The Case for EMBA Sponsorship Part 1 - Preparation and Research

The case for EMBA sponsorship

Written by Daniel Szpiro, Dean of Executive Education at The Jack Welch Management Institute

Joining an Executive MBA program should be a game-changer for your career. The significant investment in time, effort, and money to complete an Executive MBA program can be daunting and many managers considering this step in their personal development seek support from their employers.

I have put together this guide to help anyone thinking about how to approach an employer and seek this support. I hope you find it helpful.

Preparation

The likelihood of success for any initiative is improved with careful planning. The same holds true for your efforts to secure sponsorship from your employer in an Executive MBA program.

Before you can craft and present a compelling case for sponsorship you have to consider and collect the relevant data you need. This information can be divided into the following categories:

  • Executive MBA Programs: The starting point for your planning is to ensure that you understand Executive MBA programs. The MBA landscape includes various options, each targeted at managers with different needs. You must understand how Executive MBA programs fit into this portfolio, who they are intended for, and the outcomes associated with this path to an MBA degree. The second part of this initial step is to identify the specific Executive MBA program for which you are seeking sponsorship. The more concrete you can make your case for sponsorship (e.g., focusing on a specific program and its characteristics), the more convincing your proposal. This means connecting the benefits for your employer with the proven outcomes for graduates from a particular Executive MBA program.
  • Policies & Practice: A thorough understanding of your organization’s past practice and current policies can help you create a stronger case for sponsorship. If your proposal represents the first time your employer has been asked to consider supporting a manager through an Executive MBA or just the latest in a setting where other managers have already received such support presents different challenges and different resources for you address in your case.
  • The Investment: It is critical to position your case for sponsorship as an investment opportunity for your employer rather than simply a perquisite or benefit for you. This begins by making sure you can accurately describe what you are asking the organization to invest. Critically, you must also describe what you are preparing to invest as well. The basic forms of investment by both you and your employer in your successful completion of an Executive MBA program are time and money.
  • The Return: This is really the most important part of any convincing case for sponsorship. All of the steps leading to this part of your proposal are intended to strengthen your case that your employer’s sponsorship constitutes a real capital investment with real returns. A strong case for sponsorship identifies and, wherever possible, quantifies the expected outcomes that an employer making this commitment will experience and how these results will benefit the organization. A frank discussion of returns should also address the outcomes you expect based on the personal commitment you are making to the Executive MBA experience. The goal for this part of your case for sponsorship is to make explicit what both you and your employer expect from this joint investment of time, effort, and money.

Thinking through these four parts of a case for sponsorship will serve to strengthen your proposal and improve the likelihood of receiving support from your employer.

Research, Part 1 - Choosing a Program

The Executive MBA Experience

It is very likely that many of the people in your organization who will be involved in reviewing your case for sponsorship in an Executive MBA program will not be graduates of an EMBA or even MBA holders. For this reason you must consider any preconceived ideas that decision-makers may hold about MBA programs in general and the Executive MBA experience specifically and address these in your case for sponsorship. This begins by ensuring that you have a clear understanding of the design of Executive MBA programs.

While a comprehensive Executive MBA program includes courses focused on some technical disciplines of management, it is inappropriate to believe that the primary benefit or focus of an Executive MBA program is to simply equip managers with a set of technical skills. Since Executive MBA programs are targeted at mid-career managers and professionals, a well-designed EMBA experience includes two major design components.

The experienced participants in Executive MBA programs typically bring advanced expertise in a specific field of management with them into the program. Many participants already hold mid-level or senior positions in functional areas of business such as finance, marketing, operations, IT, or HR. The common goal for these participants is to broaden their understanding of management beyond their familiar disciplines. For this reason, one aspect of a well-designed Executive MBA program is to provide a broad and integrated foundation across the disciplines of management.

