Why the EMBA Matters

Not long after his arrival, Tony Chelte, dean of the College of Business at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, began talking about resurrecting the EMBA degree program. From all reports, initial response ranged from lukewarm to skeptical in most of the stakeholder groups, except for the business community. Perhaps business leaders understand what others whose view of business education is more theoretical do not: that a vibrant EMBA program is a critical part of a thriving regional economy.

What makes it so critical is the “E.” An Executive MBA means that the students are already established businesspeople with managerial, leadership or executive accountability. Their approach to their education will be informed by real experience, enriching and enlivening the learning. An EMBA also provides employers with a way to make a meaningful investment in high-potential leaders without sending them out of state.

So what is different about the newly launched EMBA? The traditional subjects of accounting, finance, marketing, economics and such are there, of course. But this new program leverages the experience of students as well as that of faculty.   Mirroring the life of students at work, projects and assignments are done in teams, with components integrated into the assignments from across the academic subjects.

Also key is that leadership and what are typically called “soft skills” have not just a place in the program but an ongoing role. This form of adult learning allows for deep practical understanding for students. And sponsoring employers see and can use the increased capability in both technical skills and managerial depth.

MBAs have had a bad run in both the press and the broader culture. The image of the soulless, greedy, self-absorbed Gordon Gekko clone has been our target of choice for taking out anger and frustration stemming from the collapse of financial markets to the current high rates of unemployment.

But things have been quietly changing in the MBA community. Initiatives such as the MBA Oath have been taking root as a way to integrate into business leadership the need for ethical self-oversight and care for the larger community.  I am not talking about altruism here, but instead a more sustainable form of capitalism. Here again, I trust the EMBA as a catalyst for such self-regulation, simply because those students have been leading somewhere and likely already have experienced the impact of their own actions. And after all, experience is still the best teacher, at least where there is a willing pupil. I can tell you from my experience with the class that our conversations about leadership, team performance, coaching and governance show a level of sophistication that only a few years of managerial experience will engender.

The EMBA has one other asset that reinforces its “real world” value. The initial class is diverse, not only in the background of students, but the organizations that they work for. This mixture of culture, race, gender, industry, accountability and company size provides remarkable breadth of thinking and approaches to problem solving.

Add to all this a trip to South America designed to ground classes in international business with global experience, and you can see clearly the asset to the local economy these graduates can become. Learning to see a challenge through a completely new lens is a key leadership capacity and not an experience easy to duplicate.

Any program that can be both an economic development engine and turn out technically capable, ethically self-regulating leaders is an asset to the region. The proof will be seen in the coming decades, but it is clear that the UALR EMBA program, already an asset to the community, is off to a strong start.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 4, 2011.