Running a company is ‘total art’
Alumni of EMBA at KAIST talk about learning to be artists in management
By Kim Da-ye
Every Friday in 2005, Ko Jae-ho, now CEO of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, flew more than 400 kilometers from the firm’s shipyard on Geoje Island, South Gyeongsang Province, to Seoul.
The weekly trip was taken by Ko, then head of the world’s third largest shipbuilder’s human resources department, to attend the executive MBA or EMBA program at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) campus in northern Seoul.
Looking back, he says that every trip he took was worth it.
“A company regulation requires a master’s in business administration for executive promotions. If you don’t have one, you are out of it,” Ko said.
“Some people may think that running a firm only involves ordering people around so it wouldn’t be hard. But it is more than that and I would say it is a total art. An executive MBA program may not be adequate on its own, but it gives the basic training that one needs to be a total artist,” Ko said.
As companies expand to various markets and operate in diverse sectors, business leaders are required to know more than what they have learned along their career paths.
One increasingly popular method of training senior managers is having them study for an executive MBA _ a part-time course for experienced staff that companies are willing to foster as future leaders.
Because senior managers cannot take a year or two off to study abroad, they prefer domestic programs, prompting the local EMBA market to grow quickly. Korea University started the country’s first EMBA in 2003, followed by KAIST in 2004.
There are now five universities running the course while non-academic institutions began offering executive education programs such as an EMBA course run jointly by think tank International Global Management and China’s Nankai University.
Domestic EMBA programs with a short history compared to their global counterparts began showing how effective they can be. In the case of KAIST, 55 percent of the very first class that began in 2004 have been promoted to executive level, according to the school’s survey.
Business Focus last week held a roundtable discussion with top alumni of KAIST’s EMBA program including Ko, Cho Sung-hyoung, executive vice president in charge of human resources at CJ and Lee So-ra, medical director at Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk’s Korean branch.
Ko, Cho and Lee unanimously said a 22-month EMBA program helped them transform from specialists to all-round business leaders.
“I studied medicine, so wasn’t familiar with different aspects of business. After I finished the EMBA, colleagues treated me differently, believing I would now know finance and decision making processes,” Lee said.
Cho, part of KAIST EMBA’s very first class, agreed saying, “I had been in the human resources department for 15 years before doing an EMBA. After finishing the degree, I was assigned to the planning team.
“With expertise in HR alone, one cannot make business plans, but when I participated in discussions at the new team, I found myself not so different from the other members including a doctorate degree holder from Yale University. Studying an EMBA boosted my confidence in experiencing various kinds of works.”
No mercy, no compromise
Those who consider doing an EMBA may wonder if people can learn enough from a program that runs only on weekends. To ensure quality of education, KAIST said the school imposes strict discipline on both students and the faculty.
KAIST has been the country’s elite school specializing in science and engineering education and research and its top alumni find such disciplines as to what makes it stand out.
What impressed them most was the business school’s constant monitoring of teaching quality. Ko recalled one professor was replaced during a term after a survey on teaching quality in the middle of the semester.
Cho said that a professor in charge of teaching quality control often visited students after classes and asked for feedback. “Because we were all businesspeople, we were open about our opinions about the professors. The feedback is passed on to the professors who tried to improve,” Cho said.
Yoon Yeo-sun, chair professor for the KAIST executive MBA, added that within two to three weeks after a course begins, students are asked for their opinions on the professors. These are passed on, and if they refuse to improve, they will be taken out of classes immediately.
“When we enter the lecture room at KAIST, we feel proud but we are also frightened,” she said.
The alumni were also impressed by the zero tolerance toward absence. When students miss five classes per course or more — about a third of the total, they will fail the class. Because the EMBA program follows a strict schedule, they will have to retake the course a year later. If they don’t retake it, they won’t be able to graduate.
“I haven’t been to other schools but KAIST will kick you out if you miss classes. It’s their basic principle. I even had to leave an important negotiation in the middle to attend a class,” Ko said.
The school said that since the program was created, no one has dropped out because of absences.
KAIST also won’t accept applicants with less than 10 years of experience.
“We sometimes see applicants with seven to eight years of experience or those who own and run family businesses. Students make a great contribution with accumulated knowledge to the program. When applicants aren’t mature enough to make such a contribution, we suggest they apply later when they have enough experience,” Yoon said.
The biggest asset of KAIST’s EMBA program may be the students, said Ko, citing that around 30 came from different industries and had diverse jobs.
“I believe the student body consisted of the best of the best in Korea. In EMBA programs, students may play more important roles than professors. The key to KAIST’s success may come from careful selection among workers with at least 10 years experience,” said Ko, who this year chairs the alumni association.
Most EMBA classes at KAIST are taught in Korean although the school has a stringent rule on the students’ English proficiency.
Students are required to take English language classes, and those with too little time have to achieve a certain level in English proficiency tests.
Cho recalled he had to stand away from the group when the class photo for the yearbook was being taken because he hadn’t met the English language requirement at that stage.
“If I didn’t pass the English test and ended up not graduating, they were going to cut me out from the photo. The class was graduating in February, and I passed the test in December,” Cho said.
How to survive boot-camp style executive education
Under such a tightly managed program, many busy executives may wonder if graduation is impossible. Because EMBA degrees are usually sponsored by companies, the top alumni said that they couldn’t skip work or do less than they were required to. Each of them had to develop their own survival strategy.
For Ko, the weekly trip between Geoje Island and Seoul ended after a year when he was promoted to the head of operations based in the capital in charge of making deals abroad. Instead of short-haul trips, he now had to make numerous long-haul journeys, spending some 150 days a year abroad.
Frequent business trips happened to help his studies. Because lectures take place on Friday and Saturday, students have to prepare for classes in advance, mostly on Sundays and in the evenings on weekdays.
Long hours on airplanes where he could be alone in a quiet environment was the best time to study, Ko said. Even when he arrived at his destination and couldn’t sleep because of jet lag, he prepared for the next class.
“I made the most out of long-haul flights and jet lag and was even left with time to kill,” Ko said, boasting that he was the only one in his class to receive a perfect score on an exam for the macroeconomics course taught by professor Lee Chang-yang.
Lee also had to travel often to the Nova Nordisk headquarters in Denmark. She remembers the days when she had to write a report at the airport and another when she rushed to catch a flight right after an exam.
“I only concentrated on work from Monday to Thursday, and then switched the mindset in Thursday evening. You have to control your mind,” said Lee.
After the Friday lecture, she would stay up late with classmates to prepare for Saturday. She tried to make the most out of Sunday to study for the following week.
“Time management wasn’t easy but when you are used to it, you get to handle it really well. It’s better than idling your time away,” Lee said.
Cho, who won an award for a research paper, admitted that Fridays were dreadful during the two years he spent at KAIST. When he failed to prepare for the following week on Sunday, he would begin worrying on Wednesday and go into panic mode by Thursday. He would receive phone calls from classmates who asked if he had done the homework.
“Friday was supposed to be a day when you felt relieved and comfortable, but in the last two years, it was not. But the two years were good for my children. I could show myself as a father who studies hard. I was studying even harder than my children who were students back then. That motivated them,” Cho said.