Given the established roles and positions typical of participants, the second design component of Executive MBA programs is to develop advanced leadership skills. This is actually what distinguishes the Executive MBA from other paths to an MBA degree: the focus on leadership that is aimed to prepare mid-career managers for senior and general management roles. A well-designed Executive MBA program will not only have courses specifically on the topic of leadership, but also include related topics such as communication, team management, change management, strategy, and personal development.

Your appreciation for these key characteristics of the Executive MBA experience, and where they lead, should be threaded through your case for sponsorship. In particular, if you must respond to decision-makers in your organization who react to you seeking sponsorship for this process by suggesting there are simpler or more efficient ways to provide you with technical skills you desire, then you should explain the full range of the EMBA design and benefits.

The “Where?” Question

Ask anyone who has an MBA what is the first question they receive when someone learns they have that degree and you will hear the same thing: “Where?” This alone is strong evidence that is does indeed matter where you earn your MBA. Before making your case for sponsorship with your employer, you should be sure in your own mind where you want to earn your MBA and why.

The decision-makers in your organization may inquire if there is some way to reduce the level of their sponsorship by having you attend a less expensive Executive MBA program or perhaps one that is shorter or requires less study time or fewer days away from the office. Such an inquiry should not come as a surprise - in fact, you should count on it and be prepared for it. The implicit assumption behind this inquiry is that there are little or no differences between Executive MBA experiences so why not find the cheapest/shortest/fastest program? The shortsightedness of this assumption is simple to rebut: all Executive MBA programs (like virtually every other product or service in the world) are not the same and do not lead to the same benefits. That’s why people always ask “Where?” you earned your MBA degree: it matters.

Your goals for making your case for sponsorship are to (1) identify the Executive MBA program you want join and (2) make a clear and compelling case why that is the right program for you and your employer.

Analyzing Executive MBA Programs

The complexity of analyzing different Executive MBA programs can be simplified by considering three basic aspects of any program: inputs, process, and outcomes. As you consider these characteristics, you should put them in the context of what would make the greatest contribution to your Executive MBA experience and lead to the greatest benefits for your employer.

Inputs: You want the Executive MBA program you join to attract high-quality, experienced managers from diverse backgrounds with respect to functions, industries, and regions. This is very important because one of the wonderful opportunities in an Executive MBA is peer-to-peer learning. You should highlight this characteristic of your chosen Executive MBA program for your employer by ensuring that decision-makers appreciate how the interactive and participative nature of learning in an MBA means that your classmates can make a significant contribution to your development. You should ask the following questions about any Executive MBA program you are considering:

  • What are the academic admission standards (e.g., are all participants required to hold an accredited undergraduate degree; what proportion of the participants already hold graduate degrees)?
  • What are the functional backgrounds of the participants (e.g., what proportion of the class typically comes from finance, marketing, IT, human resources, etc.)?
  • What are the industry backgrounds of the participants (e.g., what proportion of the class typically comes from financial services, manufacturing, public sector, technology sector, etc.)?
  • What is the seniority of the participants (e.g., what is the average amount and range of both organizational and managerial experience)?
  • What is the international diversity of the class (e.g., from how many different countries or regions do the students in a typical class come from)?

Business schools that are committed to the excellence of their Executive MBA programs understand the importance of their admissions standards and the role of peer-to-peer learning in the experience of their students. Accordingly, good schools will already have prepared this information in anticipation of kinds of questions that strong candidates will pose.

Process: There are two elements to the process of an Executive MBA experience that you should analyze: academic and logistic. With respect to the latter, anyone considering an Executive MBA program must identify the option that offers a schedule and geographic location(s) that make sense with respect to his or her job and family commitments. There is no such thing as a generally better or worse schedule or geographic location - only the ideal schedule and location for you. Before creating your case for sponsorship you must be confident that your chosen program offers a schedule and location that will leave your employer confident that you will be able to meet your job responsibilities.

