When to Seek Your Place at the Table

When is the right time to do an MBA?

Many people ask “When is the right time to do an MBA?” The specific questions they should ask are “What stage of life is the best time to do an MBA?” and “When are my goals aligned with those of an MBA?” Beyond the parameters set by the program, such as required education and years of work experience, the answers to these are what define how suitable a person is to the desired program or vice versa.

The Full-Time MBA

Since a full-time MBA tends to be a major jumping-off point in a person’s life—given that it will interrupt a candidate’s career for the 1-2 years of such a program—people usually do this when they want a major change in their career. They are generally younger (the programs tend to cater to this demographic) and less entrenched in their career path.

Although programs often seek to diversify their student cohorts, having a clear outlier in the group (e.g. someone much older) can cause problems with group cohesion. So many programs tend to have an upper age limit for full-time MBAs or even part-time (non-executive) MBAs. As a rule-of-thumb, 35 years old tends to be on the senior side of the full-time MBA crowd.

Given these points, the choice of when to do a full-time MBA is fairly clear-cut:

  • Younger (< 35)
  • Not strongly entrenched in your company
  • Not already on a management development track

The Executive MBA

The EMBA is intended for experienced working professionals who will complete the program while at the same time working. It is no simple task—most EMBA programs are no less rigorous than full-time programs and demand effort from the candidate both outside and within the workplace. This is because programs often intend participants to apply their learnings in the realistic environment of their work.

An EMBA is not just something to do “after hours,” it is all-encompassing. For that reason, the decision to undertake an EMBA should not be taken lightly. It will take time away from your family, your friends, your work, and your leisure. Most people who consider such a program, however, have already accepted at least the initial concept of it (trust me, no matter how much a person conceptualises it, the reality of it will be a shock).

Despite knowing that “it’s a big deal,” potential applicants still wrestle with the “is now the right time” question. The first piece of advice I have is that you have to want it. That means you need to expect an outcome other than just a piece of paper or a line on your CV.

The other question you have to ask is “Is the MBA the right thing for you?” An MBA, even a program that has a particular theme or focus, is a general management program. Depending upon your capabilities and desires, the 2,000 or so hours that you will invest in this pursuit could go just as well into building a particular skillset that could well generate a better return on investment. And remember, it’s not just about money—you will have to find satisfaction in the outcome.

What do you want from an MBA?

What is the outcome of an MBA? While some may believe that it is a general knowledge of a range of management topics, such as accounting, finance, operations management, etc., the actual product is awareness. The knowledge inherent to any course in any MBA program can come from any of a hundred books that speak authoritatively to the topic. The awareness, on the other hand, is built by the multi-dimensionality of the experience on the whole; each instructor brings an individual perspective, not only in the theoretical framework of her topic but also in the manner in which her expertise relates to other courses, to business, and to management as a whole. Many of the lecturers may have different perspectives—all of them well-founded—that create a multifaceted diversity in thought that enriches the overall result.

In the context of the executive MBA, the average classroom holds more than a century of collective experience in the form of contextual knowledge of the participants. Some of the greatest lessons occur when, in the context of a lecture session, a participant relates an activity in her work environment that she thought was merely a standard procedure, but only then realises it has a higher strategic purpose.  These types of applied revelations shared with the group produce an awareness not only of knowledge within each participant but of a collective knowledge amongst the network that extends beyond the classroom and the duration of the program.

Why do you want it?

Undertaking an MBA, executive or otherwise, is a massive undertaking and requires significant sacrifice, so you will have to be clear on why you want to do so. You are good at your job and are clear on all the duties it entails. You may find that you are even a bit bored with the day-to-day routine and you want new challenges. This usually means that you’ve been in your position for a few years.

Doing an EMBA in the first year of a new job is most often not a great idea. Stepping into a new role requires a significant amount of learning and adaptation in itself. Having to learn on two fronts tends to add undue stress. In this case, best to defer your choice to do an EMBA for a year or so, unless that new position necessitates that you have the equivalent knowledge of an MBA to do it effectively. Many companies groom their staff for advanced positions by encouraging them to do MBAs in anticipation of the needs of a new placement. For this reason, it is often better to do the MBA before taking that big promotion.

What Do You Want It to Communicate?

Sometimes, management does not realise that you are looking for advancement; this is where the MBA is a good signal. It informs management that you are determined to take a seat at the table where the strategic decisions of the firm originate. When asked why they want to do an MBA, candidates often say that they are good at managing projects, but that they want to be part of the process of deciding what projects the firm undertakes.

Some MBA programs require participants to write a thesis, and this, too, can be a useful tool. If the thesis project can take place in-company, then it is an opportunity to showcase your talents to a strategically selected company manager who acts as your supervisor on the project. It is often something that explores some untapped potential of the firm and shows you as the person who can unlock that potential.

Ultimately, the choice to do an MBA is not only about where you are now, but also where you want to be and what trajectory will get you there. While it is ultimately up to you to decide when to set out on the MBA journey, the signals are within you and all around you. Just consider where you are in life, what you want, and why you want it.