Executives with an edge: More professionals are pursuing MBAs

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Posted: Sunday, February 2, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:02 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

On the surface, Liz Durham-Ruiz and Josette Gordon-Simet don’t have much in common professionally.

The former is senior technical adviser at the U.S. Strategic Command, the latter, a physician practicing family medicine with Alegent Creighton Health. As different as their careers might be, though, they nevertheless share an advantage more professionals perceive as integral to their career development: an Executive MBA, or EMBA for short.

While similar to the more widely known MBA, or master’s in business administration, EMBAs are tailored toward working executives, managers and other business professionals. There are scores of EMBA programs across the U.S., with the 13th oldest in the country at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Founded in 1975, UNO’s EMBA program is the only one in the state accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

The 18-month program takes place on alternating weekends and is cohort based, which means EMBA candidates remain with the same people for the duration of their studies, with classes typically ranging in size from 20 to 22 students. Demographically, average candidates are 38 years old with 15 years of professional experience, including seven or eight at a managerial level. They tend to come from a 200-to-250-mile radius, commuting from as far away as Chicago, Sioux Falls and Des Moines.

Bill Swanson, the program’s executive director, said the program draws people from a wide variety of professional backgrounds.

“They represent a wide cross section of degrees including IT, business, health care and natural science as well as many others,” he said. “Less than 50 percent have an undergraduate degree in business.”

Dr. Phani Tej Adidam, executive management education professor and the director of the College of Business Administration’s International Initiatives, has been involved with the program for 17 years. He teaches marketing strategy, global management and international business strategy.

“Back in the beginning, most of the students were executives dealing with new responsibilities in the business sector,” Adidam said. “Now we have younger cohorts. They want to experience new ideas and are open to change.

“They don’t know what their specific options are, but they want to learn new skills. They are more proactive about finding new opportunities and more flexible with regard to their careers.”

Durham-Ruiz, who graduated this past December, is reflective of that trend.

“I wanted to broaden my horizons and my background in science and technology,” she said. “Sometimes in government you can get myopic and focus solely on what you need to get done. I had been curious at how business looks at different problems, and I wanted to be successful from a business aspect. I hope to bring to the job an extremely competitive advantage.”

Gordon-Simet finished the program in 2012 and is today associate medical director of Midlevel Providers at Alegent Creighton Health, a position she directly credits to having earned her EMBA.

“I chose to attend because of my decision to direct my career to medical leadership. The program allowed me to leave the bubble that is medicine,” she said. “It enabled me to think outside the parameters of my normal industry.”

Adidam said that having students with such widely divergent backgrounds work together is an important facet of the program.

“You interact with different people. People from banking interact with individuals in the health sector,” he said. “They enhance and broaden their scope through other cohorts. It’s tremendously valuable to have colleagues with other perspectives. Students learn from each other and other industries. We see this as a strength.”

Durham-Ruiz agreed.

“The program provides a tremendous opportunity to exchange ideas and see how classmates in different industries view problems from different perspectives, and the opportunity to network with colleagues and faculty is extremely important,” she said.

Swanson said networking with alumni is a key to students’ professional success.

“Once people are enrolled in the program, they have a huge network of professionals to draw from and contact,” he said. “Networking is huge with both the cohort and the alumni base. It’s a great advantage.”

In addition to traditional business coursework in subjects such as finance, management and marketing, UNO’s EMBA program features its International Capstone Project, which is for most students not only a program highlight but professionally transformative as well.

Students must complete a consulting project for an international business that involves conducting analysis on the viability of introducing a new or existing product or service into a foreign market, and they travel overseas in several different teams to make those determinations.

Projects are undertaken for real businesses, which engage UNO’s services just as real businesses hire consulting firms. Since the university founded Capstone in 1989, its EMBA teams have conducted over 90 projects in 39 countries for more than 70 business sponsors, which have included companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, American Express and Lucent Technologies.

Swanson said the Capstone Project does similar work to what a business consultant does.

“Students survey what’s needed, create a formal statement of work, perform site visits and write formal presentations,” he said. “The businesses pay for the travel to and from the countries. We really differentiate ourselves. We send our students in leadership positions. Our students work for paying clients and make strategic decisions.”

