Published July 2008
A Customer-Driven Approach to Molding Tomorrow’s Leaders
Frank R. Lloyd, Ph.D.
To cultivate exceptional leaders, CLOs must seek changes in the delivery of executive education and collaborate with academic institutions to develop custom course content that is beneficial to both parties.
According to conventional wisdom, 70 percent of employee development happens on the job, 20 percent through formal and informal relationships with bosses and mentors and 10 percent in the classroom.
However, we are seeing a new dynamic emerge, one that suggests that 50 percent of employee development takes place through challenging job assignments, 30 percent in the classroom and 20 percent through community involvement. This theory suggests that powerful learning experiences are available everywhere and that experiential classroom instruction can be tied more closely to the job than ever before.
As a result, CLOs can no longer assume that what is in the business school brochures is all that’s available for meaningful management education. Businesses and executive education providers must work together to design and develop course content and delivery formats.
Many CEOs and CLOs remain skeptical of business schools’ ability to change and deliver programming in executive education that promotes high performance in industries, organizations and teams. They seem to believe schools are restricted to the ABC method of instruction that has been used since teaching began:
A. An educational institution offers courses according to curricula that convey subject matter knowledge in the amount and timing needed for the school to bestow various credentials.
B. An instructor has a predeveloped syllabus for the presentation of course content for each individual course.
C. Each course is presented according to that outline.
Naturally, instructors feel comfortable in that structure because it’s theirs. But if businesses are going to receive the relevant education they need to compete and succeed in the face of demographic challenges, global competition and the accelerating pace of change, it’s going to be the responsibility of CLOs to seek out changes in the delivery of the educational product and the responsibility of educational institutions to listen, question, challenge and advocate. In other words, it’s up to academic institutions and businesses to collaborate in developing and delivering content in a way that will have an immediate and lasting impact.
At first blush, this sounds like a revolutionary concept. But all it really means is that we have to communicate with each other. CLOs need to be clear about their needs, scope and parameters, and educational providers need to understand CLOs’ needs and buying criteria. They have to establish honest, business-like relationships based on two-way communication.
Once this is achieved, businesses can access a university’s research-based content and a learning environment that provides a safe place to think and act differently. More importantly, they can access instructors who facilitate participants’ learning using their own experiences, as well as external perspectives — instructors who challenge participants to think broadly and innovatively, enable them to reconnect with fundamentals and a wider set of purposes and promote reflection and reassessment.
All this fosters courage and openness to change, which after all is what businesses are looking for to survive. But schools also need this interaction. When CLOs and university providers can communicate well, business schools serve the business community in immediate as well as long-term ways, and this contributes to the schools’ relationships, reputations and revenues. I have seen this put into practice where the school and its business client become reinvigorated by the possibilities.
Learner-Driven Teaching Methods
One executive education provider offers a number of leadership courses designed to teach future managers in corporations how to be successful. A pharmaceutical company that sent many of its employees through these leadership courses came to its partnering university and asked for something “a little different.” This company wanted a two-day program that would change the way its managers thought. This is the essence of education, and it’s very different from the training in specific tasks or specialized knowledge that most companies think to provide for their employees through a school or college.
The educational institution accepted the challenge even though its leaders knew it was a departure from what they had done in the past. This approach had to do with promoting new ways of thinking within a specific organizational culture, not how to think within a specific intellectual discipline. To make this program successful, the institution had to ask the instructors to be facilitators more than teachers.
They would have to pose open-ended questions to students without having any idea what the answers might be and then respond extemporaneously to the questions posed. This made the professors participating in the program understandably nervous, but this approach was necessary to explore the thought patterns of the employees.
Through this relatively unstructured program, the strangest thing happened: Between the first and second sessions, the professors digested and analyzed the answers they received during the first open-ended discussion, developed relevant teaching points around that analysis and on the second day offered insight and expertise that spurred additional discussions.
A day after the program ended, the two professors said they couldn’t remember the last time they were so intellectually stimulated and sought out opportunities to teach similar classes. This approach turned out to be beneficial for both the business and educational provider.
Flexible Delivery Schedules: “Spatial Learning”
Time is another reason CLOs must partner with academic institutions to develop the delivery of their learning programs. Although many companies have high-potential employees who would benefit from customized educational programs, these companies also realize they are limited in the amount of time these employees can spend away from the job in learning activities. The company’s bottom line depends on their on-the-job performance.
An executive education department at a private university’s business school faced just such a dilemma with a high-profile, high-pressure financial institution. This organization desired a leadership development program for its up-and-coming managers. The university’s representatives outlined the many programs the school offered in this area, everything from an advanced leadership program that met regularly over a nine-month period to short one- and two-day programs.
“But you don’t understand,” the company’s learning officer said. “We can’t spare two days, let alone nine months.”
“OK,” the university representative replied. “How much time can you spare?”
“Two hours. Max.”
Undaunted, the executive education department devised a concept called “spatial learning” in which curricula were developed that could be delivered in the two-hour periods the company had allocated. Then the school formed “sunrise breakfast sessions,” during which smaller groups from the company gathered to talk about the practical applications of the theories that had been presented during the general class session. These breakfast sessions helped the university supply the company with a complete course in a time frame that suited the needs and demands of that company.
