Faced with complex challenges, CEOs hit the books

As they grapple with leadership challenges, many CEOs are returning to the classroom. But for some, self-directed learning is an appealing alternative to the traditional MBAu0026nbsp;

A CEO’s job is never easy, but leading organisations through inflationary spikes and economic uncertainty takes the challenge to a different level. Not only must they keep tabs on cashflow and ensure profitability, but they also need to prevent employee churn and act as a beacon of hope for those who stay. 

This unique combination of challenges has got many CEOs rethinking their approach to leadership and considering whether they need to invest in executive education. A survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found that nearly half of all executive MBA programmes reported a significant increase in applications in 2020. This trend continued at a slower pace in 2021, with 33% of executive MBA programmes reporting a bump. 

But is an MBA the right choice, especially when there are so many examples of successful CEOs who have forgone graduate education altogether? How do you decide what’s right for you when time is tight and the stakes are high?

A new perspective 

There is, of course, good reason for the increased interest in executive MBAs. The programmes usually cater to the busy schedules of business leaders, while giving them an opportunity to see their business through a different lens. The diversity of the curricula and the breadth of experience brought by the cohort itself is enough to cover any business scenario imaginable, not something to sniff at in a time of crisis. 

Many universities are also continuously adapting their programmes to respond to the latest challenges. For instance, this is the first year that the University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) is offering a fully online MBA. The University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School (JBS), on the other hand, has invested a significant amount of time and effort over the past five years to embed digitisation and ESG into its curriculum.

“If I compare what we’re doing now to five years ago, the main changes have been around technological disruption. We’ve added core classes on digital disruption and more electives on big data and data analytics,” says Conrad Chua, executive director of the MBA programme at the JBS. “We also put a great emphasis on ESG [environmental, social and governance], which runs throughout everything we teach. In fact, about one-third of our teaching distributed across all our core classes has some kind of ESG element to it.” 

Understanding a business in its entirety gives you this confidence from an entrepreneurial perspective to think, ‘I know how it all works’

One of the unique benefits of an MBA is the real-life industry scenarios brought to the classroom by the cohort itself. Julian Rawel, director of MBA programmes at UEBS, says its most recent cohort had about 55 students from more than 20 different sectors. “We take a huge amount of care over how we recruit,” he explains. “We don’t look to just recruit people, but to create a cohort of people where there’ll be different genders, different nationalities and skill sets, and different sectors, so that we’re creating this kaleidoscope of skills and learning.”

This diversity of thinking and holistic overview of how a business runs is exactly what gave Michael Flynn, CEO of London-based sports analytics firm DataPOWA, the confidence to start his own business. He completed his MBA at Nottingham University Business School in 1990. “Before the MBA, everybody I knew in business worked for ExxonMobil, because that’s the one business I worked for straight out of uni. So during the MBA I learned the most from working with other people who were working in other businesses. I met people from Kodak, Shell, from breweries and banks. The social side of it was just as valuable as the actual courses themselves.”

Flynn sold his first business in 2016 and went on to build DataPOWA, which sold during the pandemic for nearly £10m. Had it not been for his MBA, he isn’t sure he would have had the knowhow or the confidence to go for it. “I think understanding a business in its entirety gives you this confidence from an entrepreneurial perspective to think, ‘I know how it all works. I can build a business.’”

Other options

An MBA, then, can be great if you have the time and energy to do it and need to go beyond your scope of expertise to scale and grow a business. But they’re not for everyone. In fact, many CEOs find that self-directed learning and executive training on the job can be just as good if you take the time to understand your needs.

Melinda Matthews is a former IBM executive and CEO of CodeClan, a digital skills academy based in Edinburgh and Glasgow. She’s a passionate lifelong learner. During her time at IBM, she made use of all the learning opportunities her employer offered, from internal training on sales strategy and leadership to securing a placement at the UCLA Women in Leadership programme.

Matthews spends a lot of time on LinkedIn Learning and Blinkist, as well as talking to other CEOs about the problems she’s facing. She chooses what to learn next by studying her own reactions, helping her determine if something is amiss. 

“As I get older in a leadership position, I think a lot about my reactions. Why am I being this reactive about something? What’s irritating me? And that has prompted me to realise that maybe I’m not doing something right. Or that I need a different tool out of the toolbox. And that’s cueing me up that I’ve got to learn something.”

Matthews credits her self-awareness to the years of coaching she received at IBM, which she kept practising long after she moved into a different role. Coaching is also a big part of the MBA programmes at JBS and UEBS, so much so that the UEBS MBA includes credits from the school’s professional development course.

Always learning 

With or without an MBA, good leaders are lifelong learners. Both Flynn and Matthews dedicate significant amounts of time to learning outside the remit of their current jobs. Flynn recently finished a Yale course on the science of wellbeing and is starting an archeology course in October with UCL. Matthews spends a lot of time practising yoga and learning about meditation, Reiki and acupuncture. 

While these may seem unrelated to the challenges of their jobs, they both say exposure to different fields helps their creativity. Flynn likens his ongoing learning experience to a well-kept Rolls-Royce. “If you keep maintaining it, it’s always going to deliver.”

After all, being a good leader isn’t about having all the answers. It’s about surrounding yourself with the right people who are motivated to find those answers for you. For that, you need more than knowledge. You need intuition, self-awareness and – above all – empathy. And there are many ways to work on those skills.