Adidam sees the Capstone Project as critical to the program.

“Quite a few students are born and brought up in the Midwest and have no experience abroad, or if they do, it’s international engagement on a casual level,” he said. “Capstone is a tremendous opportunity. Students do a real project for a real company that is paying real money. The report they submit will be acted upon. It’s a real life experience with international exposure in a real scenario with real careers on the line. They have to make huge strategic decisions and respond to the problem.”

For her Capstone Project, Durham-Ruiz traveled to India, where she engaged in a market entry project.

“It was an industry and area of business with which I wasn’t familiar,” she said. “It was eye-opening.”

Gordon-Simet’s team conducted a market-based study for a Fortune 500 company located in the Caribbean and similarly found the travel outside the United States enlightening.

“It opened my eyes to practical and business aspects outside my industry,” she said. “The best part was that it was completely outside medicine. It changed my paradigm because it shifted my focus from my day-to-day industry problems and made me think outside the box. You step outside your normal work environment and get a different point of view.”

An Executive MBA, of course, isn’t cheap. UNO’s costs $45,000, but it’s a concierge program, which means it’s a flat fee that includes everything — tuition, books, even catered-in meals during classes.

“We do everything,” Swanson said. “The students do the homework and take the exams.”

And while years ago companies often sponsored employees in achieving the higher degree, today the majority of students are self-sponsored. “The return on their investment is tremendous,” Swanson said. “People often earn promotions before even leaving the program.”

Both women have found the investment to be well worth it.

“In medicine, we are trained to perform our jobs as individuals,” Gordon-Simet said. “I am 110 percent more aware of what my colleagues can bring to the table now. My Executive MBA education has been influential in my current position, and since I completed my degree, the chief medical officer has commented positively on my growth. I paid for the degree myself. I would hope more people would consider it. It has provided more than the value of the tuition.”

Durham-Ruiz concurred.

“As I went through the different portions of the curriculum, I brought back what I learned to StratCom. Now I have a chance to step back and apply what I’ve learned more rigorously,” she said. “I believe education is something we do through out life. This degree will make you more valuable at any job. This kind of program makes sense. It’s a tremendous program, an outstanding program.”

For Swanson, the value of the EMBA is what it brings to people doing business in Nebraska.

“First and foremost,” he said, “we want to make sure that our students not only understand what it takes to be successful, they must also understand the nuances of doing business in a global economy and really understand the difference between how business is conducted in the U.S. and in foreign countries. An Executive MBA allows people to stay in tune with dynamics of world economy.”

Adidam provides an additional perspective. “Students receive a gamut of experience. They see how transformative this is and how they can leverage it into different perspectives. Students walk out with their eyes — and their ears — wide open.”

* * * * *

More options for an MBA in Nebraska

An EMBA might not be the right path for many professionals. But they still have other options in Nebraska.

For instance, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers an accelerated 11-month, 36-credit-hour master’s of arts in business administration, or MABA, that enable students to learn the basics of business from the same classes they would take to earn an MBA.

Sheri Irwin-Gish, executive director of communications and marketing in UNL’s College of Business Administration, said, “The accelerated MABA is designed for students who want a general business administration program that includes the rigorous study of all functional areas of business such as accounting, finance, marketing and management. Students … learn the basic foundations of business administration with a focus on the strategic business framework and the communication and teamwork skills necessary to achieve success.”

Gordon Karels, associate dean for research and graduate studies, added, “What we have is a professional MBA program online. It’s the exact same content as an MBA program in a different format.”

On average, students have 10 years of professional work experience. They represent a large range of professions.

“We have a wide cross section,” Karels said. “Students aren’t predominantly from Nebraska. We have a lot from the Midwest and from as far away as England.”

Like UNO, networking is a major benefit of UNL’s program.

“I’m always amazed at the networking between the students,” Karels saud. “They get to know each other quickly and develop their own networks.”

UNL also hopes to offer a full-time campus cohort program targeted toward undergraduate students this fall.

“It will be an accelerated master’s program in business that they will be able to add onto their BA degrees,” Karels said.

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