Changes in executive training

Training for effective leadership is now seen as an integral part of most business school curricula, says Rob Noble

After 40 years of running Open Courses – development programmes that bring together diverse groups of professionals from different sectors – we at The Leadership Trust have seen  a rise in the proportion of bespoke courses, held at the client premises and closed to employees of that organisation. The shift in requirements within organisations – due to the financial climate of recent years has caused a chain reaction within the world of training and development, by shifting their focus to solving immediate issues at hand. Some organisations felt that this suited them better because their management development requirements were very specific to a set of circumstances that were quicker to resolve on-site than addressing over longer period of time on the Open Course model.

Business schools today now recognise that their market is no longer solely composed of ambitious young executives wishing to invest in their own career success. Rather than focus on the individual development of an executive, employers are focusing on more rounded and synchronised training. While such bespoke executive programmes have always existed, large organisations are now much more proactive and involved in shaping the executive education of their managers in one cohort, rather than staggered programmes for each individual. They know what they need and where the gaps are in their talent pool, and many are willing to invest in executive education that will meet these defined needs.

Sectors such as health, education, and the public sector are now more involved in shaping the learning of their executives. There are now many more MBAs and other executive programmes with a specialist focus; which can be completed on a part-time basis, which is more attractive to bosses. Executive education is no longer simply an individual passport to other worlds, it is now more often focused on achieving maximum impact for employers who invest in and contribute to shaping these courses. Return on investment today is therefore measured in very different ways from the measures applied to old models of executive education.

A shift from individual to organisation and sector-centric education

Executive education tends to reflect the ethos of its time. The early MBAs were for many years individually focused, often funded by the individuals themselves, aimed at facilitating fast track careers, and focusing predominantly on preparing high fliers for careers in business.

Executive education in the early days provided a solid grounding in management science, including finance, strategy, marketing, operations management and strategic human resources in particular. The courses were highly competitive, and business schools were measured by the speed with which their alumni reached high executive level salaries and boardroom positions in prosperous companies.

A changing curriculum for today’s world: globalisation, ethics and leadership

The world has changed, and with it has changed the ethos of executive education. Organisations today have recognised that the 21st century world needs different thinking and capabilities, and different ethics. The global banking crisis caused many business schools to review the content of their executive programmes, driven partly by their own conscience and a simultaneous recognition that something was missing from their programmes, and partly as a result of strong drivers from the market, from clients themselves.

Executive education syllabuses are consequently very much broader now, no longer exclusively focused on the ‘hard’ management sciences described above, the curricula of executive education courses now more commonly reflect the issues of our time: globalisation, ethics and governance, environment, gender, digital communications and of course leadership, when added to the current training syllabus provide a broader curriculum, more fit for the challenges of today’s world, and enabling the education of more adaptive and arguably more thoughtful leaders.

Changing pedagogies

No longer is there an assumption that all the knowledge in the classroom resides with the expert teaching faculty. Executive education is now often supported by in-company action learning sets, and coaching or mentoring schemes, participants learn to apply the learning from each module to their own work challenges. ‘In-sourcing’ is a solution for businesses who want to save some money by using their own resources and expertise, to deliver some form of training programme that will develop their staff, supported by experts outside the organisation.

Many corporate or sectoral education programmes also include project-based learning within other sectors or companies. Learning through the traditional case study method is now balanced by real world organisational projects and consultancy, supported by the theoretical knowledge required to enhance practice.

Of course another big change in executive education has been the rapid development of online and virtual learning environments that have brought about the emergence of global programmes. Participation in such MOOCs (massive open online course programmes, the current ‘vogue’ in e-learning) that have enabled executives across the world to learn together and share managerial and leadership challenges across boundaries.

Globalisation of business schools

Global executive education is no longer exclusively led by US or Europe. A rapid growth in high quality business schools across the globe often in partnership with western business schools offers a tremendous choice to buyers, both individuals and organisations. The increasingly sophisticated digital learning environments discussed above have meant that geography is no longer always a constraint, more the sole factor in choosing a school or course.

An emphasis on leadership

Old style executive education rarely taught much about leadership. Business schools tended to see leadership development as beyond the scope of the academic curriculum. This is perhaps the most important shift in executive education today. Businesses and society now recognise that the world has many competent managers, but without effective leaders organisations will not only fail, but they are likely to fall into the traps and failures of the past. New forms of executive education have now recognised that it is not enough to educate professionally qualified managers without an emphasis on leadership skills. Training for effective leadership is now seen as an integral part of most business school curricula.


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