Critical Mass and Global Reach
There is a high demand for leadership programs these days because companies are looking to develop a critical mass of talent ready to assume leadership responsibilities at enterprise, business-unit and top functional levels. Not only that, they also are looking for these groups of officers, executives and high-level managers to be in alignment with the organization’s overall mission and strategy and to mobilize their respective departments around the world in this endeavor.
This is another area in which CLOs and executive education providers can profitably collaborate — if they will communicate well. Here is how one firm collaborated with a business school provider to achieve the necessary critical mass, alignment and global reach:
Two years ago, a worldwide retailer of travel products and a provider of distribution and technology solutions for the travel industry enrolled seven high potentials into a yearlong advanced leadership course offered by the executive education department at a nearby university. Based on their positive experience in the public program, the company seized the opportunity. It formed a partnership with the university, in which the executive education department developed a leadership program specifically designed for one of the firm’s major operating units and the company’s corporate culture.
The university sent faculty members to the company’s headquarters so they could learn firsthand how that culture operated within the overall organizational framework. Then the faculty members designed a program that dealt exclusively with developing leaders within that organizational culture and taught it at the company’s headquarters, not the university’s campus.
Was it a success? Apparently so, because the company has since asked the university to formulate a similar program for all its units for delivery at locations in South America and Eastern Europe, each with its own specific cultural anomalies.
Specifically Tailored Course Content
The human resources department of a large company recently asked an executive education department to design a course for its personnel that had nothing to do with HR skills. It wanted a program to teach department personnel the languages of finance, accounting and marketing. Why? Because only then, the HR department head reasoned, could his personnel understand their places, their roles and their effects on the corporation’s balance sheet.
He wanted them to know where they could find the costs of such things as recruiting, hiring, training and turnover on the balance sheet and how investments in these areas would pay off. Then they would be able to determine how the changes they proposed would affect the firm’s overall success.
But why marketing? The HR director said that nine times out of 10, when the human resources department wants to initiate a new program or change an existing one, it is met with resistance. The marketing aspect of the executive education custom course was designed specifically to teach the HR professionals within that organization how to brand their offerings and effectively communicate the HR value proposition to internal customers.
Whether we are talking about learner-driven teaching methods, flexible delivery formats, critical mass and global reach or developing skill in the language of business, the ultimate test of collaboration between a CLO and a business school partner is the application of new learning for the benefit of the company and the participant.
Many custom executive education programs do this by embedding projects into the program structure. The CLO needs to be clear about the firm’s overall business situation, the management development implications of its business challenges and the resulting learning agenda for the company. The business school provider must listen, question and challenge to identify and structure tangible business issues into effective learning vehicles.
When this communication occurs, a company can achieve immediate benefits from the application of learning to specific projects, as well as long-term benefits as the participants continue to apply their learning to new situations.
For example, a regional beverage distribution company wished to develop general manager skills among its sales and operations managers. The participants were divided into teams, and each was assigned a company challenge in areas such as overtime, route optimization and implementation of new information systems.
The teams had one month to research the topics and return with formal recommendations. Program instructors and the company’s top management accepted and implemented the teams’ recommendations, saving thousands of dollars and reallocating resources to new initiatives.
Using business projects as part of a customized learning experience makes it easier to assess the effectiveness of a program and the company’s return on investment. For example, it is easy to identify the number of program projects that “go live,” retain executive sponsorship and achieve their business metrics.
Getting Tomorrow’s Leaders Today
What are the leadership traits corporations need to be looking for as they enter the second decade of the 21st century? There is no one correct answer to this question. Each corporation has the right to define the characteristics of its leadership team and then turn to its educational partner and say, “Make this dream a reality.”
This is how the CEO of a Houston-based energy company defined it. She asked her executive education partner to develop a program unique to her company that would help in “developing the skills and talents required of tomorrow’s leaders.” She was very specific in what she wanted and outlined her requirements in a letter to her educational partner.
“Our culture looks to create an environment where leaders must be willing to be questioned, demonstrate vulnerability and not take things personally. In other words, good leaders need to be able to embrace change and overcome failures,” she wrote.
“Our leaders also must be able to demonstrate passion, energy, and be ruthlessly disciplined. While discipline, execution and safety are key ingredients to our success, this must be balanced with a thirst for creative ideas and a willingness to challenge the status quo.”
An off-the-shelf, straight-from-the-catalog business school course open to all will not meet the needs of this CEO or others who want to establish their next leadership generation. It is incumbent on corporations and business schools to collaborate and develop and deliver custom executive education programs that develop leaders who will assure the ongoing success of their firms.
This means CLOs must clearly articulate need, scope and outcomes, and providers must clearly express their capability, compatibility and commitment. When such open, two-way communication happens, companies can access the rigor of the academy, and business schools can access the relevance of the workplace. Together, they can develop and deliver customized educational experiences for executives that impact immediate business success and long-term business survival.