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Learning, Leading

Fast Company’s guide to exploring executive education

When pursuing executive education opportunities, it’s important to learn as much as you can in the most efficient manner possible. But finding the perfect program for your leadership development needs — and schedule — can seem anything but efficient, given the range of elements to consider. Even with all of the different course, school, location, and price options, there are ways to ease the pain and strain of finding the right executive education program. Here’s Fast Company’s guide to finding the right executive education fit for you:

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Go for the Goal

Before you even start to research programs and providers, decide what you really want to do. Why do you want to participate in an executive education program? Knowing why you are going — and what you want to achieve as a result — will help you focus your energies. It will also help you to choose the right class for your personal, professional — and your company’s — development needs. “Think about the real-world issue that is worrying you,” says Gale Bitter, associate dean of executive education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Why are you going? If you have a problem, you need to apply what you learn. Think about the issue in advance so you can apply what you learn in the classroom in the office.”

Be Ready to Research

Study executive education program rankings. Look at the colleges and universities’ Web sites. Interview representatives of the schools themselves. Talk to the staff of your HR department. And seek out other business leaders who have attended the programs you are considering. The staff of executive education programs also will be able to discuss their respective programs, make recommendations — and might even call to ensure that you end up in the right class given your experience and goals. “Do your due diligence,” recommends Barbara Gyde, senior director of executive programs at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Make sure the content meets your objectives and that the philosophical approach resonates with your learning style. Also, make sure you are in the right company of peers.”

Managing Money

When you have decided on a program, it’s time to talk to your manager or employer about tuition fee coverage. Managers and business owners are occasionally wary of sending employees to executive education programs because of the cost of the classes. “The money you spend is worth many multiples in price,” says Ray Reilly, associate dean for executive education and professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. “Talk about shortcomings that can be mended by experience. You have to sell a value proposition to your boss. The class has the potential to solve problems. People say they spent $5,000 on a class, but they can already see $250,000 profit from one idea.”

Be Ready to Register

Once you have decided which program you would like to pursue and whether your employer is willing to pay, reserve your spot in the course immediately. Generally, program staff members prefer that you sign up at least six weeks in advance but recommend that you enroll two to three months before classes begin — or even sooner for longer classes. Most schools will assign readings to be completed before the classes, and some, like Columbia Business School, will conduct an in-depth survey of your skills and experience, which may require additional time.

Attention Must Be Paid

Once the program begins, the rules of engagement are similar to the rules in elementary school. Pay attention. Listen to the teacher. And try to make friends. “People come in late to class or talk on their cell phones, and they miss a great opportunity,” says Stephen Burnett, associate dean of executive education at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “This is a time to reflect on issues, to add to your experience, and to get the maximum advantage of peer learning and the faculty. For people who come here still trying to do their jobs, it’s like going to a fabulous opera and not listening to it.”

Implement Immediately

Apply what you’ve learned — or are learning — as soon as possible. Programs like Wharton’s send out alumni electronic publications from the programs, but others might send students home with readings or CD-ROMs to consult if they have questions. Liz Zale, director of marketing at Columbia Business School Executive Education, makes three recommendations for students leaving executive education programs. “First, articulate what you got out of the program in a powerful and decisive way. You will need to convey how much value you have gained. Second, the sooner you start utilizing and implementing what thought and talked about, the sooner you’ll see results. And third, seek a support network. Stay in touch with the other people in the program. You owe it to yourself — and to them — to continue to take advantage of your new connection, friendship, and experience network.”

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