Robert F. Bruner
Darden School of Business
Why did Darden decide to introduce an Executive MBA program?
We introduced an Executive MBA program to extend our mission of service to the business profession. It was apparent that there was a large, unserved constituency of business executives who sought a high-end MBA educational experience. We decided to launch the program to serve this constituency.
In addition, I would say that we knew that the design and development and rollout of a new program format would stimulate innovation within our own organization and, indeed, it has. We sought that innovation simply for the sake of our own vitality and sustainability.
When you speak about the impact on the school, one thinks of both similarities and differences between the two programs. When speaking to students in this program, you've pointed out that they are earning the full Darden degree. There is no caveat or asterisk on that diploma.
What were the challenges of designing a program where students earn the full Darden MBA while continuing to work as practicing managers, day in and day out, week to week?
The first challenge is to recognize the bandwidth limitations of executive students. Bandwidth is a technical term used in information technology to acknowledge the capacity of a wire or a radio frequency to carry information. Business people who are actively at work every day face practical limits on their ability to engage with MBA studies. We needed to acknowledge that. We needed to focus on shaping a program that would be as transformational as our full-time MBA program and, yet, also fit within the time and attention constraints of actual business executives.
You have taught in both the full-time and Executive MBA programs at Darden. How would you compare those two experiences?
They are very different. The full-time MBA experience is residential. It is highly structured. The students engage one another full-time for two years with the exception of a summer internship. Given the residential nature of the program, we are able to tailor virtually everything about the student experience and, indeed, we do.
In the MBA for Executives program, we acknowledge that our executives enter and exit the educational arena and, therefore, we focus more time and attention on helping the students in the MBA for Executives re-enter and re-engage the learning experience and then return to work life.
We focus much more actively on how our students in the MBA for Executives program can use the things they are learning in real time, what they can do differently Monday morning based on the ideas they have engaged in in the chat rooms, in the online engagements, as well as in the in-person residencies at the Darden School. That is one of the big differences.
I think the second big difference is that the two programs engage very different learning constituencies. The average age of our MBA full-time students is 28 years old. These are people who have four to five years of work experience and are really at the lift-off stage of their professional lives.
The people who come to us in the MBA for Executives program are older. They are in the middle-late 30s on average. They have much more work experience and life experience, and so we harness that perspective differently. In fact, it is a rich resource on which we call in the design and implementation of our MBA for Executives program.
Applicants to the respective programs need to be reminded regularly of the importance of their peers. This would be true for any learning experience. You need to pay attention to the group around you — the other students in the program — simply in recognition of the basic truth that you learn as much from the students around you as you do from the faculty and staff in the program.
In the MBA for Executives program as well as in the MBA full-time program, we give great attention to the qualities of the entering students and to the makeup of the student class. We try to form a portfolio of life experiences and work backgrounds simply because we know that given the discussion method of teaching, the students themselves will bring fresh insights and often very startling connections among ideas and students into the daily learning experience.
In the MBA for Executives program, we rely even more heavily on the life and work experiences of our students then we do in the MBA full-time program. Those are some of the differences between the two programs.
How would you say your own experiences differed with each of the two programs? How do they compare?
The students in the MBA for Executives program are very practical, tough-minded students, keen to know how they can use their ideas and apply them very quickly. They are at least as ambitious as the MBA full-time students and can see more clearly within their grasp the prospect of serving as leaders and general managers, so the students in the MBA for Executives program absorb more readily the insights and counsel that we offer in helping our students grow as leaders.
The students in the MBA full-time program are necessarily focused more on their entry-level jobs in a business career and may be able to see less clearly the role of leader and general manager, although, inevitably, our studies of our alumni show all of our students will grow into general management roles sooner or later.
You mentioned before the importance of a prospective student considering their respective cohort. In general, there are several good programs to choose among if one is considering doing an MBA for Executives. What advice would you give to someone comparing and evaluating EMBA programs?
First and foremost, I would advise any applicant to consider whether the EMBA program is at the heart of the school or on the periphery. Does the EMBA program attract resources equivalent to the very best programs at that school? I refer particularly to the best teaching resources. Are the faculty members in the EMBA Program the stars? Are they the best teachers? Are they those faculty members who are most passionate about working with students, or are they adjunct faculty? Are they part-timers who are drawn in to fill gaps in the curriculum?
