What Is the Best Executive MBA Program for Me?

By Terry Connelly, Dean Emeritus of the Ageno School of Business

Choosing an Executive MBA (EMBA) program turns out to a “multiple choice” question – and a good one. EMBA programs are offered in multiple shapes and sizes, in large universities and small, private and public, non-profit and for-profit, distinguished and ‘not so much’, in-person, online and hybrid – with variable lengths and depths, with little or substantial travel commitments, domestic and overseas or both, expensive and more expensive.

Making the right choice would seem to require an MBA degree in and of itself, in only to sift through all the marketing claims focused on convincing you why each program is “just right for you”!

What does “Executive” really mean?

Let’s instead start with a simple matter of definition – not of the “MBA” part at first, but rather of the key term: “Executive.” Too many prospective students associate that word with an idea of a sort of mid-career shortcut to a Master’s of Business degree that will help them climb to the next, narrower zone up on their career path. They confuse the Executive MBA with something like an “Executive” Golf Course designed for less-experienced (talented?) players. If that’s what you’re looking for in an EMBA program, you know one thing for sure: you’re not ready to pursue an EMBA!

The right understanding of the “Executive” aspect requires a focus on two factors: the folks who will be accepted as your classmate, and a level of effort expectations – of both your fellow students and the teaching faculty – that is commensurate with the knowledge leverage that assures that the “MBA”-part of the program provides for real career advancement.

The term “Executive” envisions a level of responsibility that goes beyond mere management of enterprise affairs to the ability to provide leadership in those affairs.

Learning from Peers

In the right Executive MBA program, you should expect to learn not just from a faculty that has more real-world experience than you have accumulated, but also from your fellow students, whose experience, taken as a whole, should have business knowledge on par with your own. And you should also be prepared to contribute your fair share of challenging, questioning and probing insights as part of the program – or again, you are not ready for a real EMBA!

The right school will select a class by making their admissions criteria clear, compelling and challenging. Years of managerial experience will be important but the most important factor should be ready for leadership roles, as certified by employers. Look favorably on EMBA programs that interview all applicants
that you will interact with and learn from. GGU students tend to be older, so you will most likely find a cohort of individuals who have accrued a certain amount of experience and success.

Look for Road-Tested Faculty

The best Executive MBA programs are ones in which you should expect to learn not just from a faculty that has more experience in enterprise (for-profit or non-profit, governmental or NGO) than you have, rather than just academic pedigrees. Whether full-time professors or part-time adjuncts, they should show a record of leadership involvement that, in stock-trading parlance, would be an “up-tick” to yours and your classmates. If not, give their EMBA program an “Incomplete” grade and look elsewhere. Since the first job of a leader is “define the reality” that your enterprise confronts, you can only learn this skill from real-world sources.

You are far more likely to find the business experience so critical to a good EMBA faculty in a private rather than a public institution, which must prioritize its tenured faculty privileges. All the better if it’s a non-profit school so that your place as a student is not outranked as a priority by the shareholders and the marketing directors.

In the right Executive MBA program, you should expect to learn not just from a faculty that has more real-world experience than you have accumulated, but also from your fellow students, whose experience, taken as a whole, should have business knowledge on par with your own.

Finally, look for diversity in both your classmates and the faculty, in terms of experience, background, race, ethnicity, and gender – as well as foreign as well as domestic home bases. Again, this will help you define reality in the future.

Location, Location, Location

When all the above boxes are checked favorably in your search for the best EMBA program, you may be surprised to find it closer to home or your job than you expected – maybe even near a public transit hub with good nourishment sites around in the neighborhood. You are going to spend many intense hours at school and you don’t want to add any more time getting fed or to and from your destination!


Check to see if the EMBA program itself integrates real-world, present tense problems into the curriculum. You and your classmates will savor the chance to put theory into practice on actual enterprise challenges that have yet to find a solution. The best EMBA programs will readily find enterprises willing to share these opportunities for problem-solving with their students, precisely because those programs will have earned a reputation for being a “cut above” than the others in terms of students, faculty, and ingenuity! And a “cut above” is what you want to be when you get your EMBA, isn’t it?

About Terry Connelly

Terry Connelly is an economic expert and Dean Emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University. With more than 30 years experience in investment banking, law and corporate strategy on Wall Street and abroad, Terry analyses the impact of government politics and policies on local, national and international economies, examining the interaction of global financial markets, the U.S. banking industry (and all of its regulatory agencies), the Federal Reserve, domestic employment levels and consumer reactions to the changing economic tides. Terry holds a law degree from NYU School of Law and his professional history includes positions with Ernst & Young Australia, the Queensland University of Technology Graduate School of Business, New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore (corporate, securities and litigation practice in New York and London), global chief of staff at Salomon Brothers investment banking firm and Cowen & Company’s investments, where he served as CEO. In conjunction with Golden Gate University President Dan Angel, Terry co-authored Riptide: The New Normal In Higher Education (2011). Riptide deconstructs the changing landscape of higher education in the face of the for-profit debacle, graduation gridlock, and staggering student debt, and asserts a new, sustainable model for progress. Terry is a board member of the the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington, DC think tank and polling organization, and the Cardiac Therapy Foundation in Palo Alto, California. Terry lives in Palo Alto with his wife.

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