10 Biggest Lessons From Executive MBA Programs

Iris Depaz isn’t afraid of shouldering responsibilities. Holding a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, Depaz serves as the country medical head in Australia and New Zealand for Sanofi Pasteur, a leading vaccine manufacturer. Her infectious energy has also made her a popular member of her 46 member EMBA cohort at IMD Business School, where she earned her MBA last spring.

“In the current global context, we need confident, humble, and inspiring leaders, who have the courage to ask the hard questions, make the tough decisions while actively listening and being empathic,” explains Maria Schmitt, the school’s EMBA cohort director. “We witnessed all these qualities in Iris.”

Iris Depaz, IMD Business School

These qualities were tested in 2020, particularly with Depaz working in the public health as COVID found its way to Oceania. As an EMBA student, Depaz learned to become “the lighthouse in the storm.” At the same time, she gained an unforgettable takeaway from Stefan Michel, who taught her about marketing, strategy, and innovation.

“Strategy is about making choices. Choices hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, you are not really choosing.”

This insight, Depaz says, revealed how her biggest strength may also be hindering her team’s overall effort. “For me this is about prioritization. A big part of my prior success had been due to my high capacity to deliver. The problem, however, is that I wasn’t making choices — I was doing everything! I realized this didn’t make strategic sense and was not allowing my team to work optimally. Applying this lesson to my team’s project prioritization and execution plans made us more efficient and we delivered higher quality and got more kudos for our efforts! Putting it more simply: Work smarter, not harder.”

The weight of real choices wasn’t the only epiphany gained by the Class of 2021. This spring, P&Q asked 100 EMBA graduates from nearly 50 top business schools to share the biggest lessons they gained from business school. From managing egos to recognizing limits, here are the lessons that stuck with this year’s graduating class.

1) You May Not Be the Best…and That’s OK: “Programs like this are filled with overachievers and individuals who have always been in that top 1% of 1% in some way. Being thrown into an environment where everyone is in that category is humbling to say the least. Add in the faculty who is in an entirely different class all together, and it definitely puts you in your place. What I have experienced in the program is that, once everyone lets their guard down and realizes that we are all in this together, really powerful work can be done. I try and bring this to my own leadership style at work by emphasizing the power in recognizing others for their contributions and reinforcing the idea that the best idea in the room is probably not your own. When do well, this attitude brings out the best in a team and creates an environment where people can really thrive.
Michael Greer, Wharton School

2) Support Each Other: “Ask for help when you need it, give it to others when you can. There is no way to get through this program on your own. Being able to identify and acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses makes you a stronger leader and teammate in any environment.”
Ida Posner, Columbia Business School

Philip Zhou, Columbia Business School

3) You Can’t Do Everything: “It may sound simple, but I learned that I only have 24 hours in a day, which means I cannot do it all. Business school opened up a world of opportunities, where I was able to learn more about different professional career paths and take classes in areas where I otherwise would not have had exposure. There are also countless opportunities to network and build community. There are always several events going on at once and it is just not feasible to be everywhere, so I learned to prioritize and use up a very finite resource which we call time.”
Philip Zhou, Columbia Business School

4) Your Ego Is Your Worst Enemy: “Beyond the educational part, the MBA is a personal voyage. The biggest lesson I learned is that my objective is not to prove that I’m right but to find a solution to the problems. This realization triggered profound changes in all aspects of my life. On a professional level, I feel that I’m a better leader and I’m more connected to the expectations and needs of my collaborators and colleagues. This is something that is clearly reflected in the performance of the projects and teams that I’m leading.
Eddison J. Moreno B., ESADE Business School


5) Apply What You Learn…Quickly: “I think my experience in business school has given me a stronger level of confidence in asserting myself as a leader. With such a strong program focus on leadership and organizational development, particularly in healthcare, I find myself fortunate to have experienced an environment where we truly were able to “learn on Sunday and apply those learnings on the job on Monday”. Drawing on the lesson of identifying alternate solutions, I firmly believe that we are responsible for developing and training the next generation of leaders and arming them with the tools, guidance and encouragement to think comprehensively on how to not only identify, but also solve problems.”
Tracey Volz, Cornell University (Johnson)

6) Zero Sum Produces Zero Results: “Early in the program, we studied different leadership styles and I learned that I tend to have a very results-driven approach to work, which means I can sometimes overlook opportunities to strengthen professional relationships. This lesson helped me shift my focus while I’m at work. I realized that when considering results vs. relationships, it’s not either/or — it’s both/and. This leads to better relationships and better results and happen to make work a lot more enjoyable.”
William Todd, Georgia Tech (Scheller)

Laura Payne, Duke University (Fuqua)

7) Share The Stage: “Speak up for yourself, and make space for others to do the same. Business school is full of big personalities and many varying perspectives and experiences. It is essential to hear them all, not just listen to the loudest voices. I am working hard to make it a point to check in with classmates and colleagues who may be less apt to speak up and share a dissenting opinion. I need to hear these opinions. We all do. We all belong in this space, and we all deserve to be heard. At work, I can be so focused on being efficient and getting things done, and I am learning to embrace the process more and checking in with my colleagues.”
Laura Payne, Duke University (Fuqua)

8) Business School Is the Start of Lifetime Learning: “The faculty members and classmates I met at the MBA program were professionals, but they have a strong desire to learn something and continue to explore new trends to make it theirs. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the movie, Intern: “Musicians don’t retire. They stop when there’s no more music in them.” Graduating from an MBA is not the end. I believe that it can be a great start for me again.”
Misun Yang, Indiana University (Kelley) and Sungkyunkwan GSB

9) Don’t Underestimate Yourself: “Almost immediately, I realized the diverse experiences I’ve had were more applicable than I originally gave myself credit for. If I remained comfortable and confident in situations where I may not have had all of the information, my experiences, leadership capabilities, and learned skills would maximize my ability to make informed decisions in high-paced environments. Over the past two years, I’ve really learned how to hone my ability to immediately apply this lesson at work to take on additional responsibilities, motivate individuals to get things accomplished, and truly understand the skills required to be a successful executive.”
Carissa Staples, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

10) Find a Way or Make a Way: “You will always have problems in life or business. Your job as a UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA graduate is to figure it out.”
Daniel Stetler Thorpe, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)


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