Discovering the in-house option

by 03 Oct 2007

Australias business schools offer short, intensive courses to hone the skills of busy professionals. Many participants attend open courses often in CBD campuses, but some organisations contract these schools to run customised executive education courses in-house. Teresa Russell reports

Executive education courses usually take anything from two days to two weeks to complete. The longer ones might be intensive residential programs. However some providers have taken a purposefully non-residential stance, finding that work-life balance issues mean that there is a strong market for courses that send participants home each night.

The names of available executive education programs differ from one business school to another. Indeed, it seems that the schools take quite some time thinking up innovative names that will differentiate their offerings from all the others. Despite what they are called, the general themes of the programs taught usually cover management, leadership and human resources; strategy and operations; marketing and client relationships and finance and accounting.

Courses cost anything from a few thousand dollars to some that give little change out of $20,000. The higher priced ones are occasionally marketed as mini-MBAs, as the subjects covered – and often the faculty teaching them – come from highly reputable MBA programs.

Open courses have the advantage of providing participants a ready-made network of business people working in a wide range of organisations and industries. Open courses are useful if only a few individuals in one organisation need a particular type of development at a particular point in time.

However, many companies today find that they have either a shallow talent pool in their succession pipeline, or that they are operating in an increasingly complex business environment in which skills gaps have become evident. They find they have the critical mass to justify paying one of the open program providers to tailor a management development program to suit their specific business needs.

Boyd Williams, senior vice-president human resources Asia-Pacific for DHL, says that his company has been experiencing double-digit growth year on year, with its workforce growing at the same rate.

Although DHL is an iconic brand in the international express courier business, it is now much more than that. Five years ago it was acquired by Deutsche Post as part of its strategy to change from being a German postal service to being the largest logistics business in the world. It now has 500,000 employees worldwide working in its freight forwarding, contract logistics and international express courier businesses.

Williams is based in Singapore in DHL’s Asia-Pacific express courier business, which employs 28,000 people. “In this growing market, we identified a need for high-calibre business leaders for the future. We targeted our senior management team across the region and engaged the AGSM to run a pretty intensive two-week program,” he says. DHL has now run three of these programs since 2004.

David Preiss, CEO of LGPro, chose RMIT BusinessSchool to help develop and run an emerging leaders program run over a 12-month period. This program is now in its fifth year.

LGPro is the peak body and professional member association for people working in local government in Victoria. Its primary function as a not-for-profit organisation is to provide professional development within local government. All 79 councils in Victoria have LGPro members.

Stuart Cleary, general manager human resources of FKP Property Group says that employee numbers in his organisation have doubled to approximately 1,200 since 2005, primarily through acquisition. Since then, the company has sent 20 people to AGSM’s leadership programs and is currently in the process of briefing AGSM on the development of a tailored customised leadership program.

FKP operates primarily on the east coast of Australia. It is a diversified property and investment group with interests in development, construction, land subdivision, retirement village ownership and management, investment, property and asset management.

Choosing and briefing a provider

As there is no ready reference of executive development programs available in Australia, it is up to HR to stay (or get) up-to-date with what’s on the market. Networking, internet research, advertisements and articles in trade journals, referrals and direct contact with business schools and other learning providers are all valid ways of conducting this research. Published rankings are also available. The Financial Times, for example, provides a list of the top 45 schools around the world providing executive education.

Williams says that DHL’s decision to use AGSM was made by its CEO who had previous experience with the school, but that Williams had worked with them in previous jobs as well. “We outsourced this program because we didn’t have leading edge knowledge in-house – and nor could we have built it,” he says.

Recent programs were composed of two one-week modules. The first week covered strategy and finance and in the second, leadership, human resources and leading change. Project teams of 3–5 people are asked to solve real DHL business problems. Solutions are presented to the regional board that decides whether or not to implement them.

At the conclusion of each program, Williams and the program director review the participant assessments, look at the outcomes of implemented solutions of the group projects, canvass the views of the regional board who sponsor the program and then decide what business challenges need to be included in the next program. The program director then adjusts the design of the next program. The 2008 program will include a marketing module as a result of this review process.

Preiss at LGPro says that the need for tailored learning was identified at an annual conference about five years ago when a participant in a leadership workshop stood up and said, “It’s been great to have my aspirations and professional development needs acknowledged. I now feel I have a future in local government.”

“We checked the interest level among our members. It was incredibly strong, so we created the outline of the broad program and put it out to tender to a number of tertiary education providers,” says Preiss. RMIT delivers the two-day introductory forum that covers the subjects knowing yourself, understanding your organisation and gaining insight into various leadership styles.

The whole group of 24 is given a project to complete that is presented at LGPro’s next annual conference.

