The Benefit of Executive MBA Programs

Students in executive MBA programs already have an average of 16 years of work experience. They are looking for information they can use instantly.

Donna Blackburn, director of the University of Alabama Executive MBA Program. Photo by Joe De Sciose

For many professionals, the corporate ladder can become a bit shaky the longer they climb it. The solid foundation of knowledge that kept things stable at first usually does not extend all the way to the top. Somewhere along the way, most people need some extra support in order to continue their ascent.

That business boost often can be provided through an Executive MBA program. These courses go beyond the traditional accounting and economics classes offered through regular MBA programs. Instead, they hone in on more specialized topics, such as leadership, ethics, negotiations and data analytics.

“It’s people who are looking to further their business knowledge and skills,” says Donna Blackburn, director of the Executive MBA Program at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business. “Maybe they’re taking on more responsibility as an employee, or they’re growing their business as an employer. Or perhaps they want to start their own business. We have people who are transitioning from active military service into industry. We get all different kinds of people who come into this program for all different kinds of reasons.”

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The one common component among the Executive MBA students is they are looking to increase their basic understanding of business. This is something that can be difficult to do while they are working, partly because it requires admitting there are things they don’t understand.

“Regardless of your industry, it is not very common for somebody who wants to advance in the organization to say, ‘I’m confused. I don’t know. I have gaps in my understanding,’” says Joe Collazo, assistant director of Graduate Executive Programs at Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. “But the reality is, regardless of where you fit within the organization, those elements of unknowing exist in everybody’s life. That simple dynamic of being guarded about what you don’t know leaves people suffering quietly with extended periods of uncertainty.”

Taking an Executive MBA course enables these people to get many of their questions answered. In addition to the class work, they are surrounded by other professionals who can provide some of the information they are seeking.

“Somebody in one of our classes will talk about how they don’t understand something. Inevitably, somebody else will say that they deal with that every day and they’d be happy to help,” Collazo says. “That interaction between students is an important part of the program. Students are able to fill in their gaps, not just with the academic theory and concepts from professors, but also through interaction with their cohorts.”

Younger students who are taking basic business classes often are simply trying to soak up as much information as possible, without knowing exactly what they will end up doing with it. That is not the case for those earning an Executive MBA degree. Blackburn says the students taking the course at Alabama already have an average of 16 years of work experience. So they are seeking information they can use instantly in their jobs.

“They want tools and knowledge that can help them immediately at their company,” Alabama business professor Brian Gray says. “So what they’re learning in class has to be something where they can see the value in it right away.”

Stan Harris is associate dean and professor at Auburn University’s Executive MBA program. Photo by Julie Bennett

Or as Auburn business professor and Associate Dean Stan Harris says, “They want to learn it today and apply it tomorrow. Every course is designed to do that. They don’t have to wait.”

Some of this insight has obvious benefits, such as the money-saving tips and tactics that can be learned in a negotiations class. “We’ve had students tell us that those classes helped them save tremendous amounts of money for their company,” Blackburn says.

But students also can gain knowledge that they might not have anticipated. For example, Alabama’s Executive MBA course includes a class about Excel spreadsheets. On the surface, that might seem to be something that people who are already in the business world would fully understand. But Alabama officials discovered that many of their students do not know how to use Excel in the context of solving real-world business problems.

“People know basic things about Excel, but they don’t know all the things that a tool like Excel possesses,” says Sharif Melouk, who teaches a course in spreadsheet analytics as part of Alabama’s Executive MBA program. “We teach about using all sorts of data in Excel, things like statistical analysis and decision modeling.

“After our first meeting, I’ll get feedback from students saying they took the material to work and created a new spreadsheet that they are now using to schedule better or to decide which project to take using this quantitative viewpoint. That’s something I routinely see from my classes.”

Most Executive MBA programs also include a week-long international trip, enabling students to gain valuable insight into the global business environment. Blackburn says during these excursions, the students typically will visit a wide variety of companies, help a non-profit with a business problem, and even assist on local projects, such as working in a community garden or painting a public building.

“This always takes place during their final semester, so they can quickly put into practice what they learned from these trips,” Blackburn says.

Executive MBA programs have evolved significantly since they were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Collazo notes that when the program began at Auburn, “We were still using VHS tapes.” There certainly wasn’t nearly as much emphasis then as there is now on such higher-tech topics as data analytics.

“The amount of data we’re dealing with is exponentially greater now than it was just 10 or 15 years ago,” Harris says. “We try to help our students understand how to get a clear signal out of all the noise in this data, and how to use that data to make good decisions.

“We’re also placing more of an emphasis on supply chain. In the old days, businesses used to keep tons of inventory and you didn’t have to worry as much about your supply chain. But now the supply chain is very crucial, both in understanding it and being able to manage it and appreciate how it affects everything else.”

The bottom line of an Executive MBA program is for students to learn how to improve their company’s bottom line. And in the process, help them continue climbing towards the top of the corporate ladder.

“It’s a demanding group of people who take this course,” Gray says. “They don’t just want the piece of paper at the end. They want the knowledge and the education that comes with it.”

Auburn University Executive MBA

Auburn’s Executive MBA combines distance learning and a series of on-campus residencies. Residencies provide a shared learning experience with a group of peers representing various industries.

Participating as cohorts are executives ranging from financial analysts to engineering directors. Below is an overview of the companies participating in the 2020 (graduation year) cohort.    

Cigna HealthSpring • Grossman Law Firm LLC • UFC Gym Franchisee • Baldwin County Board of Education • South Baldwin Medical Center • Republic Service • Craft Electric • U.S. Space and Rocket Center • Strata-G Solutions • U.S. Air Force • Madison Hospital • The Boeing Company • Blue Diamond Growers • University of California—San Francisco • Fast Spring • The Walt Disney Company • Winkelmann Flowform Technology • Aflac Group • Regions Bank • Southwire Company • Fidelity Investments LLC • Cox Communications • Redmond Regional Medical Center • Incomm • United Technologies’ Carrier Corp. • TitleCraft • Emerson Tool Company • TIAA • Sharonview Federal Credit Union • TechnipFMC • IP Soft • IvvRehab Pharmaceuticals • Lowe’s Company • FedEx Services • Marriott • Virginia Tech University • Northwest Administrators Inc. • Kohler

University of Alabama Executive MBA

• Founded in 1985
• More than 928 alumni
• 40 current students
• Average student age: 39
• Average student work experience: 16 years

The UA program has two variants:

Huntsville: Classes are held in a blended format with online instruction and face-to-face meetings one weekend a month for 21 months (5 semesters). Classes begin in August.

Tuscaloosa: Classes are all held in-class every other weekend for 17 months (4 semesters). Classes begin in November.

Student Demographics

68% Male, 32% Female

Current Undergraduate Educational Backgrounds

61% Business, 15% Engineering, 17% Liberal Arts, 7% Science

Click here for more info about the UA EMBA program and how to apply.

Cary Estes, Joe De Sciose and Julie Bennett are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes and De Sciose are based in Birmingham and Bennett in Auburn.

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