Executive Education or an MBA?

How the two education options vary substantially in terms of expectations and experiences

[Update: See Executive Courses, a new site oriented towards those looking to pursue executive education courses]

At a certain point in your career, you might find yourself trying to get a leg up in your current job, or develop new skills with which you can leverage in the workplace. Some people in this position pursue degree options, like an MBA or an EMBA, while some opt for executive education courses.

So, what's the difference?

Executive education, which is generally made up of short, intensive courses that help participants build specific skills, is an effective way for some students to enrich their skillset and promote career growth. Many top business schools offer a wide range of executive education courses, in topics ranging from leadership to soft skill development and negotiation.

However, executive education courses differ substantially from traditional MBAs or other degree programs, in terms of audience, experience range of participants, and even content.

According to John Board, dean of the Henley Business School, the different approaches are really based on the individual expectations and the goals of participants.

“If you take an MBA, you're committing a large amount of money and time for a qualification,” says Board. “And if you take an open enrollment program, it's much more operational – 'I need to know about x, and I've only got a couple of days to learn about it.’”

“It's more about the motivation for taking programs,” he says, “rather than the content.”

Executive education: a completely different ballpark from MBAs

Beatrix Dart, the associate dean of executive degree programs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management says that the distinction is really between general and specific skill development.

According to Dart, an MBA program helps students develop a wide range of general management skills.

”Executive education programs are a completely different ballpark altogether,” says Dart. “For skill development in a specific area, if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, then executive education courses would be perfect.”

A quick overview of the types of executive education offerings from top business schools show how precise these kinds of courses are in targeting a single skill or attribute. Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, offers a week-long course in “customer-focused innovation” while INSEAD offers a 9-day class in “strategic management in banking.”

These courses are designed so that participants can quickly and effectively focus on developing particular aspects of their skillset. Some executive education courses are also modular, where courses build on each other, and many programs will work directly with firms to develop courses addressing individual concerns and topics.

The surgical nature of these types of classes means that the cohorts can vary substantially from those of traditional MBA programs. Typically, those who enroll in executive education courses are older with a wider range of experience.

Nicolas Fahrni, a program advisor at Switzerland's IMD Business School, points out that while the average age of IMD’s MBA students is around 30, people who take executive education courses can range between 28 and 45 or even older if the courses cater to senior managers.

“Primarily, executives attending our open enrollment programs and the Executive MBA degree program are very experienced managers,” notes Viktor Lolev, another program advisor at IMD. “They aim at further developing their managerial skills, enriching their toolkits, broadening their outlook whilst still remaining in full time employment in their respective sponsoring organization.”

Indeed, because of the shorter time and financial commitments of executive education courses, companies will often sponsor employees to help them develop their skills and move up the career ladder.

According to John Board, a “smaller proportion” of Henley’s MBA students are corporate-sponsored, compared to participants in the school’s executive education courses. Viktor Lolev says that figure at IMD is around about 70 percent of IMD’s, although this percentage tends to drop during financial downturns, when companies have less to spend on employee education.

Either way, many of the same aspects of choosing an MBA program apply to choosing executive education courses. Potential students should look at quality indicators like international accreditations, alumni resources, and the experience of professors when making their final decision.

For more information about executive education courses, please visit Executive Courses: A directory of executive education courses from business schools everywhere.]

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