At Darden, I will tell you that we accord to the MBA for Executives program the very same teaching resources that we accord to our MBA full-time program and to our non-degree Executive Education programs.
What this means is that our MBA for Executives program draws the same excellent teachers that any of our other programs will attract. Second, I would refer to the fact that the diploma at the Darden School simply says “Master of Business Administration.” There is no modifier or qualifier for the graduates from the MBA for Executives program.
This reflects our deep intent, our expectation, that the MBA for Executives program will be every bit as good as our historical flagship residential program. We are cutting no corners. We are shaving nothing off the time and attention we give to the students in our MBA for Executives program compared to our residential program students
Earlier you mentioned that introducing this program also could, to paraphrase, potentially add value for Darden. How has the program added value for Darden?
Darden’s MBA for Executives program has been a marvelous incubator for new teaching formats, concepts and techniques. We do a great deal in the MBA for Executives based on team teaching, bringing two or more faculty members into the classroom for a given learning experience, creating more simulations, more group-based work and more interaction across the board. The MBA for Executives program is setting the high water mark for integration across disciplines and specialties.
And why not? This is the way executives in business experience the problems they face. They don’t see a problem as being narrowly defined as a finance problem or a marketing problem or an operations problem. What they understand is they have an upset customer, and they need to fix that customer’s problems right now, and often that means drawing on the expertise of several disciplines in a very short space of time, or it might mean designing a new product or service to meet a sudden development among a field of competitors, or it might mean reaching out to recruit and shape the best operational team to meet a problem or opportunity.
Again and again, executives tell us that they do not think much of the traditional silos on which many learning programs at business schools are based. Thus, it is in our MBA for Executives program that we integrate radically to mirror and exercise the integrative nature of problems in the world of business.
The Darden School’s mission is to improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs. How has the Executive MBA Program furthered this mission?
The big constraint on business making a positive contribution to society is the availability of leadership, the number and quality of leaders. Plainly, manufacturing capacity is not the big constraint on the societal benefits of business. We can go anywhere in the world and find the capacity we need to produce products and services.
I will tell you that innovation is not the big constraint. You can license or acquire or invent the new products and services you need almost inevitably. As a finance professor, I can tell you from long experience that money is not the constraint. There is more money in the world than people know what to do with.
The big constraint on the ability of business to generate its massive potential benefits for society is leadership. By leadership, I refer to the capacity to recognize problems and opportunities, perhaps even over the horizon or around corners. It is the capacity to shape responses, strategies and tactics in recognition of those problems and opportunities. It’s the capacity to communicate very well, to enlist others in a plan of action. It’s the capacity to build trust and to create enterprises of high integrity and, ultimately, leadership is reflected in a bias for action. Simply, the will to get things done.
We know the big criticism of MBAs is that they can calculate the answers to textbook-style problems out to the tenth decimal place, but they can’t tell a practical manager what action should be taken on the basis of such calculations. The capacity of a leader is to get things done, to convert analysis into action.
Now, our MBA for Executives program exercises all of these qualities relentlessly. Over the course of the entire program, the student will study hundreds of cases and go through many, many team-based exercises where you need to sort out the facts, you need to get to the heart of the problem, and move to a solution. Through this repetitive exercise, you develop the capacity to make a difference in the world, to have a big impact, both in the small as well as in the large.
Our program builds great social awareness, meaning the capacity to recognize what the big challenges facing society are, what the big trends are, what the looming issues are. Leaders also need social awareness “in the small,” being able to walk into a group meeting and to quickly parse out who has what kind of positions and who is bringing what sort of baggage into the meeting that needs to be dealt with.
All of these are qualifiers that are not naturally given in textbook-style learning or naturally resolved through lectures. At Darden, we really believe that the best way to develop leaders is through active, high-engagement learning. So, our program exercises these good attributes again and again, daily, through interaction among students and between students and faculty, and students, faculty and staff.
Our Executive MBA program furthers the mission to improve society by developing principled leaders in the world of practical affairs simply by helping our students do the work of leaders every day, every hour and in regular interaction with one another.
Thank you, Dean Bruner. We appreciate your time, and we know many people will be interested in reading this.