The Strategy of Executive Education

Best practices in the field of in-house corporate executive education have much to offer. Take a look. You may discover the best strategy for your organization.

Successful companies develop strong leaders and make talent their top priority in order to achieve their goals. So then, you might ask, how do best practice organizations develop their executive talent?

Not long ago, the leading-edge practice for developing leaders was to identify the high flyers and then send them off to a major university for a mini-MBA program. The field has come a long way since those days.

I’ve found that the best practice organizations in the field of in-house corporate executive education have a focus for their programs that is linked directly to the company’s strategy. Read on. There’s more!

In this month’s column, I’ll describe three critical aspects of the overall direction and focus of corporate executive education programs: strategy-based executive education, top-management involvement, and a continuous learning strategy and system.

Strategy-based Executive Education

The corporate mini-MBA program is passé. Best practice companies seldom provide generic general management curriculums for their executives anymore. Instead, they link their efforts to the specific marketplace challenges facing the organization and their strategic objectives. Companies often use executive education to create, shape, and communicate clear and compelling values, strategies and vision; to build unity and alignment; to develop the capabilities needed to achieve the vision; to live the values; and to successfully execute the strategies.

For instance, the Leadership Institute at Weyerhaeuser is used to build alignment around their business model and develop the critical capabilities to grow the business. It is also used to create a cadre of leadership talent that is a source of competitive advantage.

With this emphasis on strategic issues, leading companies view executive education as a way to set and achieve their strategic agenda, as well as to gain competitive advantage… so much so in fact that a few regard their executive education strategies and programs as proprietary information!

Top Management Involvement

Another critical element in defining the overall direction and focus of executive education is strong involvement and support by the CEO. When this top executive champions the overall effort and programs, it ensures that executive education directly supports the company vision, values, and strategies. But the CEO’s involvement doesn’t stop there.

The top executive’s participation in the programs, both as learner and as faculty, is critical. These leaders, along with their top management teams, ought to be the first to go through their executive programs. Such effort on the part of these executives is a common element in successful education and development endeavors, lending further direction and credence.

At best practice organizations there is often a senior-level program advisory board. This board is composed primarily of line executives who are key stakeholders and a cross-section of the participating business groups. The board establishes the program’s credibility in the eyes of the others, ensures that the strategy and programs are relevant to the organization, and ensures that design and development stay on track. Board members, because of their involvement in shaping the executive education strategy and programs, come to own them, and thus become their biggest advocates.

A sample advisory board charter, which may be helpful to you when setting up your own advisory board, is shown below.

Sample Advisory Board Charter

Purpose: To ensure that the organization has the executive talent required to achieve its strategic objectives.
Objectives

  • To establish and monitor the strategy and processes for executive education and development.
  • To ensure that executive development strategies and programs directly support the achievement of the organization’s strategic objectives.
  • To ensure an adequate supply of high-potential managers to meet the strategic needs of the organization.
  • To manage executive talent as a resource for creating competitive advantage.

Continuous Learning Strategy and System

Executive education is a strategic undertaking — a system or process, not a series of disjointed, standalone events. Best practice companies link this system to the long-term business strategy and marketplace challenges, and establish executive education as a continuous learning system to maintain strategic momentum.

There are a variety of strategies/systems a company might employ. For instance there is the building block approach, or transition strategy, which consists of a set of core, mandatory programs aimed at the transition to key management levels (a more complex system popular these days refers to the Leadership Pipeline.) Typically, these blocks are developed for newly appointed first and mid-level managers and those moving into the executive ranks. In these programs, participants learn the skills and knowledge required to succeed in their new positions. This approach is also a vehicle by which organizations instill their culture at various points in the manager’s career, as well as continually reviewing and reinforcing the organization’s vision, values, strategies, and priorities.

Another strategy, demonstrated by Motorola, is to design a new program around the most critical business issue facing the company each year. All top executives attend. In the past, Motorola programs have addressed such challenges as Asian markets and competitors, cycle time, Six Sigma Quality, and projected customer expectations of the 21st century.

In summary, what I’ve found is that best practices companies link executive education directly to strategy and view it as a way to gain strategic advantage: their CEOs and top-level executives are committed and involved, they rely heavily on a senior-level advisory board, and they employ a long-range, continuous learning strategy and system.

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