Riding the executive learning curve

by 15 Apr 2008

Time-poor business professionals and graduates who need a quick refresher course are two common profiles of attendees at open executive education courses. However market demand for executive education has changed in the last few years as business booms. Teresa Russell reports

Australian business has been operating through a period of sustained growth for more than a decade now. In fact, a significant part of the workforce has no idea what it is like to operate in any other business environment.

There has been a strong increase in demand for executive education courses as the labour market has tightened. People change jobs and roles more often than they used to, resulting in a need to up-skill for transition into new roles, often knowing that particular skills gaps exist. Training/education is regularly tailored to suit a specific individual.

Additionally, organisations have identified a need to build capability and create leaders who will be more effective and strategic in their roles. Business now helps employees develop their own career paths in an effort to retain their services for longer periods of time. There is an expectation among younger employees that employers will support them through lifelong learning.

Demand for public (or open) courses continues to be robust, while demand for tailored executive education for individual organisations has exploded. Craig Hawke, director of executive education at MGSM says, “Companies use us because the programs are academically rigorous and stretch people to think differently, but are practical, so they can use these new skills next week.”

Rosemary Howard, executive director and conjoint professor at AGSM Executive Programs says her organisation started delivering custom programs that taught organisation-specific leadership behaviours more than a decade ago. “Custom programs have been our big growth area in the last few years. But there’s another shift underway now - to move out of the program box and provide even more flexible executive learning and related corporate development, including coaching. We must have the flexibility to deliver to individual client’s needs,” she says.

Multi-tiered and customised

Jeanine Betteridge, HR manager at John Swire & Sons Pty Ltd, including Swire Shipping, says her organisation used the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) to develop its own in-house management program in 2001. Swire Shipping manages the shipping trades and employs around 250 professional staff in Australia and overseas, and 113 participants have attended Swire’s management program over the last seven years.

“We have several levels of executive education available to our managers. Everyone at management level and above goes through our AIM people management program and our real high performers attend either a two- or five-week management course or a two-week finance course at INSEAD in France or Singapore. However there is a gap between these two levels and an opportunity to further enhance people’s skill base,” says Betteridge, who is in the final stages of discussions with management teams to introduce a Graduate Certificate of Business (Professional Management) with AIM, including operational, finance and strategic modules.

A few individuals within Swire Shipping have also undertaken open executive education courses to “fulfil their ongoing learning needs”. Betteridge ensures she gets feedback from all participants who attend open courses and is not afraid to veto future training applications if that feedback has not been as positive as she requires.

Gordon Russell, general manager corporate services at Munich Re Group, says his company also provides two levels of tailored executive education for its 180 employees – many of whom are university graduates. Munich Re is one of the world’s largest reinsurers and Germany’s second largest primary insurer. More than 65 per cent of staff have participated in its staff/leadership development program (known as the Foundation Program) since it was introduced in 2002.

“We define leadership as the ability to influence – peers, customers, managers and other staff. If we provided leadership development to only those who manage people, it wouldn’t have had a sufficient effect on the organisation,” says Russell.

The Foundation Program is open to all employees and comprises three modules delivered over eight days in both residential and non-residential modes. Topics covered include interpersonal skills, impact individuals have on others, influencing, problem solving and managing yourself and others’ performance. Apart from the emphasis on specific content, Russell says they use these programs as team-building events and have recently invited managers from Munich Re’s Asian region to participate in the program. “It has given us a common language to use within the company,” he adds.

Russell used AGSM Executive Programs to tailor this course for the organisation when the need for leadership competency development became apparent six years ago. “We chose the AGSM because they had a tailored, flexible, modular approach that was not only focused on people management. Their course content is also based on their MBA course materials,” he says.

The second tier of executive education has focused competency development modules that include communicating with confidence, relationship management, negotiating strategies and techniques and coaching and mentoring for performance management. The coaching modules are supported by one-on-one coaching sessions. These modules are targeted towards more specific roles.

A third tier, attending an open executive leadership program run by London’s Ashbridge Business School, is available to people with international aspirations within the group. Two people from Munich Re have attended this course.

Relationship with provider

Both Betteridge and Russell agree it is important to have a good relationship with the provider. Flexibility and willingness to respond to feedback appear to be key. “After running our first two programs, we changed about 20 per cent of the content in response to feedback from the participants. Literature and reading materials change with every intake. All hypothetical business scenarios are Munich Re-specific,” explains Russell.

“You must ensure you have a strong relationship with your providers and that they provide excellent trainers and facilitators along with strong content. The ongoing relationship with our provider’s account manager is most important. They’re the ones who take your feedback and respond to requests,” says Betteridge, who either reference checks all providers and courses or gets an expert from within the business to trial the courses on offer.

Measuring results

The impact of the executive education programs at both Munich Re and John Swire & Sons is not measured in dollar terms. Betteridge uses participant feedback both immediately following the course and a few months later to assess whether skills gaps still exist. Russell says they measure outcomes in behavioural terms, using an internally developed competency dictionary as the benchmark. “We have seen a marked improvement against a number of the 12 leadership competencies we rate ourselves against. That’s the best measure of returns,” says Russell.

Tips for the future

Betteridge thinks it is important to be very clear about what the output from any executive education course should be and to work with the provider to ensure they understand your needs. “You must review it constantly to ensure it is still delivering what you want it to deliver over time,” says Betteridge who prefers to have signed provider contracts with the option to review on a regular basis.

Russell believes that the time is almost ripe to have some Munich Re people attend open executive development programs. “We started by focusing on the basics and working on company-specific problems in our customised programs. It’s healthy to then get to hear an external opinion about our own issues from participants with different perspectives,” he says.

According to Russell, the most difficult thing following a staff development program is to ensure there are follow-up processes that embed the learning within the organisation. “People managers should review the outcomes with the course participants in their teams and apply the approaches every day,” he concludes.