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Executives Gain Leadership Edge With E.M.B.A. Programs

Corporate workers utilize the specialized programs to differentiate themselves among their peers.

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For those whose feet are already firmly set on the corporate ladder, Executive M.B.A.'s (E.M.B.A.'s) are increasingly viewed as a way to reach the next rung. In fact, statistics released by the Graduate Management Admission Council in 2011 noted that 42 percent of E.M.B.A. programs saw an increase in applications over 2010.

E.M.B.A.'s are designed to allow students to work on their degrees while also meeting the demands of a full-time job and often a family. Ryan Darling, who in April finishes the 20-month E.M.B.A. program at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, drives four hours from his home in Indianapolis, where he has worked as a scientist at Eli Lilly & Co. for the past 10 years. (He became an adviser/team leader in January 2012.)

[See U.S. News's rankings of the Best Business Schools.]

Darling stays in a hotel residence on campus, goes to class all day on Friday and Saturday, and drives home Saturday night to be with his wife and three children on Sunday morning. Pursuing an E.M.B.A. is a commitment, Darling says, but worth it. "Going into the program, I knew it would broaden my perspective, but I didn't know how much," he says.

E.M.B.A. classes usually take place on alternate Friday-Saturdays over a two-year period and often include some required weeklong residential sessions. Some programs have substantial online components in between campus meetings. Participants tend to be older: Ages can range from 30 to 60, with late 30 being the average. Most students have 10 to 15 years of work experience. What they often don't have is much support from their corporations.

[Read about how M.B.A. students take the fast track.]

Amir Ziv, vice dean of the Columbia Business School, notes that companies are not quick to sponsor employees, either by paying for their E.M.B.A.'s or by giving them time off. To address these issues, Columbia has introduced a program that meets weekly, on Saturdays only, for two years. "We're seeing younger people applying for that," Ziv says.

E.M.B.A.'s have a different focus from traditional full-time M.B.A.'s. While the latter "may prepare you to write complicated financial analyses, the E.M.B.A. prepares you to correctly interpret those analyses," says Susan Ashford, academic director of the Executive M.B.A. program at the Ross School.

An E.M.B.A. program also teaches communication skills, including how to work with the media, boards of directors, and Wall Street. Ashford notes that "day students" often "have to be convinced of the importance of these skills," but E.M.B.A. students "come in knowing that it's true because they have had workplace experience."

[Learn about how to pay for business school.]

In recent years, as the economy has slowed, E.M.B.A. programs have amped up their executive career counseling. "We have seen a desire for tailored career services," says Patty Keegan, associate dean of the North America Executive M.B.A. program at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. At Booth, new students can meet with a career coach for an initial assessment. Do they want to move up or move on?

Depending on the answer, students can choose activities and events tailored to their needs, such as "happy hours," when representatives from different industries—financial services or consulting, for example—come to campus, or the dean's executive outreach program, which facilitates introductions to senior-level alumni. Booth also offers group workshops, networking, and a job posting database, Keegan says.

At Ross, E.M.B.A. students now have access to the recruiters who come to interview M.B.A. students, Ashford notes, adding, "That would never have happened in the past when E.M.B.A. candidates were mostly sponsored by their own companies."

As part of its program, Ross also assists students in developing their own "brands" to sell themselves inside and outside their firms. In tough economic times, it helps to be able to differentiate yourself, Ashford says. An E.M.B.A. is another way to give yourself that edge.