No segment of management education features as broad a range of choices as the market for Executive MBAs. That’s because EMBA programmes can serve many different purposes and offer numerous ways to advance your career.

Some are straightforward part-time MBA programmes that cater to more senior executives who wish to get a solid foundation in the principle areas of management. At the other end of the spectrum we find highly sophisticated programmes, often offered across continents and jointly by several schools, which have more in common with top-notch custom-designed executive education programmes than with the traditional MBA. And, naturally, we find everything else in between.

There is no such thing as the “typical” EMBA student. It is true that the common profile points to successful functional or line managers wishing to acquire a 360-degree view of business to make the transition to the senior management level and general management responsibilities. But others are successful entrepreneurs or leaders of family businesses who haven’t previously had the time or the need to study for a management degree and who hope to take their enterprise to the next level with the additional knowledge, skills, and network they can obtain through the programme. Still others come from rather unconventional backgrounds – the scientist who runs a lab, the military officer who increasingly spends time behind a desk, or the doctor tasked with overseeing a hospital department. And then of course you have the absolute high-flyers – people who are already top managers and who want to challenge themselves further.

Read: The Diversity of Part-Time MBA Formats

Since the majority of EMBA participants already have substantial management experience, it’s a fair question how an EMBA programme can facilitate their career advancement and transition to general management roles and responsibilities. The key to achieving this is what I like to call the three reinforcing “p’s”: profiles, problems, and pedagogy. The class discussions among a group of well-selected EMBA profiles are very different from what occurs in an MBA or Master in Management classroom. Because of their seniority, EMBA participants are, on the one hand, much more conscious of the internal complexities of most business organisations and the resulting obstacles to effective management and project implementation; and on the other hand, they are keenly aware of the importance of creating new avenues for growth, even if this hasn’t been their direct responsibility thus far. These are precisely the main demands on general managers. Supported by the faculty member in charge, a good EMBA group elevates the discussion. The kind of problems which are discussed further reinforces this. In an EMBA programme, the selection of topics and cases stress problems related to managing change, innovation, internationalisation, and stakeholder conflicts, as opposed to the somewhat narrower and more technical problems that predominate in more junior programmes. Lastly, the pedagogy is key: whereas analytical problem-solving still reigns supreme in MBA programmes, experienced EMBA faculty quickly drive the discussion to the ‘now what?’ that is the domain of general managers. 

In fact, the more senior the participant profile, and the more successful participants have been thus far in their careers, the less emphasis EMBA programmes place on the traditional, functional areas of business such as marketing, accounting, or operations management. Sure, even the top programmes include courses on these subjects, but they rarely have the depth and detail of a conventional full-time MBA programme. The reason is that high-flyers either already have the technical knowledge, or have succeeded without it. Instead, the top EMBA curricula disproportionately focus on four areas: leadership, strategy, innovation, and globalisation. That’s because these are the areas that primarily occupy people in charge of entire business units. 

In order to serve the most senior participants, business schools are increasingly joining forces. The top three EMBA programmes in the Financial Times ranking are often jointly offered by two or even three schools. This way, participants have the opportunity to learn from the very best faculty of each school as well as enjoy the benefits of belonging to multiple alumni communities (crucial for post-programme networking) and the prestige of multiple elite brands. 

Read: EMBA Is the Road to Visionary Senior Management

A second trend is the modularisation of EMBA programmes. Business is global and management education is following suit. So, rather than attending class locally every weekend, participants in the top programmes crisscross the globe as they attend modules in multiple locations over the course of the programme, often mixing established global business hubs with hotspots in emerging markets. Such immersion helps contextualise learning and broadens participants' perspective. 

Third, and perhaps most important, are the great strides such programmes make to develop participants' leadership capabilities. Leadership skills are, after all, the great differentiator on the way to the top. But you can't make somebody a leader by giving them a lecture. That's why experiential learning, group work with cross-cultural teams, self- and peer assessment, critical thinking exercises, and creativity workshops have all become part of many schools' EMBA curricula. 

Demands from business professionals for the very best management training available will surely continue amongst the world's top EMBA programmes and these programmes will no doubt remain a motor of innovation for management education as a whole.

David Bach is Deputy Dean & Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management (US).