My Aalto Executive MBA Journey in Singapore

The promise of high quality was very important to me as I was not just looking to do "an MBA" - I wanted to get the most value out of it. As a Finn, I know Aalto University as a trusted brand and an institution that delivers excellence.

Anna Ratala, 06.03.2015

Last spring, in sunny Singapore, I noticed a social media post about an Executive MBA program offered by Aalto University Executive Education. Coming from Finland, I knew Aalto University very well but the concept of Executive MBA was not as familiar – yet somehow incredibly intriguing for someone like me that had been thinking about the next move in both career and personal development. 

So I found out more, got excited, decided to apply and got in. Now, 11 months later, it is time to review my Aalto EMBA journey so far!

Why Aalto Executive MBA?

You know that feeling at your university graduation ceremony when you swear you would never study a single day in your life again? Well, I never had it. I always knew I wanted to develop and challenge myself further.

After working for several years in marketing and business development in different countries, I started to feel that urge to be challenged. I wanted to learn from those that had more experience, overcame bigger challenges and took greater risks. I wanted to look at the corporate challenges that I was facing from a broader, executive level and become a better leader. Simply put, I was actively looking to get out of my comfort zone again!

Executive MBA was a natural choice as it provides all the above but additionally the lectures are on the weekends and the studies don't take the time off your work. It is flexible and independent, and you have a chance to meet incredibly talented people and really challenge yourself. Exactly what I was looking for!

And why I chose Aalto University? 

The promise of high quality was very important to me as I was not just looking to do "an MBA" - I wanted to get the most value out of it. As a Finn, I know Aalto University as a trusted brand and an institution that delivers excellence. Aalto University is Finland's main university and one of the top universities in Europe - and the world. Its all three major, international accreditations ensure an extremely high level of education and standards, which played a major role in my decision. After all, spending a weekend a month for a piece of paper was not something quite as attractive as actually learning to run my business better!

Having done my Master's in Finland, I also knew the teaching standards would be excellent - a lot of discussions, a lot of questioning things, a lot of debating the topics from different angles and so on. This was crucial to me as I was not going to attend the lectures just to learn things by heart - I wanted to understand and discuss.

After 11 months in the program, I am happy to say my expectations have been fully met and I am still as excited about the program as I was in the beginning. What I value a lot is Aalto University staff’s interest in the participants' opinions on the modules, the professors, the content - everything. There are plenty of opportunities to provide feedback and the staff is taking it all very seriously, which to me is a sign of truly wanting to provide value to the participants.

How does it all work?

At Aalto, we have 11 core modules + 8 elective modules + 1 strategic project. Each module consists of one weekend (Friday afternoon to Sunday evening) of lectures with renowned professors as well as pre- and post-assignments. The modules are normally organized once a month, sometimes twice a month. Our venue is the beautiful Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Singapore, which can also be credited as a major plus!

The weekends are usually pretty tough, with lots of studying, group discussions, presentations and all sorts of assignments to help us really deep-dive into the topic. There are a lot of examples from the business world and most importantly, we are encouraged to contribute with examples from our own business environments which is really interesting. Working together in groups and exchanging opinions, ideas and best practices is one of the key contributors to learning.

Before each module, we are given pre-reading material as well as a pre-assignment that we complete before the module and that is a part of our grade. After the module we have an exam that can be either an in-class test or a home assignment that we have to return within 2-3 weeks after the module.

In addition to the core modules, there are a variety of electives in four main areas: strategy, leadership, finance and marketing. Finally, the strategic project, that lasts for 6 months, allows us to pick a topic applicable to our own company and come up with a strategic solution to a challenge or perhaps a strategy to expand, grow or change direction of our business – depending on our individual positions and businesses. A fantastic way to apply what we have learnt to our actual job!

And how is it with sleep deprivation during the weekend?

Depends on your attitude. Is it tiring to spend the whole weekend studying? Absolutely. And by the end of Sunday you really feel like you have done something. But interestingly you do not really notice it until the weekend is over and you are sitting in a cab on the way back home on Sunday evening. The weekend itself usually just flies by with great people and interesting lectures. I also find it a great training for the tough times at work - if you can concentrate and study for 2,5 days in a row (having worked the week before and the week after) you can pretty much survive anything. I see it as challenging myself in a very positive way.

What are the modules like - and which have been the best?

To give you an idea, there are modules like Operations Management, Sustainable Business Management, Management Accounting & Control, Economics for Executives, Mergers & Acquisitions, Management Communication and Brand Management - just to name a few.

The best ones, in my opinion, always have lots of group exercises and really challenge you to think on your own. I remember Personal & Organizational Leadership with professor Ben Nothnagel from Aalto University in Helsinki, an amazing module. Lots of hands-on group work and really putting your leadership mindset into action plus really interesting theories about how our brain work! Another great one was Sustainable Business Management with a Harvard professor Mark Esposito - again, fantastic conversations, questioning the status quo and plenty of great exercise. The room was on fire!

Speaking of being on fire, how is the networking side of Aalto EMBA?

Well, what can I say, it is fantastic! First of all, at each module we would sit at the table with different people so we definitely get a chance to get to know everyone. Secondly, there are plenty of coffee, lunch and dinner breaks to socialize at. And thirdly, there is the "unofficial" program, such as last time when we all decided to go for a dinner on Saturday after class. We are also all connected via LinkedIn and WhatsApp so there are plenty of chances to interact with people.

One networking event that I am really looking forward to is the International Week or the iWeek, as we call it. Every August, Aalto EE organizes a week of studying, networking and business lectures either in Singapore or in Finland. The week is open for the EMBA participants from all over the world, including the alumni. I was not able to attend the one in Finland last year but heard such great stories from others that I am really looking forward to this year when it will be held here in Singapore!

Finally, what have I gained from my Aalto EMBA experience?

For me personally there have been two major take-outs from the Aalto EMBA program so far: the application to the real business world and the new, fantastic people I have met.

Application to the real world means that we are not studying any theories by heart. We are rather aiming at understanding the issues, challenges and problems executives face in today's fast-paced business environment and learn the most effective approaches to various macro-level challenges. The idea is not that we all go back and start telling our accountants how to count numbers or tell our marketing teams how they should run their campaigns. The aim for us is to understand what challenges various departments face, what could be the reasons behind them and what we can do to help resolve these challenges. We are truly learning to look at the big picture and to navigate our businesses towards success.

Secondly, the people I have met during my Aalto EMBA journey are amazing. I have gotten to know so many successful businessmen and -women from different sectors of businesses and various nationalities. Aalto EMBA program is very international and I have had a privilege of studying with Singaporean, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Dutch, Canadian, Japanese, Malaysian and Korean nationalities (pardon me if I left someone out – there has just been a huge diversity which is amazing).

Not only has it been great to learn about different businesses, but it has been a great and a highly positive challenge to work in small groups with people from completely different backgrounds. All of the sudden the things you take for granted are debatable or whatever is an accepted way of doing business for you may raise question marks for someone else. We often have group assignments under tight schedules which makes it also a fun exercise in social skills, leadership and general human interaction. I can tell you there have been some hilarious scenes and debates at times! 

And that is what characterizes Aalto EMBA so well – we are actually having fun. Everyone is incredibly supportive of each other and there is no unfriendly competition, rather people are eager to give tips or provide solutions to each other. That is something I value highly.

Anna Ratala works as CEO of Pinecone.

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