If you’ve been reading my column the past couple of months, you know that the leading-edge practice in executive education has changed. Best practice organizations no longer simply identify the high flyers and send them off to major universities for executive MBA programs.
Today, at best practice companies, senior executives are highly involved in the overall direction and focus of the educational programs for their executives. These leading-edge organizations then design and develop in-house executive education strategies and programs linked directly to the business challenges they face and their strategic objectives. If you read my last two columns, you understand how they do this.
Now it’s time to discuss the final, critical step of corporate executive education: implementation. How do best practice organizations implement their executive education programs to optimize the impact?
Based on best practice benchmarks and our trends research, implementation can be broken down into three important sections:
- Top-down Implementation and Critical Mass
- Shorter and More Frequent Learning Experiences
- Action-oriented Learning
1. Top-down Implementation and Critical Mass
In best practices companies, implementation is from the top down. The top executive, typically the CEO, and his or her executive team are full and active participants who constitute the first participant group. If they don’t attend together as the first “class” of participants (which can also have teambuilding benefits), then they often participate individually or in groups of 2 or 3 in the first few sessions.
Full participation and agreement is the only way the top team can understand at a visceral level what it is that is being taught to the leaders below them. Full participation as students makes it possible for executive team members to immediately reinforce, coach, and support people who report to them as they subsequently complete the programs thus successfully instituting organizational change. In addition, early participation allows the senior executive team to lead by example. As the first participant group, they embody and employ the philosophies and practices they have learned, making it easier for the people who report to them to learn and follow. Another important benefit of senior executive participation is the clear message it sends throughout the organization about the importance of continuous, life-long learning.
Often the goal of executive education is to catalyze organizational change. Critical mass must be attained quickly if momentum towards change is to be established and sustained. In such cases, best practice organizations make attendance at those programs mandatory and implement as quickly as possible. They don’t let individuals pick and choose whether or not the developmental activity is best for them… or convenient. Instead, everybody in the target group is “expected” to participate.
2. Shorter and More Frequent Learning Experiences
In best practice companies, our research indicates a trend toward more frequent, on-going learning experiences in shorter blocks of time away from the job.
Today, best practice organizations are far less likely to send their top executives away for month-long, one-time-only, executive learning get-togethers as they did 20 years ago. Instead, it’s more likely that the top 200 or so managers participate every year in custom designed learning experiences to address issues that are of strategic importance to the company at that point in time. This practice directly supports the concept of continuous learning.
3. Action-oriented Learning
In leading organizations, executive learning is built around practical, relevant action rather than theory. For instance, instead of listening to a lecture on strategic planning, they build strategic plans for their own business units. Best practice companies believe that compared to more traditional methods, action oriented learning, or learning by doing, results in increased retention and accelerated learning, as well as in hard-hitting outcomes that can have far-reaching implications.
The most popular form of action-oriented learning is commonly known as action learning, which usually includes the assignment of real, immediate business problems or opportunities to diverse teams for developmental purposes. However, there is a danger inherent in this approach. Participants sometimes get so caught-up in the action, i.e., the excitement of working on the problem, that they lose sight of the learning objectives. This, of course, is where expert facilitation and frequent focus on the learning goals come into play.
Finally, best practices companies are vitally concerned with the transfer of learning back to the job. They devote significant resources to support, and track on-the-job application.
In summary, best practices companies implement their programs from the top down, attain critical mass quickly for their change efforts, provide shorter and more frequent learning experiences, use action-oriented learning, and focus on on-the-job application of what was learned in the classroom.
How Does Your Organization Stack Up?
Take the following self-assessment inventory to see how your company stacks up with respect to current practices in executive education. (To answer the questions, you may have to read my last two columns if you haven’t already.)
On the scales below, rate how well your organization uses the methods of best practice companies. If you find gaps in your practices, take a lesson from the companies that have already blazed the trail, and develop an action plan.
- Very Poor
Overall Direction and Focus of Executive Education (Circle One)
|1. Strategy-based executive education||1 2 3 4 5|
|2. Heavy top management involvement||1 2 3 4 5|
|3. Continuous learning strategy and system||1 2 3 4 5|
Design and development of Executive Education Strategies and Programs (Circle One)
|1. Thorough front-end analysis||1 2 3 4 5|
|2. Customized program design||1 2 3 4 5|
|3. Use of leadership profile and 360 feedback||1 2 3 4 5|
Implementation of Strategies and Programs (Circle One)
|1. Top-down implementation and build critical mass||1 2 3 4 5|
|2. Shorter and more frequent learning experiences||1 2 3 4 5|
|3. Action-oriented learning methods||1 2 3 4 5|