One Year After - Aalto Executive MBA - Class of 2013

What were the impacts of the Executive MBA Program on strategic thinking, leadership, and salaries among participants?

Paula Salovaara, 22.04.2016

How did the program change them? Aalto EE and EMBA alumna Paula Salovaara surveyed 2014 graduates and explains the results and highlights of the program in this article. 

The first snow landed in Helsinki that day. Three Aalto EMBA groups were gathered in the main hall of Aalto University School of Business, going to the front to pick up their certificates one at a time. It was November 2014, and the annual Aalto EMBA graduation ceremony.  


It was time to raise glasses and snap group photos in the school lobby. Asians headed outside: it was possible to include real snow in the photos! Graduates were wearing hats, capes, and big smiles. Come evening, the groups would stream into the restaurants in town to celebrate. One of the groups ended up in Olo restaurant. Time for more photos, speeches, and Facebook updates to mark getting through all the hard work.  

And it had been quite a job: two years of studies alongside working. For many, it was difficult to comprehend where they’d found the time. Luckily they had, as here they were, clutching their certificates.  

There was also sadness in the air: after all, the groups spent a lot of time together, sharing trips, project group meetings, small talk, study weekends. The speeches in different parts of town that night repeated promises to stay in touch and keep friendships alive.  

Aalto EMBA alumna Paula Salovaara summarized her graduation day emotions in her own speech:  

“Our modules have been much about discussions. We have completed at least 20 modules, with the topics ranging from project management to how to influence other people. Right next to these modules there has been the invisible module of learning to know people, their families, their jobs, and bosses, loves and sorrows.” 


What happened when the studies finished,  

and each person carried on with their work without studying hard for the program at weekends? What were the impacts of the Aalto EMBA program after the project work had been finished?

To find out, we conducted a survey targeted at one of the cohorts. All of the graduates responded to the survey on the impacts of the studies on their lives.  

The complete data are presented here. Ratings were on a scale of 1-6, with 1 equaling ‘not at all’ and 6 ‘very much’. In addition to the ratings, the survey included open-ended questions and answers.  

The opinion of the entire group was very clear when asked about the impact on thinking: about 90 percent of the cohort rated the impact on their thinking with a 5 or 6.  

It is clear that the Aalto EMBA program strongly affected the way cohort members think, and how they see themselves as strategic thinkers.  

Gonzalo Giambruno, who works for UPM as Director for Biorefining, said that with the help of the Strategic Thinking module, he had learned to look at the big picture at work. And he now performs better due to the new way of thinking.  

One open answer stated:

“The holistic and almost exponential experience on learning more by combining old with new was almost mindblowing. To prove the ability to learn and improve your thinking so rapidly gave a real kick to self-esteem.”  

When asked about the impact on strategic thinking, all respondents gave a rating of 4, 5 or 6. Professor Ram Baliga, who taught the Strategic Thinking module, made a lasting impression on the group. Several people urged Aalto EE to keep employing high profile professors. 


Networks, contacts and communication skills were also areas of strong impact.

The Communication module with Ron Dulek received many positive mentions, and those who attended the elective Power and Influence module with Rich Cox during the iWeek (nowadays Aalto Executive Summit) said it was a forceful experience.  

From the very beginning, most people expected to extend their network and gain useful contacts while studying in the Aalto EMBA program. And that was exactly what happened.  

The group that participated in the survey took part in a study tour to Palo Alto in October 2014. The majority of the group traveled to the United States already beforehand to spend a couple of days together in San Francisco. They hired cars, and headed on to Palo Alto in small groups; some along the Pacific Coast Highway, others via a string of retail parks.  

In Palo Alto, the group met up with another Aalto EMBA group. The program was both high profile and entertaining: the groups took part in lectures, winetasting tours, and company visits. A workshop morning was organized at the renowned Stanford D School (Institute of Design). One of the participants wrote the following observations on the workshop in her reflection paper:  

“The word ‘workshop’ often brings along a couple of hours of embarrassment and mindless bouncing around in a group. But yes! Now I might have participated in the best workshop so far in my working life. Big applause to the Stanford D-School team! The Thursday workshop was structured, it moved on like a train, and in the end it delivered a real product, or prototype of a product. The execution was impressive and the facilitators skillful and natural. People felt they got new knowledge, and understood the meaning of the workshop. “  

The survey mentions study trips as the icing on the cake. People describe the study trips as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All five individually interviewed members talked at length about the trips. They felt the network tightened during the trips and the teaching was also good. 

The Palo Alto study tour was the highlight for many group members.  

