Made to measure

by 30 Sep 2008

Executive education is designed for time-poor executives. A growing number of organisations have moved towards tailored programs that allow participants to focus on leadership issues that are specific to their industry, organisation and even individual circumstances. Teresa Russell reports

If you haven’t got the time or the inclination to do an MBA, don’t worry. The big business schools in Australia (and some minor ones) run short public courses that always include the subject of leadership, filling a strong market demand from Australian businesses. The growth sector in this executive education market is in tailored courses designed often for individual organisations.

Mallesons Stephen Jaques is one of Australia’s top-tier commercial law firms, employing about 2000 people across Australia, Shanghai, Hong Kong,Beijing and London. Campbell McGlynn, head of learning and career development at Mallesons, says that the firm has used executive education providers in the past, including AGSM, INSEAD and most recently, MGSM.

Since 2004, Mallesons has used leadership programs to build the skills needed to execute the firm’s vision and strategy. This has involved creating separate programs for its partners and senior associates.

The firm’s L&D team designed the programs in consultation with senior management – contracting external providers to deliver some of the components.

LGPro (Local Government Professionals Inc) is the peak body for local government professionals in Victoria, providing a range of professional development and advocacy services for local government officers at all levels. It has about 1000 members, but its programs cater for all professionals working in local government, not just its membership.

Tony Matthews, manager of professional development at LGPro, says the organisation has been running its Emerging Leaders Program in partnership with RMIT for five years, creating a network of 100 graduates across the state’s urban and rural councils.

“We were asked by councils for a program that would cultivate good leaders,” says Matthews,admitting that the original driver of the program was to address succession planning issues within the sector.

Meahan Callaghan, human resources director for online employment site SEEK Limited, says that the company introduced executive education in 2005,partnering with Mt Eliza Executive Education, a part of Melbourne Business School.

“Three years ago, we had to recruit a senior management layer in the company because of our strong growth,” says Callaghan, adding that the organisation has grown from 200 to 400 employees in the last three years. “We placed a greater emphasis on leadership as a competency in the business, so we had to find a tailored solution because of our unique culture,” she says.

Selecting a provider

Mallesons, LGPro and SEEK chose Australia’s top business schools to tailor an executive education program for each of them. Tailoring programs for the corporate market is the biggest growth area in executive education – a trend that has been on a steep rise for the last three to five years.

Cost is not a factor in the choice of provider, but value for money and a strong understanding of the organisation’s culture are common themes.

“We chose MGSM to run our Summit and Altitude programs because they were the provider that was most prepared to work with us from scratch,”says McGlynn.

“We’re not an easy bunch to work with because we require a high degree of customisation. Our senior partners and L&D are both heavily involved in program design,” he says. McGlynn adds that the lawyers who participate in these programs expect their facilitators to have a deep understanding of the challenges and issues involved in their industry.

The same can be said for LGPro’s participants. Matthews says there were several factors that made RMIT’s proposal stand out from its competitors. “The program was developed by the local government sector, for the local government sector. We felt that RMIT understood our business better than the others and we developed a strong personal rapport with the academic who now facilitates the program.

“It also helped that they offered credits towards an MBA to graduates of our program,” says Matthews.

Callaghan says that reputation is important and that the provider must have a credible brand. “The fact that they were able to get to know our company and match our culture in the way it is delivered has been the main reason we keep asking them back,” she says, describing the program as having a non-academic feel to it,despite being delivered by an academic.

Program structures

In 2007, about 30 of Mallesons’ partners were consulted to identify the firm’s development needs. This resulted in a comprehensive L&D curriculum for partners and associates. It identified specific learning needs for newer partners and high potential senior associates.

The program for 50 senior associates included an introduction to emotional intelligence (EI), an EI 360-degree feedback process and individualised debrief, followed by a two-day residential course on leadership effectiveness. This is followed by further coaching sessions and small group work.

Once the theory of leadership has been explored,the chief executive partner and managing partners discuss the application of the theory and communicate visions and plans for the firm. “Effective leadership programs should provide opportunities for senior executives to communicate their vision for the organisation,” says McGlynn.

LGPro’s Emerging Leaders program is self-directed. Participants plan and develop most of the sessions themselves. It begins with an introductory two-day forum facilitated by RMIT University and then has eight full-day workshops throughout the year that examine all different aspects of leadership within local government.

A group project, chosen by the emerging leaders steering committee, is presented to the Minister for Local Government as well as at the LGPro annual conference. Participants also work with a mentor –one usually chosen from outside their local government field.

“The 24 participants can represent an interesting mix of professions working alongside each other,”says Matthews. “This year we have a mechanic who manages a fleet of vehicles, but participants can also come from corporate planning, age and disability services, family, youth and children’s services or finance, to name a few,” he says.

SEEK’s leadership course is held over a two-month period. The first session is run in October and focuses on understanding yourself (using 360-degree feedback and other diagnostic tools), then the second block covers the subject of understanding teams and the impact you have on them. All participants follow up with the facilitator six months after the course is completed.

“Participants really like the time they have with a coach,” says Callaghan. “They still have moments of discovery 10 to 15 years into their career. It’s not just a ‘set and forget’ course. Our people extract personal value from the course which appreciates them as an individual,” she says.

Value for money

None of the three organisations run ROI analytics to justify their spending. McGlynn says that Mallesons sees strong gains in their engagement ratings to levels that are “well above the norm for professional services firms.” He says the most favourable increases are in the areas of partner leadership, strategic leadership and direction, communication and client focus. Since 2004 – when the firm began focussing on leadership development – staff turnover has fallen from 25 per cent to 16 per cent.

Matthews says that LGPro has just started working on ROI and measures retention of emerging leaders in the local government sector. Of its 96 graduates in the last five years, 89 have been retained,many moving to senior leadership roles. The actual cost of the program is low for LGPro because it is sponsored by an external organisation (currently a local government insurance specialist).

SEEK has just been named runner-up in Hewitt’s Best Employers to Work for in Australia and New Zealand 2008 awards. Apart from this award,Callaghan says the company gauges the effectiveness of its leadership programs through other internal measures. Despite rapid growth, they consistently get engagement scores in excess of 85 per cent and turnover at leadership level is reportedly “very low.”Internal promotion to leadership level is also much more common than it was three years ago.

“”We’re getting great feedback and all our metrics are positive, so the value of the course is paying off for us,” concludes Callaghan.