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Why executive education is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition

More businesses are turning to made-to-measure executive education

May 1, 2014


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Over the last decade, men have been discovering that off-the-rack clothing is rarely a good fit. That’s why they’re turning in ever increasing numbers to custom-made alternatives. And now, it seems, the program directors at post-secondary institutions are offering a similar option: made-to-measure executive education. These programs aren’t about minor alterations, either – companies can determine the curriculum, where it takes place and how it interacts with company projects.

It can even be taught using the company’s language.

Hugh Evans, the director of executive education at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, says tailored programs allow companies to ensure they’re getting good value for their investment. One challenge they help companies tackle, he says, is the province’s take of the Peter Principle. “Often it’s in response to the fact that the company, particularly in Calgary, has grown very quickly, and people have been promoted up through the hierarchy from being technical specialists or rig supervisors and now are managing a big budget, a complex operation and other people,” he says. “They’re simply not prepared to do that.”

The alternative, he says, is to let people work it out on the job, and while some will be able to bootstrap their way into becoming effective managers, others won’t. The consequences for the company are lower retention rates and managerial incompetence, which can lead to cost overruns and underperformance. “Those people, they’re great at winning the fees and running the operation, but the people leadership aspect can be a real challenge for them,” he says. “They’re just not oriented that way.”

Custom education programs can teach those skills, and do it in an environment where ­technically minded people might not feel quite as uncomfortable. “It’s not a taught, lectured, professor-as-the-expert type scenario,” Evans says. “It’s much more of a facilitated group learning environment.” And for companies, that group learning can have tangible outcomes. “What questions have you been holding in your head that you’d really like to get answers to? We’ve got your best and brightest, and what we’ll do is we’ll break them into four groups, with four questions, and we’ll work with them on that so they come up with some well-­articulated recommendations.”

Melissa Creech, the program director with the Alberta School of Business’s executive education department, says the applied – and tailored – nature of custom programs is growing in popularity among her clients. “They’re taking a deeper look at what they want to get out of their education. Companies that in the past might have picked a big name school are seeing that they’d rather have the experiential learning that we work on.” And here, too, the ability to bring ­company-specific problems into the classroom is a selling feature. “You’re able to really work specifically on those challenges with the client, where in an open program you can work on some of those things but it’s not in the context of that organization.”

But Creech doesn’t think the open programs – the educational­ equivalent of an off-the-rack suit – are without merit. They allow students to network outside of their company and field, and give them a broader base from which to think about their specific issues. “They learn that they’re not alone in the challenges that they’re facing,” she says. That’s why she says open programs can be a part of the custom experience. “What we’re finding now is that some of the organizations we work with want a blend. How can they combine the benefits of the open program – having the mixed room, getting people to see outside their industry and how their company fits in the broader economic context of Alberta, Western Canada and the world – and bring that learning back into the individual organization?”

The best way to do that, of course, is by enrolling your staff in one of these programs. The schools can tailor them to as few as five students or as many as 50, and work with you to make sure you’re getting what you need. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can – or should – do in addition to train your people and keep them engaged and motivated. And so, with that in mind, we’ve come up with a few generation-­specific educational solutions to problems you’re probably facing.

Gen Y Millenials

You know them and unless you’re in the business of selling stand-up bathtubs, you have to employ them – and a lot of them, in all likelihood. And if there’s one thing they lack, it’s patience. Just ask Emerson Csorba, one of the millennials behind Edmonton-­based consulting firm Gen Y Inc. “Two things that gen Y lacks are loyalty and patience. I have a lot of friends that are educated and talented but are saying they only want to work for a company for six months before they go somewhere else. And this is before they’ve even started in the job.” But, Csorba says, an initial investment in a young employee can nip this in the bud. “Even though there are these issues around patience and loyalty, if you take the time to get to know a young hire and invest in that relationship, they’re going to be loyal.”

That’s what they do at Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. Ellen Hollinger, EEDC’s executive director of human resources, says it’s important to make the connection with younger employees early. “Managers are engaged with their employees right off the bat,” she says.

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“Within that first three to six months is when we really start building up a professional plan.” And, she says, while that often can include executive education courses or programs outside the office, there are also ways to do it in-house. “It may not necessarily be a course or a workshop that you go on, but maybe you have an interest in developing a particular skill that you can build internally.”

And, Hollinger says, it doesn’t hurt to invest a sense of purpose and mission in them too. “These are really smart kids. They’re driven, and they want to make an impact, and so what we’ve done here is created an environment that allows them to do that.”

Gen X

Douglas Coupland can stop complaining now. Well, about his generation, anyways. That’s because, after two decades of breathing the baby boomers’ exhaust fumes, gen X is coming into its own. More importantly, members of it are coming into positions of power, preparing to occupy the spots boomers are vacating. Now, it’s time for you to develop them into suitable replacements.

And while you’ve heard this before, it bears repeating: volunteering to sit on a board or committee with a not-for-profit is one of the best ways to develop both the soft and hard skills of leadership. Just ask Margot Ross-Graham, the HR guru at Williams Engineering. “You learn, if you’re not a finance person, how to read financial statements,” she says. “You’re often asked to sit on a committee that would expose you to other areas of operation.” That’s why her company encourages people to sit on boards as a way to develop skills. “Even if it isn’t going to change their career path, it is going to give them some skills that they don’t otherwise have,” she says.

It’s also good at helping people who might not necessarily self-identify as future leaders discover that they might just have that capacity in them. That’s because it exposes them to areas they probably don’t get to see at work, and allows them to escape the role they may have been pigeonholed into there. “It exposes you to how boards operate,” Ross-Graham says, “and as you grow in an organization you may have to report to a board. ”

The Boomers

You might be tempted to think of baby boomer employees the way you do a cactus: occasionally prickly, but in need of very little care and attention. Well, not quite. As Stella Cosby, the senior director of human resources at Agrium, says, adopting that strategy can lead to them behaving like, well, cacti. “They have a lot of discretionary effort, and when you become less engaged you hold back that discretionary effort. You come to work, you do your job, but if you’re not feeling valued or if you believe that the company doesn’t think that you’re as engaged or innovative, you start holding back.”

That’s a problem, given that your boomer employees still have plenty left to offer. As a number of studies published by Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work reveal, they might just be your most valuable assets. “Hiring managers gave very high marks to people that are over 50 for their loyalty, their reliability and their productivity,” Cosby says. “Their work ethic is a little different than the millennials and gen-Xers.” That’s why only investing in those under 50 is a short-sighted and self-defeating strategy. “A lot of organizations don’t target development dollars for those over 50 because they’re targeting them at the younger generations or the high-potential up-and-comers,” Cosby says. “That’s a problem, because what happens to those people? They still have another 10 to 20 years left.”

The solution might lie in technology. If boomers still have another 20 years left in the organization, they can’t afford to not understand the latest trends in tech. Twenty years ago, after all, Microsoft was at the cutting edge and cellular telephones were an extravagance. Who knows where we’ll be, or what we’ll be using, 20 years from today. So take one of those millennials you have knocking around your office, and tell them it’s their mission to help their older colleagues tell the difference between Twitter and Tinder. They get the benefit of building a relationship with a senior colleague, while their counterpart gets a guide to the latest technologies. In some circles, this is called reverse mentoring. You can just call it a good idea.

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