Developing leaders and high-potential talent has become a strategic necessity if an organization is to succeed long-term. As a critical source of competitive advantage, it is integral to a company’s success.
However, it’s not as simple as it used to be. It’s no longer sufficient to identify a few high potentials and send them off to an outside resource to educate them. Why? Because a crucial aspect of executive development today is that it is linked directly to the company’s marketplace challenges and business strategy. So, just how do best practice organizations go about designing and developing effective executive education strategies and programs for their leaders?
If you read last month's column, you probably won’t be surprised to find that, just as best practice companies share common approaches to the overall direction and focus of executive education, they also share three common characteristics in the way they design and develop their strategies and programs:
- Thorough front-end analysis or needs assessment.
- Customized design of their strategies and programs.
- The use of leadership profiles for 360 surveys and feedback.
Thorough Front-end Analysis
The first step best practice organizations take when designing and developing their executive education strategies and programs is to perform a comprehensive front-end analysis to ensure the strategic relevance of what they create. This analysis, or needs assessment, identifies the organization’s strategic objectives, the major challenges facing it, and the leadership capabilities that will be required to address the challenges and achieve their strategic objectives. Typically, the analysis includes a survey and/or in-depth interviews with top management and a cross-section of the target audience.
Be warned! This step is tempting to forego when there’s pressure to develop a program quickly or to reduce expenses. However, almost invariably, we have found disasters where this step has not been done, and done well. Thorough needs assessment is essential if a company is to link executive education with its specific strategic issues successfully. My favorite saying related to this is "prescription without diagnosis is malpractice."
The second step best practice companies take in developing their executive education programs is to customize them. You won’t find any off-the-shelf or packaged programs at the executive level of a best practice organization. Why? Because such organizations use their programs to address the company-specific challenges and opportunities that they identified in the front-end analysis. Off-the-shelf or packaged programs can’t address the unique marketplace issues, culture and business strategy of the organization so a custom design is typically required. (Another reason not to skip step one!)
These customized programs help create and drive the vision, values, and strategies that are unique and critical to the organization. Customization can also ensure practicality, relevance, and perfect fit with the organizational culture and the specific development needs of the target audience.
What if the goal of the program is organizational or culture change? Then fit with the current culture would probably be undesirable. Again, front-end analysis leaps to the rescue, because it identifies the required cultural changes, so that the programs can be designed to communicate and reinforce the "desired" culture.
Leadership Profiles and 360° Feedback
Finally, many best practice companies use leadership profiles to define desired leadership capabilities. These customized profiles define and articulate desired values and leadership practices, expressing them as specific activities and behaviors. Many organizations use the language of leadership competencies these days.
You might ask, how do you choose which values and leadership practices are "desired"? This is an important point. These "capabilities," or if you prefer, "competencies" can be identified in the Front-End Analysis (needs assessment) process or through competency studies. Eventually, top management needs to build consensus amongst themselves about which values, activities and behaviors represent excellence and are critical to future success. The key in reaching consensus is to go beyond the usual platitudes to define behaviors that truly guide action.
Leadership profiles are often converted into leadership inventories and used to elicit confidential 360° feedback from individual leaders, which is often provided during executive education programs. When used in conjunction with follow-on one-on-one coaching, these profiles form the basis for creating and implementing personal development plans that can result in significant behavior change and measurable improvements in leadership effectiveness. Leadership inventories are often re-administered over time to reinforce the leadership capabilities/competencies and to measure behavior change and progress on leadership development goals that are set based on the initial survey and feedback.
Another use of leadership profiles is as templates for hiring, for planning developmental assignments, and for promotion decisions. In such instances, people who display the values and leadership practices (or competencies) defined in the profile are more likely to get the job or move to the next level.
So as you can see, the steps of designing and developing an executive education strategy and program are clear. Best practices companies first perform a thorough front-end analysis. They then customize their executive education strategies and programs to fit the challenges facing the company and their specific strategies. Finally, many employ leadership profiles to clarify values and leadership practices; to provide individual 360° feedback, development, and coaching; and most importantly, to achieve measurable improvements in leadership effectiveness.