How to Move Up in the Business World Without a Traditional MBA

A Traditional MBA

You’ve already chosen the décor for your corner office. (It may or may not be a perfect two-thirds replica of Don Draper’s).

Yes, you know that you’re destined for success.

The fact that you just graduated and don’t have any work experience yet is only a minor detail.

But seriously—how are you going to become the next chief executive of some big company? How do you move up in the business world? Well, one thing that might help you get there is an Executive MBA.

CIO of Skyrin Justin Brown shares with us what it was like getting his Executive MBA from Santa Clara University and why he chose that route over a traditional MBA program.


Why You Might Want to Get Your Executive MBA:

Justin didn’t start out wanting to get his MBA. He actually got his undergraduate degree at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. But while there, he started an IT consulting firm. He worked as the owner of this company for a while and it was able to survive the “dotcom bust,” but at that point he saw that the industry was changing.

In Justin’s opinion, his original business model really didn’t have a lot of longevity and he figured it was time to move on.

So, he sold his shares and went off to Europe for a while. When he came back to the States, he started working at a non-profit running a tech shop of about 20 people. He really liked the work that he was doing, was good at it, and moved up to a Manager/Director’s level.

But that’s where his career seemed to plateau.

Justin was interested in upper management and though he had come pretty far on his own, he wondered what tools were necessary for moving up even higher.

His conclusion was that he needed to get an MBA.

To sit at a higher level of a large organization, you really need to understand the inherent business concepts and conversational topics that cross all organizations. What it really boils down to is the need for a common vocabulary.

An MBA is like that little path to get you to the door and be a person who can have a confident conversation with other business professionals because you have something in common: a business background.

What is an Executive Business Program?

An executive MBA program is different from a traditional MBA.

With a traditional MBA program, you have the option to go soon (or in some cases immediately) after completing your undergraduate studies. For example, people interested in going into finance will work for maybe two years before the firm will send them back for their MBA. For them, that’s a good fit because they don’t have to focus on managing people. They’re there to get specific financial skills that they can apply to a position such as a broker or a trader.

An executive MBA is all about taking middle managers and moving them up in the world. So part of applying for this program is that participants tend to have been in the workforce for a while (they usually have around seven years of management experience and ten years of work experience). That means you recent graduates don’t have to make any immediate decisions about whether you want to do an executive MBA. Explore the workforce, find the industry you enjoy, and then think about applying.

Because it is geared toward this audience, the program only lasts 17 months and is built around a working professional schedule. You can have a full-time job while still enrolling in an executive MBA program (though it can be challenging—we’ll talk about that later).

The Santa Clara Executive Program:

This program, specifically, was geared toward taking technology companies to market and introducing the leadership skills to do that. Being so close to Silicon Valley, there were a lot of business value concepts available to the students.

As someone in a senior role at an organization, you have to look at the value of your actions or goals you’re trying to attain. What are they? What are the risks? What are the concerns? It’s all about driving organizations on a good, solid, sustainable path whether they’re startups (prevalent in Silicon Valley) or Fortune 500s.

This really allowed the students of the program to see how applicable their lessons were to the real world. Leveraging their network, the Santa Clara Executive MBA program was able to bring in venture capitalists.

They also brought in high-level executives to come and teach different sessions. HP taught one session and the class spent a day at Cisco with three or four of the senior-level people.

“That was pretty cool,” Justin says thinking back, “because you’re sitting in a classroom and reading books or whatever and you’re thinking well, how practical is this? Then you see guys who are in charge of $50 billion a year companies come in and say, ‘Yes, we do this. And oh, by the way, your professor helped us along the way.’ Then you’re like, okay. It’s not all BS.”

Because of the program’s focus on leadership, the class went to China for a week or so. There they met a CEO of a fairly large company and director-level, senior people in both American and Chinese companies. It really showed them what leadership looked like across cultural boundaries.

They got to see the challenges of the techniques and tools they were applying. Something that works in America won’t work in China and what works in Europe may kind of work in America but definitely not in Asia.

Because there is more and more of a shift toward businesses having an international component, this real-world application of cross-cultural leadership was definitely helpful.

The program was filled with opportunities to see the leadership skills applied to the real world.

The class was made up of people who had been in the workforce for a while. Everyone in the class had their own real-world experiences. Justin was surprised by how helpful it was to see how other people leveraged different skill sets that he may not have been naturally comfortable with doing himself.

“Part of an executive program is that you will learn as much from your fellow students as you will from your instructors.”

Applying Executive MBA Lessons to the Job:

The program is really geared toward helping people develop the skills necessary for moving up or diagonally in their careers. It allows them to take opportunities that wouldn’t necessarily have been afforded to them without the advanced degree. For example, Justin had previous experience working in IT but not in Technology.

IT is focused on the hardware and Technology is work having to do with the software, programming, engineering side of it all.

The business skills Justin developed in his program allowed him to make the switch to a technology company. Although he doesn’t have the 15 years of subject matter expertise to fall back on, he understands the core concepts of being an effective leader and that allows him to manage the business side of things.

Still, Justin often returns to the material he got from the Santa Clara Executive MBA program. He definitely uses the technical, business skills like financing and debt structuring, but mostly it’s been softer, leadership skills that have been most helpful transitioning to his new role as CIO.

The Challenges of Getting Your Executive MBA:

Justin first mentions that there is a bit of a stigma about the concept of this type of MBA. Though it’s starting to no longer be an issue, there was a perception for a while that it was an “MBA Light” and that you really didn’t get the skills you needed.

This was a bit of a concern for Justin and some of his classmates, but now that he’s finished the program, he’s found that no one has expressed this view of his degree.

The other challenge is the time commitment. Entering into this program is definitely something to plan for. Justin worked on going to an executive MBA program for three years—studying for the GMAT and looking for the right program.

Part of that time was also spent getting to a place at his job where he could fit in an extra 35 hours a week. Not to mention preparing himself to get back into a “student” mindset. After being out of school for so long, this can be difficult.

Classes took place every other Friday and Saturday. Almost every night there were three to five hours of homework. Because a lot of the work is done in teams, this means having to schedule calls that often go late into the night.

How to Deal With School AND Work:

Justin suggests setting up a schedule for yourself and sticking to it. When you have a job that starts at 9, you get there at 9 or you’re fired. You have to approach school the same way. The time you schedule for your schoolwork is the time you have to do your schoolwork.

“I got off of work at 4:30 and was home by 5. I would relax a little, eat dinner, and then start school work at 7 or 7:30 and I’d go ‘til 10:30. That was my schedule.”

Justin was also sure to have his homework done well in advance so that he wouldn’t have to cram it in on Thursday or Friday nights between classes.

What You Should Know About Choosing an MBA Program:

There might be a temptation to only apply to East Coast, Ivy League schools because of their reputations, but what you have to keep in mind is that different schools are good for different things. You want to find a school that’s going to be the best fit for you.

“Why go to Columbia if you have no interest in being in finance? UC schools or the Berkeley Executive program are geared toward different types of careers.”

Don’t worry so much about the prestige of a school. It’s more about aligning what a school’s focus is with what your career goals are. You’ll get far more out of that.

Homework time! Don’t have any specific business goals in mind? You don’t have to go back to school right away. Spend some time in the workforce. Try out different industries and different types of jobs. Once you’ve found something you like, then start thinking about an executive MBA. Make sure you do your research, find a program that’s right for you, and then figure out how you’ll manage your schedule.


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