‘I can take the program wherever I go’
Over the past 16 years, Shari Thatcher has diligently climbed the corporate ladder. In 2002, when she was hired at Parker Hannifin, a global leader in motion and control technologies, Thatcher was an administrative assistant. With time, she acquired numerous credentials and held various positions within the company. About two and a half years ago, Thatcher realized that to get to the next rung, she needed a master of business administration (MBA).
With a busy schedule that involved travel, an in-class MBA was not an option. Instead, Thatcher logged on with Athabasca University (AU) — the first institution in the world to offer a fully interactive online MBA for executives back in 1994.
“I can take the program wherever I go and not miss a beat,” says Thatcher, who today is the lean manager at Parker’s Canada division and will complete her MBA in December. “The flexibility of online learning fits into my lifestyle perfectly and I’ve definitely experienced not only career advancement but personal advancement as well.”
As the largest MBA for executives program in Canada, AU’s offering requires applicants to hold an undergrad degree with at least three years of managerial experience, an accepted professional designation and at least five years of managerial experience, or at least eight years of progressively responsible managerial experience. These admission requirements make the program popular with professionals who, like Thatcher, want to maintain personal and professional commitments while completing their MBA.
Deborah Hurst is the dean of AU’s faculty of business. She says given this demographic, the MBA, in addition to concentrating on the management areas critical to organizational performance, is facilitated in a way that allows students to move beyond case studies to real world application.
“This is a program for real managers, solving real problems,” she says. “As students work through the courses, their experiences are brought into the discussions. So, the program allows them to learn about their organization in a deeper way, and contribute more right away.”
Adds Thatcher, “There isn’t anything I have learned that I haven’t been able to apply. It’s a win-win for me and my organization.”
Typically completed over two and a half years, the program is broken down into two phases. The first consists of six foundational courses that build upon each other and are capped by a week-long comprehensive examination. The second, meanwhile, requires students to complete four core advanced courses as well as elective credits.
“It’s paced, collaborative and coached,” says Hurst of AU’s delivery. “In addition to online discussions, students learn to work in teams distributed around the world. So they have the advantage of learning a host of relevant soft skills in addition to being expected to lead, make decisions and deal with conflict. They come out of the program with adaptive capacity.”
To further strengthen their skills, at least one of students’ chosen electives must be taken in residence, with the five-day residence electives held across Canada and internationally.
One of AU’s unique in-residence electives is Developing Leaders, which Thatcher attended and which Hurst teaches with a team of AU coaches. Its focuses on developing leadership capability in oneself and in others through the premise that leadership is a learnable set of practices that can be deciphered, understood and incorporated. Hurst says she believes the course can be a transformative experience.
“Developing Leaders examines how people can lead not only with their mind but also with their heart,” she says. “It’s important to stay true to ourselves in today’s pressurized environment, and my students seem to agree.
“By the end of the week, students are leading the class and the assignments that come in afterwards blow your mind because students have been so touched. They always come back and say it was meaningful to them.”
Thatcher, for her part, takes Hurst’s sentiments a step further. She says not only was the course transformative, but AU’s MBA has made her a better person.
“Before, I was very process driven and anyone can do that but it doesn’t mean you are motivating or caring about people,” she says. “The AU MBA experience broadened my perspective, my values and my appreciation of people, which allows me to be a more effective leader and a better person.”
Deborah Hurst is the dean of AU’s faculty of business.