Helen Riley in a white shirt, black leather jacket with hands tucked in the pockets of her black pants
Different demands: EMBA participant and single mother Helen Riley had to prioritise © Magali Delporte

Helen Riley was about to start an executive MBA when she was given a big promotion by her company: the office supplier Lyreco. “Suddenly, I was finance operations director, with a large team,” she says. “It was the middle of the pandemic, so there was huge focus on finance, and my employer . . . had also just acquired another large company.”

But Riley decided not to defer the 18-month programme at Edhec business school in Lille, northern France, and instead to find a way to juggle the EMBA and her multiple responsibilities.

“It was a question of priorities. I’m a single mum of two kids; family is — and remains — my number one priority,” she says. “We planned in advance some extra activities for the children, which they actually enjoyed. And, when schools had to close, I had to ask for a little support from my friends and family, including my elder daughter. It was an opportunity for her to take on more responsibility.”

When working, Riley says she had to clearly identify her priorities to deliver both at Lyreco — including taking care of her team — and at Edhec. “And I had to accept dropping some items from my to-do list,” she admits.

EMBAs are frequently studied by people in senior executive roles, who juggle coursework alongside demanding jobs. The majority of participants are aged between 30 and 40 years old, so cohorts are on average older than full-time MBA students; many students also have family responsibilities. The combination of such demands makes effective time management critical for success.

When he started his EMBA at WU Executive Academy in Vienna, Harald Trautsch, co-founder of vehicle insurance telematics company Dolphin Technologies, worked 80-hour weeks, was on a plane at least twice a week and rarely slept more than five hours a night.

“It wasn’t realistic to embark on an EMBA,” he recalls. “Where would I find the time to prepare for courses, attend classes and study for exams?” So he made some tough decisions and choices, including learning how to better manage his time.

He clawed back some time by cutting out TV viewing, and reduced his Netflix and social media consumption. “I’d always thought of it as relaxation and a way to unwind when actually, it was two hours of my daily time that was lost and [that] cluttered my brain with unnecessary content.”

More fundamentally, Trautsch made a conscious decision to use the content in EMBA modules to deal with, and solve, current problems in his everyday work, from managing employees to calculating profitability in different customer segments. He had previously focused on where he needed to be, but became increasingly concerned about where he should not be. “That meant I had to trust my co-workers more, and was able to delegate many things that I would otherwise have had to do myself. It turned out that the quality of the work even increased as a result.”

While completing an EMBA at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, Blaine Scully, a former captain of the US national rugby team, joined two boards, served as an adviser to sport technology companies and became a father for the second time.

“It has been challenging to balance,” he concedes. “To be honest, it isn’t something you get right 100 per cent of the time and that’s where family, friends and classmates come in.

“My advice is to communicate transparently and set expectations with those around you. Planning and blocking out study specific time is important, but you also have to meet yourself where you are. It’s easy to kick yourself for things you haven’t done, or all the things you have left to do. But part of the true value of the programme is exposing yourself to things outside your comfort zone. Do the best you can to immerse yourself, but the learning truly never stops. So, enjoy the experience.” 

Tips from those in the know

Don’t wait for the perfect time to study, advises Aleksandra Wierzbicka, who was nine months’ pregnant when she began her EMBA at ESCP in January. “Work with what you have. Even if you only have 20 minutes, use it. Remember: without commitment you will never start, but more importantly, without consistency you will never finish.”

Remember you are building your brand, says NYU Stern graduate Ozgun Saran, vice-president for US equity capital markets in Deutsche Bank’s origination and advisory division. “Treat your EMBA as an extension of who you are — from how you carry yourself, to which programme you choose to represent. It will be a challenging one- or two-year networking session, which will be all worth it once you achieve the fruits of your labour.”

Ask for help when you need it, advises Nurul Tajuddin, who started her EMBA at ESCP when she was seven months pregnant with her son, Hugo. “Many of your peers will have families of their own and are more than happy to lend their support. My EMBA cohorts and the ESCP EMBA team are like an extended family now — many of them met Hugo from when he was just two months old.”

Have fun urges Helen Riley. “Enjoy this unique moment in your life to reflect on yourself, connect with people, share experiences. It’s not just about professional networking, but also about making friends and developing yourself.”

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