Meeting members from other cohorts and other countries was a networking bonus on the trips: “I was doing an exercise to create a business model with a bright Taiwanese student. She had a very different background, her English wasn’t so good – but it was just amazing how the international Esperanto of business overcame any other barriers we might have had. Half a word or a drawing is enough of a common language to create a lot, if you both share the EMBA background.”  

The cohort members also mention the supportive group feeling, and the friendships that grew during the two years of studies.  

“Also the spirit and atmosphere in our study group was very supporting, open-minded and cheerful, which created a good support for stressful deadlines.”  


The cohort members discussed the self-development process more than anything else in the open questions and interviews.

It is evident that this part of the Aalto EMBA program had a strong and lasting impact on the participants.  

Also in the case of this cohort, the self-development process was headed by Executive Coach Ben Nothnagel. The process runs through the entire two-year course of the program, exploring areas such as self-development, behavioral sciences, and brain research on stress and habits. The goal is to learn to understand and develop personal leadership.  

“In the end, the most golden insight was that time is in our hands and we can guide it the way we want. So simple, and still extremely hard to accomplish. The self-development journey module had a great impact on this insight”, said one member.

Ben Nothnagel himself describes the goals and meaning of the self-development process: “The process is designed to give you access to yourself and to put you in contact with your own current competence.”  

He tells of students who are surprised to learn how much they know.  

One of the comments: “The self-development process helped me to think in new ways (broke some shackles). But it was more the combined learning experience which really made the difference – and the context.”  

Nothnagel points out that there is nothing mysterious in the teaching methods, and he emphasizes the fact that every step in the process is based on research.  

In this cohort, as in all groups according to Nothnagel, there is a small group that doubts the process and the benefits of it. Many cohort members started to tell their story about self-development by saying that they had not really believed it would be needed or that it could help them change.  

“Self-development – time well spent! I have only now started to realize the value of this module, a year after finishing the EMBA. I can make a great difference in many ways by changing my own thinking and behavior, rather than trying to influence others. Exploring this idea, while pursuing a happier life, is a life-long – rather than a two-year – journey. But it was important to go through the two-year course to really kick-off the thinking process ... Just started a mindfulness course, learning will continue :).”  

“The best course was the self-development process with Ben. This is much more relevant for developing leaders then the financial modules, and will make the difference in succeeding.”  

A typical comment about the self-development process is like this:  

“Personally I gained a lot from the ‘self-development process’ (which beforehand I thought would be the most useless module).”  

Nothnagel talks about the five-step method he uses when facilitating the process. He says many struggle at the first phase, but pick up speed during the two years and often find something they did not come looking for.  

“When they start, many are already underusing their competence, and during the program they gain so much more. It is important to be able to use all of it.” 


The cohort members all felt they had developed as leaders while studying in the Aalto Executive MBA program:

more than half rated the impact on their leadership with a 5 or 6 and the remaining with a 3 or 4.  

As leadership is one of the core areas for the program, many cohort members expected to experience a jump in their knowledge and capabilities. Several people mentioned leadership, when asked: “What was the most significant module, matter, thought or insight that you encountered during your studies?”  

They say: “Leadership in general, including self-leadership and self-awareness.”  

“Understanding human beings better, understanding that different people need different ways and methods of leadership. One of the key points was a better understanding of there not only being one truth, but there are often several different viewpoints in every case.”  

“I loooved the resilience module! It is one of the things that will shape leadership!”  

“The self-development with Ben. This is much more relevant for developing leaders than the financial modules and will make the difference in succeeding.” 


The questions about the impact on salary, title and position had the most diverse answers.

Shifts in position and salary seldom happen swiftly, and the impact on these areas is most likely still to be seen.  

However, more than three out of four had felt some impact on their salary already after one year.  

About 15 per cent said the impact had been quite meaningful.  

Many people in the cohort had changed jobs, some had changed employers, but all think that they had changed the way they work.  

The role of the employer was discussed both in the open questions and especially in the individual interviews. The responses show that the support of an employer makes the program a better experience for the participant.  

Sami Pauni has words of advice for employers: “The person who gets into a two-year program like this has already decided to make a great effort in their own life. They will expect something to change at work”, he says.  

If nothing changes, there is a risk of the employee leaving the company.  

Some cohort members said their employers could have paid more attention to the fact that their employees are studying.  

“They should think of the program as an investment and pay close attention, so they get their money’s worth.”  


It has now been over a year since that November day at Aalto University School of Business.  

The group has met up regularly and stayed in contact through a joint Facebook page. As agreed at the graduation party in 2014, friendships and staying in contact continue even if the studies are over. 

Individual participant stories on the impact and experience of Aalto Executive MBA program can be read from here:


Currently reading: Aalto Leaders' Insight: One Year After - Aalto Executive MBA - Class of 2013

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