”
Wendy Ho, Emory University (Goizueta)

9) Remember What Really Matters: “Get really good at Microsoft Excel!”
Jenny Greminger, University of Pittsburgh (Katz)

DON’T MISS: 2019 BEST & BRIGHTEST EXECUTIVE MBAs                             or 15 BIGGEST MYTHS ABOUT EXECUTIVE MBA PROGRAMS