The managing director of the Washington-Fudan EMBA program in Shanghai says language skills and international experience are now par for the course for executives – even American executives.
Is now a good time to do an EMBA?
There are many good reasons to do an EMBA program right now. The economic downturn creates time for reflection and housekeeping if you will. For Executive MBAs, just like MBAs, it is a good time to pause and reflect.
The skills and benefits needed that come to the forefront right now are twofold: First of all, the downturn often requires a reformulation of strategy, whereas in the past steady growth meant less motivation for change. Downsizing, restructuring – these are more difficult to do in a boom, whereas now there is greater organization initiative to make changes. It is a good time to make really hard decisions. Returning now to a program like the Executive MBA allows these decisions to be done in the context of a deeper understanding of how to reformulate strategy, to find strategic clarity of how the functional pieces of an organization fit together. If you are working on these issues in your organization, it will make what you are learning in a classroom more relevant.
Leadership challenges are another reason that makes Executive MBAs an attractive option right now. It is a serious challenge to hold organizations together, to motivate people – these skills are highly useful in the context of a highly challenging leadership situation. Restructuring in industries is also another pressing concern. It is a good time to reach out across industries, to have strategic resources at hand, to network, get one’s name in circulation at a time when it is uncertain as to which industries will come through the economic downturn and what the business strategies will be.
How important are language skills for non-Asian executives and managers in Asia?
The local population in most Asian countries has enough managerial competence that if you don’t have the language and cultural skills or specialized technical or leadership skills, an EMBA or MBA program will not overcome the advantage that local managers have. If I was advising an MBA student, I would tell him or her to take a year and learn the language. If you are an executive, then in most cases, your technical skills and expertise within the organization create enough value for the organization to send you to Asia despite the expense, such as language courses or family relocation. But for more junior managers, without the language and cultural skills, the organization will feel highly uncertain about how effective a prospective candidate will be in Asia.
I would advise an MBA/EMBA to get as much international experience as soon as you can. Whether it’s a two-week residency program or any other international program, it is of vital importance to experience life as an expatriate, working outside of one’s own culture. These types of core skills are necessary in the international domain.
Much of economic growth will come from international trade. One of the challenges for Americans in particular is that historically we have not had to work on the other side of the international boundaries. This is no longer the case. For the young and ambitious, they need to get out and understand what is required to work internationally. The most interesting jobs, the ones that have an impact, are those that will require travel abroad. One of our core messages I try to deliver is how much more vibrant international work can be and how critically central it will be to the important careers of the future.
How do you see the future of business in Asia in general?
I think about the long-term economic prospects for Asia often, and I think they are quite good. There is a tremendous amount of ambition and energy in the region, which serves as the core of the Asian entrepreneurial spirit. Asia will be a core part of the world economy for the next 50 years. There is an ambition to be a part of the world, economically, morally and politically.
This trend has not been changed by the current slowdown, but it will certainly mature and be more consistent as Western economies have become. Asia has the 2nd and 3rd largest economies in the world – Japan and China – and continues to have the most rapid growth. This is a lot of economic activity and it requires management to support it. The ability to lead and manage is very valuable in this context and will remain so over the next 50 years.
Has an MBA helped you deal with challenges in Asia?
I graduated with an MBA from Harvard in 1991, and went for a PhD shortly after I graduated. That said, I’ve taken 2-3 classes in the program each year to know the product, spot opportunities to integrate across classes, and refresh my understanding. For example, I’ve taken operations, leadership and international economics to help me better understand the situation my students face. Having no background in China or a clear understanding of what would be different upon my arrival, these classes were the only tools I had to deal with a different context—and they worked!.
The big benefit of the program is that the conceptual tools taught in the classroom help you see that what is different about China is relevant, but not in a way that is not understandable. Using these conceptual tools, given the context and features of a given situation, the program helps the EMBA student answer the question: what should we be doing? I feel pretty confident with these conceptual tools given my own experience of getting up to speed in a setting where you don’t have the time to fully absorb and observe, but just decide here’s what I need to do to be an effective manager. My experience validated the core concepts taught in the program: good concepts apply worldwide.
What kind of students enroll in your program?
The average age is 38 and the age ranges from 35-45. As a result, this changes the way we teach as we are dealing with more experienced people who are at a later stage in their career, who are usually managers of managers – managers of functional areas or managers of businesses. In contrast, at the MBA level, the student is still on the way to getting to that level. At the executive level, the emphasis is on strategic integration – working laterally with people from other functional areas, finding ways to come together and create value.
For our program the student population is approximately 50% Chinese nationals working mostly on the international boundary in multinational organizations. About 40% come from elsewhere but this population is also mostly Asian as well.
Photo Courtesty: Patrick Moreton