How Custom Programs Accelerate Executive LearningPublished: June 16, 2004 in Knowledge@Emory
Executives today admit that they are often overwhelmed with the demands of managing through a knowledge gap. How do managers lead employees and advance company strategy in the midst of tremendous flux? How can a company bring the integral members of its leadership base up to speed, and provide motivation and forward momentum in the face of often painful transitions? For companies looking to get a handle on unique “change management” situations, a customized executive education program may be the most effective choice. Overall, executive education can be used to 1) enhance the leadership pipeline; 2) close an identified skills gap; or, 3) be a part of a corporate transformation process. Often, a program is tailored to combine aspects of all three.
Top universities, including Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, are designing programs to deal with the specific demands of business—linking up learning with a firm’s business strategy. The need can be more general, such as building leadership skills or advancing strategic thinking. Or, the program may be more specific to the company’s situation—organizational intervention to address a needed update in technology, or to advance an understanding of global marketing concepts.
Peter Topping, executive director of Executive Education at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and a senior lecturer in organization and management, notes, “There is an acceleration of change in business, especially with the rapid tenure of CEOs and many other factors.” But where training and consulting leave off, he notes that a customized executive education effort can be much more “prescriptive and definitive and specific to a skills set. Executive education is about expanding the thinking of the team through a new and shared framework. Learning is change. But, you don’t do a custom program unless you are facilitating change.”
For instance, says Topping, Home Depot is set on a path of fulfilling CEO Robert Nardelli's growth plan for the company. Goizueta's Executive Education program currently conducts a leadership development program for officer candidates at Home Depot, as well a different program for current officers. "These programs are one important piece of the company's transformation process," notes Topping. "It's a powerful mechanism to forge a common foundation for the future of the business--when you can get senior leadership together from across the enterprise to talk about their current challenges and compare themselves with best practices of other companies."
Often, says Topping, the need for leadership development ranks top on the list of management concerns. “Building a strong leadership pipeline is a key component of any good company,” says Topping. It can also give a firm a distinct competitive advantage. “But whether you are dealing with leadership development, identifying the right strategic position for the firm, leveraging marketing assets or building a brand, customized executive education is ultimately about how to create value for the shareholders,” he adds.
Generally, a company coming into an executive education program will realize that change is needed. The firm may have determined exactly what must be addressed. Says Topping, “Some have done due diligence and lots of analysis to understand the business, and they need a partner to carry it out.” But, more often than not, company managers have concluded that a shift in policies or practices are needed, but they are not quite sure exactly what changes would be most effective and how to carry the process out.
Topping points out that a customized education program can facilitate the due diligence process, handling “front end analysis work, as well as a customized solution” for a company. Goizueta’s program provides professors to act as facilitators for team-based learning, as well as for individual coaching. They work closely with company leaders to establish a plan tailored to the situation. The structure can be a class or individual meetings, and sessions can run anywhere from one week to four weeks. Some situations may require up to three months, as is often the norm with highly recognized executive leadership development programs.
While the concept of executive education isn’t new, Robert K. Kazanjian, senior associate dean for Executive Education and a professor of organization and management at Goizueta, notes that the close link between professors and management is relatively recent. “The best programs mix the faculty and the management of the company to act as the core teachers to talk about how relevant theory can be used in a specific company context. The aim is innovative problem solving. Because of the front-end analysis we do with the company, we are able to build projects into the curriculum that reinforce the company’s strategic agenda. Participants can work through specifically tailored projects in the classroom, and take it directly back to the company.”
In the process, says Topping, a good executive education program will aim to “get those in the company together to hear a consistent message and to create a new organizational culture.” Kazanjian adds that a common corporate culture can jumpstart a change initiative. “As managers become more sensitive to how the culture impacts business success, the trend today is for more leaders to be ‘self-aware’—to understand the need to see how others view them in a team setting,” says Kazanjian.
Lynne Zappone, vice president of training and development in the Americas for InterContinental Hotels Group, notes that the learning process is truly about “having all members of our team hear the same message and to develop a similar lexicon.” IHC is an international hospitality company, with a network of hotels under its banner, including InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and Express by Holiday Inn. The company’s global hospitality group works with Goizueta’s custom executive education program on leadership development and business competence issues. “As researchers and educators, [Goizueta professors] are experts in a particular area, such as change management. Their instruction can be helpful in advancing the skill set of our leaders. In the process, we want our leaders engaged in critical thinking to see how the latest business concepts fit in their operating world.”
Zappone notes that the best university executive education programs “must tie in and translate the academic to the real world of business.” IHC, similar to many other large companies, chooses to mix internal and external training—a complement that facilitates talent and strategy development. Kazanjian adds,“The breadth and depth of our faculty also gives us great leeway in structuring customized programs. For example, we had a company that came to us with the specific need for a mix of leadership behavior and business acumen topics, and we were able to deliver an integrated two-week program experience, including coaching and business problem projects."
“When it works,” says Don Kuhn, executive director of the International University Consortium for Executive Education (UNICON) “the process can be invigorating to the company, as they are united in a common challenge and goal. Custom programs usually bring in an entire management team or the managers of a specific department, so that they are treated and educated in the same manner. It provides the opportunity for a company to marry strategic development with the development of its people.” UNICON is an association of 75 universities worldwide that provide executive education. “It’s that mutual learning experience, with managers sitting with their staff and listening to their concerns and ideas. That kind of rich dialogue needs to be encouraged. Senior execs are there to respond to questions and challenges that keep them awake at night.”