FKP’s strong relationship with AGSM meant it was the obvious provider to create a customised program for them. “We explained to them that we are a very results-focused organisation that achieves results through our people. Strong leaders will drive our people to perform in order to achieve our desired business results. The outcome from FKP’s investment in leadership development must be reflected in our business results,” says Cleary.

FKP plans to run three two-day modules over a six-month period. “Participants will be assigned projects at the end of each module to make sure skills are brought back into the workplace. They can be assessed over the six-month period and start talking and networking within the business,” he says.

Business outcomes

The major benefit of tailored learning programs over open executive education programs is undoubtedly the specific, targeted business projects that participants are set. The downside is that they don’t get to network with people outside their business or industry.

At DHL, Williams says that the financial and business impact of the proposed solutions to business problems “is big, obvious and easy to measure.” Just one project currently being implemented is expected to save somewhere between 2–3 million. “Just that one project pays for all three programs we have run so far,” he says, “but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say we have sustained improved performance from our participants. Ideally I’d like to evaluate that effectiveness, but if these projects are driving revenue and minimising costs, I ask myself if I do really need to do it?” says Williams.

Cleary plans to measure participant success at FKP’s custom leadership program through achievement of KPIs, as well as monitoring the success of the projects they have been assigned.

Other measures

All three organisations ask participants to assess the program they attended and then modify the next one according to any feedback. Preiss says that one of the measures of success of its Emerging Leaders program is its popularity. “We could fill the course three times over, but we can only run it once each year. We have to make sure that there is a suitable range of diversity in the group in terms of age, professional background and level of seniority,” says Preiss.

LGPro now has an Emerging Leaders graduate network that not only continues their professional development, but also provides real assistance in the sector. “The program has mentoring built into it. Participants have become mentors. A lot of the councils have their graduates present to staff or the management team about what they have learnt and how that can be brought back into the organisation.


The strong message from Williams, Preiss and Cleary is to be clear from the outset about why you are pursuing customised executive education and what you want as an outcome.

“You have to have a great relationship with a provider that understands your business and what is important to you. Don’t send people off to do training for training’s sake. You need to see results in your business,” says Cleary.

“Generic leadership programs are bland,” says Preiss. “You need to know what the leadership issues and challenges are for your particular sector and incorporate them into your program, unless you want generic leaders. Leadership is not a job title. It’s an activity. It’s not a noun. It’s a verb. So don’t just choose participants by position, or you’ll get it wrong,” concludes Preiss.

Williams says it is vital that the senior leadership team participates. “Leverage the brain power you’ve got on real business issues. We’re not running a mini-MBA inside our business. If we were, I would never get the money to fund it,” he asserts.

ProVision: from a different angle

Representing more than 410 independent optometry practices in Australia, ProVision provides a wide range of practice support services to help its members grow their businesses in a competitive market. Part of its offering includes over 130 days of education programs per year.

“We responded to the needs of our members and introduced a management education program this year. Leadership, strategic management and change management were seen as critical modules that would deliver real benefits to practitioners,” says Jackie McKenzie, ProVision’s corporate marketing manager.

Uniquely, ProVision provides this program free of charge to its members, strengthening the relationships it has with its members and bolstering the value of that membership.

Because optometrists are all university graduates, ProVision knew that course content would have to be pitched at a postgraduate level. “We engaged MGSM to deliver the program for a few reasons. If a university delivered the program, we knew it would have credibility among our members and could be positioned appropriately to attract maximum participation. Also, we wanted a residential program that would cater to the broad geographical diversity of our membership,” says McKenzie.

ProVision had an overwhelming response to the course from participants, with all sessions completely booked out. “We measure the value of the education both through feedback, as well as by improvements made in their individual practices,”she says.

Strategy in action

Cathy Powell is currently doing an MBA through the University of Queensland. She is employed by the ANZ Bank and applied for a promotion to the position of local CEO, Pacific market, which includes 10 retail bank branches between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

"There were several reasons I enrolled myself in a five-day Strategy in Action program run by the UQ Business School - Downtown. I thought it would help with my application for promotion and would give me a head start in the role if I got the job. It also meant I would get two credit points towards my MBA, without having to attend 13 weeks of night lectures when I had just started a new job," says Powell.

"I really enjoyed the program, primarily because of interaction with other participants who came from various industries as well as from overseas. Listening to what other organisations were facing and participating in discussions around this was amazing. I was always told that MBAs were all about the networking opportunities, but this course confirmed that for me," she says.

Her only criticism of the program was that it was quite intense and left little time to do the group assignment. She would have preferred the course to run over a three-week period (2+2+1). "Five days out of the business is a long time and a huge commitment," she says.

Powell was promoted and is now extremely busy and pleased she took the time to do the course, as it is helping her create a strategic direction in her market.