Executive MBA (EMBA) studies may indeed gain you a C-level promotion at your current company, but there is now more than one way forward for the EMBA careers of senior executives. Lifelong careers with the same employer are slowly fading into history as talented managers become more selective in their EMBA career paths. EMBA participants are also more open to committing to new business ventures beyond the corporate world.

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Is it not ironic how, as we grow up, we tend to complain about school and then university being so hard and exhausting, only to find ourselves swamped with tasks and deadlines as we spend the better part of our lives grinding a career path, which often seems endless? And yet, if we apply the same logic to education as we do to work, and vice-versa, we will find that the rules are very much the same. So, it is common that those who want to progress in business leadership will exchange their corporate lifestyle for an equally demanding MBA study routine, or even add this to it.

The disruptive blend of education and career growth

Much like the intricate structure of a large company, education is held together by order – an order by which things are done so that we may move from one level to the next. In both education and work, we progress through a system of tiers resembling the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – a seemingly complex structure, but with a clear progression curve. In school, that system is pretty straightforward. One year you are in tier one, the next you are in tier two. Careers follow the same logic, but not necessarily the same pattern. Things such as competition, fiscal conjuncture or a sudden shift in technology can either catapult or hinder your growth.

Read: Majority of EMBA Graduates Say Degree Is Worth It​

It is a common misbelief that the most successful executives or the most lauded entrepreneurs are somehow able to predict the variables. In fact, they quite simply understand when the time is right to move to the next tier. This is where education and career growth blend together to disrupt the professional plateau and unfold the full potential of those who strive to go further.

The MBA and EMBA degrees offer a mechanism for moving up the ladder when the situation allows it. The distinction between the two is clear-cut. University students acquire Bachelor’s degrees, which grant them technical skills. Upon entering the workforce, they start to climb the tiers, holding trainee, assistant, and specialist positions before becoming eligible for management roles. The cleavage between technical expertise and management is addressed by the MBA degree, whereas the gap between management and C-level is taken care of by the EMBA.

If your goal is to switch careers, not just advance in your current career, you might be better off in a full-time MBA programme rather than an EMBA programme. But if you’ve got several years of experience and want to move your career to the next level, an EMBA programme is a better choice,” says MBA expert Elena Bajic in a piece for Forbes.

New frontiers to business leadership

EMBA participants are seasoned professionals with a successful career, and an advanced skill set and personal management style. Why do they come to business school? What do they hope to achieve, having already climbed so high? “EMBA participants are managing teams of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people,” says Dariu Dumitru, EMBA Recruiting & Admissions Director at IMD Business School (Switzerland), “But there comes a time in one’s career where you hit a ceiling, and you want to make a change, to deepen your career. Typically the initiative comes from the individual’s own ambition.

Learn more about MBA programmes at IMD by taking a look at this handy school profile.

According to Mr Dumitru, managers who enter an EMBA programme want to invest in their future, and often that future is linked to an existing workplace. “You’re looking to build your confidence and your competence; you’re looking to build your networks for both career and company success - not necessarily because you want to change your industry or your career, but usually to move up in terms of a higher general management position or more senior leadership position,” he explains.

A win-win scenario

There is a symbiotic relationship between employer and student in the EMBA world. EMBA programmes are part-time and fast-tracked for a reason – such high-profile employees cannot afford to interrupt a successful career, and employers expect to see almost immediate results.

With a full-time MBA it’s possible you could forget something,” says David Turi, Imperial College London EMBA graduate. “But if you are working at the same time [as studying in an EMBA programme], you have the possibility to apply the things that you are studying the day after. I saw – month by month – that I was improving a lot […] in my performance in presentations, in my ability to analyse situations, and to apply financial knowledge to my proposals, and I had great feedback from my boss and colleagues.

While the course load of an EMBA is rigorous, it is designed to meet the needs of a working professional,” says Dan Scalco, digital entrepreneur, in a column in The Huffington Post, adding that most EMBA programmes offer classes in the evenings and at weekends in order to accommodate the work arrangements of executives. This type of flexibility is crucial to both employer and employee.

EMBA programmes are a mutually beneficial investment. It is common for employers to support some of their most talented or loyal employees in their endeavours to move up the leadership ladder, thereby fuelling their own companies’ success.

My way or the highway 

However according to recent figures by the Executive MBA Council, full tuition reimbursement for employees wanting to get into an EMBA programme has seen a slight decline of 4% over the years – from 27.3% of students benefiting from full financial support in 2011 to 23.2% in 2016.

Read: EMBA vs. Part-time MBA: How Do They Differ?​

Adam Jones, Work and Careers editor at the Financial Times (FT), sees this as a trend that has to do with “lifelong careers with the same employer slowly fading into history.” In a comprehensive article on the topic, Jones explains that it is not so much that employers have become uncharitable, but that employees have become more selective of their career paths, often refusing to take a sponsorship offer in order to safeguard their career flexibility. This has resulted in an increasing number of cases whereby EMBA students share the cost with their employer, effectively reducing the payoff in time spent at the sponsor company that comes along with full-tuition coverage.

As much as this seems like bad news to aspiring EMBA students who are struggling to pay the bills for a mid-career degree, the decline in corporate sponsorship might actually turn out to be a good thing. At the very least, it signals a new era of employer-employee relationship that confers more freedom on the latter. That is not to say that the door is closed for the most loyal managers on the board, as one in every four EMBA participants still gets to go back to school for free, but they now have a wider palette of choices.

This synergises well with the increasing emphasis on leadership and entrepreneurship in both MBA and EMBA programmes. Business education website Poets and Quants cites studies by the FT going back as far as 2013 that have shown a growing trend in entrepreneurial spirit at business schools across the world. Compared to previous years, there were cases in which the number of MBA students starting their own business after graduation doubled (Stanford) or rose by 13 times (IESE).  “Once the degree of the corporate world, with participants sponsored by their company, the EMBA was often seen as a stepping stone to the board. No longer: it is now the domain of the aspiring healthcare professional, government official or military officer who wants to change career or build their own business,” claims Della Bradshaw in the Financial Times.

This is a massive, massive shift,” says Marie Courtois, who at that time was Head of Career Development for Working Professionals at INSEAD (France), for the Financial Times. “We see an information technology director or people with 15 years in the telecoms industry who want to move into consulting. Executives are using the EMBA to change their location, their function, and even their industry,” she adds.

Learn more about MBA programmes at INSEAD by taking a look at this handy school profile.

With the viability of lifelong careers now in question, perhaps directors should take a note from the managers’ books and dive into the unknown. Now more than ever, those aspiring to senior management and business leadership have the freedom to choose, and to challenge the order of things.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2017-2018 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Pragmatic Reciprocity”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.