Tailored to Fit

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Customized executive education programs target leadership skills among senior executives.

Sherri Hart* was excited about her recent promotion to senior vice president for the Americas. In addition to managing a substantial profit and loss, she was looking forward to the broad range of management challenges she’d face. She learned in her rise through the management ranks that one of her key responsibilities was identifying and developing talent within her organization. But as she reviewed the recent performance evaluations of her team members, something began to trouble her.

In profile after profile, these leaders were described as strong on execution but lacking strategic thinking skills. Ms. Hart knew that strategic thinking was one of the crucial requirements for continued advancement in her company. How could she address this gap in the capabilities of her senior team members?

She considered several solutions: bring in coaches for each team member to focus on developing strategic thinking skills or send team members to a course at one of the prestigious business schools. She hesitated, in part because of the associated costs. But more importantly, Ms. Hart wanted a solution that was group-focused and specifically tailored to the strategic challenges her company faced.

What she and similar business leaders are seeking is a customized, in-house executive education program. These programs, widely used in learning-oriented companies, focus on targeted leadership skills. The courses are presented to a cohort of company leaders who study together to increase their effectiveness in their current and future roles. Besides strategic thinking, programs can focus on a variety of leadership skills: team leadership, marketing savvy, business development and many others.

Some large companies have in-house teams to develop executive education programs. Ms. Hart’s firm didn’t, so she contacted an external consultant to help her develop a program. The consultant started by interviewing the senior company executives to align the program with key business objectives. Why is it important to develop this leadership skill at this time in this company? This alignment was critical for Ms. Hart to gain the endorsement of the company’s most senior leaders, so everyone agreed this was a top-priority initiative.

Once the senior leadership team was on-board, the next step was selecting the right participants. Ms. Hart chose to focus the program on high-potential leaders who were on an accelerated development track. Being selected to participate was a privilege awarded to leaders who demonstrated high levels of both performance and potential.

Curriculum design was the crucial next step. An executive education program must be designed to address specific, measurable, relevant learning objectives. Executive education programs employ a variety of engaging educational approaches, including computer simulations, customized case studies, and other technological innovations. Ms. Hart and her consultant agreed their program should include Action Learning Projects. These team projects focus on real, pressing business problems that matter to the senior leadership team. Within a specified time frame, each team tackles one of these problems and presents their findings and recommendations to the senior officers of the company. The Action Learning Projects provide an opportunity to practice the new skills the participants have learned, give them exposure to the company’s senior leaders and provide valuable insights about some of the company’s key issues.

Highly skilled teachers and facilitators who had a proven track record with senior business executives delivered the executive education program. It incorporated an evaluation component to ensure it had the desired impact. Throughout the process, Ms. Hart and her consultant kept in mind that world-class executive education programs link program goals to business results and are customized to the specific company. They also selected the right participants and kept in mind their strategy, the developmental needs of the participants, to build in follow-up activities to ensure on-going application of the new learning and to actively engage the senior executives.

Ms. Hart was also thoughtful about linking the program to other leadership development initiatives. For example, she worked with company HR professionals to integrate the executive education program into their succession program. Within a year, the company began to benefit from the higher quality of strategic thinking, and several participants were promoted into roles with broader responsibilities.

Ms. Hart realized the executive education program wouldn’t be effective as a one-time event but needed to be part of a broader change intervention. She and the other senior leaders were delighted when the participants began applying their new skills in their leadership roles. The program had increased both the quantity and quality of strategic thinking and it was paying off.

Ms. Hart was in a position to drive an executive education initiative. However, what if you aren’t yet a senior leader but an individual employee who wants to advance her career? Make sure you’re aware of educational opportunities within your company and raise your hand to participate. It helps to have a “sponsor,” a senior leader who advocates for you and puts your name forward for opportunities.

If you’re in a middle management role, look for ways to provide educational opportunities for the people who report to you. You may not be able to create a full-blown executive education program, but you can find speakers and on-line courses that focus on the developmental needs of your team. Not only will this increase the effectiveness of your team, but it will also increase employee engagement and position you as a forward-thinking leader.

Contributing writer: Michael Seitchik, EdD

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About Gail Golden

Gail Golden is Principal of Chicago’s Gail Golden Consulting, LLC, a management psychology firm specializing in helping companies to select and develop their senior leadership talent. Dr. Golden has more than 20 years of experience in consulting and clinical psychology. She is currently coaching a number of Chicago’s senior executives, consulting with both for-profit and not-for-profit firms about strategic leadership development, and leading workshops on innovation, negotiation skills, and a variety of other topics.