With respect to the academic process, you should certainly have your priorities in place when analyzing Executive MBA options. Well-designed Executive MBA programs will have professors, learning methods, a curriculum, and facilities that are selected with the specific needs of Executive MBA participants in mind. These are different than the needs of undergraduate students or even full-time MBA program participants. You should ask the following questions about any Executive MBA program you are considering with respect to the academics:

  • What are the backgrounds, experience, and credentials of the faculty who teach in the program (e.g., where did they study and earn their degrees; what organizational experience do they have outside of an academic setting; how long have they been teaching in an executive education setting)?
  • What are the learning methods used in the courses (e.g., what portion of courses use lectures / case study / simulations)?
  • What is the design of the curriculum (e.g., is there a broad an integrated foundation across the disciplines of management; is there an appropriate focus on leadership skills; how well does the curriculum match my needs with respect to the skills I need to advance my career)?
  • In what sort of setting / facilities do classes take place (e.g., is the facility designed for executive / interactive learning; is the setting appropriate to facilitate a focus on learning and networking)?

Some further consideration with respect to learning methods is important. A very effective learning method used extensively by the world’s leading business schools is called the case method. The case method requires students to prepare an analysis of a real business situation that is focused on the application of specific managerial tools and concepts. The classroom experience using the case method requires professors to facilitate a class discussion rather than simply lecture to the class. The case method is interactive and creates an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning that is not possible in a traditional lecture approach. This should be of particular interest to anyone considering an Executive MBA program because part of the value proposition for this path to the MBA degree is peer-to-peer learning. In many business programs, however, the professors are more familiar with teaching undergraduates rather than experienced managers and professionals and, as a result, utilize lectures rather than facilitate class discussions. This is a characteristic of the academic process that you should investigate fully. If you wish to highlight and reinforce the benefits of peer-to-peer learning in your case for sponsorship then selecting an Executive MBA program that makes extensive use of this learning method is critical.

Price versus Value

A focus solely on what something costs rather than considering the value of a purchase is misguided and, inevitably, leads to disappointment. Regardless of the sponsorship you are seeking from your employer for your Executive MBA studies, the experience, and the degree you earn will be yours and will affect the rest of your career. You have to be confident that the specific MBA for which you are seeking sponsorship is the choice that will create the greatest value for and your employer.

This position is easier to support when you are focused on a specific Executive MBA program, its features, and its results, rather than addressing Executive MBA as a general category. Do not allow a discussion of finding the least expensive path to any MBA degree derail or distract from your request for support. Focusing on a specific program and making concrete links between the results of that program and how you will be able to enhance your contributions to your organization’s success is the foundation of a compelling case for sponsorship.

You are Your Best Advocate

Presumably you are reading this document specifically because you need to make a case for sponsorship with your employer for support in an Executive MBA program. In that effort you are your best advocate and must prepare the most thorough and convincing case as possible.

Earning your MBA degree in an Executive MBA program represents a significant investment in time, effort, and money by both you and, hopefully, your employer. If you wish to seek sponsorship from your employer to contribute to this investment then you must have a deep understanding of the Executive MBA experience and how it will lead to benefits for your organization in order to advocate for this support. That understanding begins with thorough research about Executive MBA programs and that explains why we begin this document with this topic.

Research, Part 2 - Past Practice & Policy

Perhaps your organization has a long history of grooming high-potential managers through sponsorship in Executive MBA programs. Or, perhaps you may be the first person in your organization that has ever sought sponsorship for this undertaking. Either way, you need to understand the environment in which you find yourself as you create your case for sponsorship. Familiarizing yourself with precedents and past practice as well as current policies is a critical part of your research.

The Internal Environment

Here is a list of the questions you should be asking about precedents, policies, and practices in your organization regarding management development in general and sponsorship in Executive MBA programs specifically:

Does your organization have formal policies on management development? If so:

  • What are the policies (e.g., financial limits, time limitations, geographic constraints)?
  • Do these policies specifically address MBA sponsorship?
  • Who is responsible for the creation and management of these policies (e.g., Human Resources Department)?
  • Who is (are) the decision-maker(s) for applying these policies (e.g., HR, your immediate superior, CEO)?
  • On what basis are these decisions made (e.g., results of annual reviews, personal decision of the top manager)?

The presence or absence of formal policies does not necessarily create any advantages or disadvantages for you as you seek sponsorship. While it is true that having policies in place may provide you with a starting point, sometimes they also present constraints if your are asking for some form of support that might be outside of the policies. The important consideration here is to understand your environment and adapt your case for sponsorship accordingly.

Another part of your research should be to investigate past practice, or precedent, with respect to sponsoring managers in Executive MBA programs. You should inquire if this kind of sponsorship has ever been provided to a manager in the past. If so, then try to discover the answers to the following questions:

  • How frequently is this kind of sponsorship offered?
  • How long has it been since the last time this kind of sponsorship was provided to a manager?
  • How large / significant was the sponsorship for Executive MBA programs in the past?
  • Which schools have the sponsored managers attended? Have any gone to the school to which I wish to apply?
  • Have the managers sponsored in Executive MBA programs come from specific divisions or functional areas within the organization?

Once again, these questions are intended to supply you with important contextual information in crafting your case for sponsorship. Understanding past practice provides a stronger foundation for your request, especially if there are precedents for sponsoring managers in Executive MBA programs.

Researching policies and past practice allow you to understand some of the formal processes in your organization. This perspective can be complemented by learning more about some of the less formal conditions in your organization. Other questions you should be investigating include:

  • What is the general impression of top management regarding the benefits of management development?
  • What is the general impression of top management regarding the value of supporting managers in Executive MBA programs?
  • What is the general impression of top management regarding graduates of the Executive MBA program to which I wish to apply?
  • Are their any managers in the company now who are MBA holders and/or alumni of the school to which I want to apply? If so, how can I get their support in this process?

These questions will help you understand the culture and attitude in your organization regarding support for management development. Hopefully, your organization understands the value of this practice and has a strong tradition of grooming high-potential managers for senior roles.

There is one question that you will face when presenting a case for sponsorship for which you have to be ready - retention. A common concern about investing in management development for many organizations is the possibility that after making the investment in training and growing managers these individuals may leave the organization. This sort of concern is often presented to managers seeking sponsorship in an Executive MBA program as the scale of the support, both in time and money, can represent the most significant investment an organization can make in the development of a single manager. In some cases, top management in an organization may even believe that the completion of an Executive MBA program will lead normally to a manager seeking new opportunities outside the organization.

In constructing your case for sponsorship you should preemptively address this concern. Include a discussion of your interests and targeted goals for your contribution while you enrolled in an Executive MBA program and after you graduate. Encourage any decision maker in this process to talk about how the organization will utilize your new skills and knowledge in the years to come. The more you can explicitly address your post-graduate career intentions and encourage your employer to discuss your post-graduate career opportunities the more effectively you can eliminate an employer’s concerns regarding retention.

The External Environment

A case for sponsorship in an Executive MBA program can be strengthened with data from outside your organization.

For example, analyze the management of your main competitors and the organizations recognized as leaders in your industry. In fact, analyze the management of any organization respected by the top management at your employer. Do key leaders in those organizations have an MBA? The possibility of using precedent from outside of your organization can underscore why your employer should follow that example.

Next Steps

With the research in place, you are now ready to move to building your case for sponsorship in the most informed and convincing manner. The next steps are to focus on describing the investment you are asking for and the return that you can offer.


Daniel SzpiroThis blog was written by Daniel Szpiro, Dean of Executive Education at The Jack Welch Management Institute.

  • This is great information. Many students have been struggling to get a sponsorship from their employer, a feature that used to be very common. I will share this will prospective students from the EMBA down here in Austin. It takes a lot of work for a sponsorship, but at least they will have the options and steps to hopefully attain one.

    Have you considered posting about the EMBA healthcare and perhaps how it differs? It really seems to be gaining in popularity these past few years. Check out an example curriculum:

    www.baylor.edu/.../index.php