Economic Jitters Changed the Nature of Executive Education

After months of maddeningly gradual economic recovery, companies still are more selective in their hiring and expect their existing workforce to do more. That's a double-edged sword for the C-suite (an opportunity to demonstrate more value, and an invitation to stress), and it has led to more customization in executive training. Executive training programs increasingly provide the flexibility of customized training, which has gained favor alongside open enrollment programs. In most cases, customization requires a partnership between the educational institution and the client company because it contributes to the alignment of organizational strategy and business outcomes.

Meet my tailors

Tammy Thayer, president of the Center for Advanced Studies in Business, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the UW-Madison School of Business, believes the economy is changing the corporate mindset toward executive education. Many organizations are increasingly focused on building bench strength through "high potential and executive development," she said, as well as providing existing and future leaders with the skills and insights needed to face the challenges of a global economy.

In addition, many companies have used the recession and subsequent tepid recovery to reposition themselves for success in another, more positive "new normal" economy. "They have used this time to focus on strategy formulation and execution," Thayer added, "to allow them to get a step ahead of competitors as the economy strengthens."

Dr. Scott Campbell, dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Edgewood College, said Edgewood's executive education programming is mostly customized. With customization, Edgewood is trying to serve the niche between the high-end programing at the Fluno Center and the lower-skill path.

Organizational goals appear to be evolving away from by-the-book training to training people who are more adaptable and interpretive.

"There also is a lot of commonality in terms of leadership development pieces," Campbell added. "They want clarity about what their organizational values are. They are identifying and developing clarity around their organizational values and competencies, and then developing the skill sets that help folks get there."

Thayer said companies in less populated markets are faced with decisions about whether to innovate – either organizationally or with product lines – or cut prices to maintain market share in the short term, and whether that is worth the potential of erosion of brand loyalty. "Success in these endeavors requires deep knowledge and ability in strategic formulation, market positioning, strategic and financial business acumen, and strategy execution, all of which we are seeing an increased interest in among our clients," she said.

As leadership is driven deeper within organizations, up-and-coming executives are required to develop what once were considered more advanced skills at an earlier stage in their executive careers, Thayer noted.

Like the economy, the spending appetite for executive education gradually is making a comeback, but the organizations that invest more have identified specific skill sets – such as the ability to work in developing markets – required to achieve strategic objectives. "Most companies are still taking a fiscally conservative approach to larger-scale training and development expenditures," she said. "The exceptions to this are companies that differentiate themselves by investing in people, which is a great retention strategy given the very real talent gap."

The talent and skill gaps are all over the board. As executives move up the ladder, the technical expertise that propelled them to executive status must meld with a broader skill set that may not have been a part of their previous career experience. One example is the progression from a functional position to general management or a business unit general manager role. Managerial and directorial positions require more soft skills, such as conflict resolution and negotiation and change management, Thayer noted, and they culminate at the higher end with strategy formulation, execution, leadership, financial acumen, value proposition, and customer loyalty.  

Campbell agreed. "It's anecdotal, but from my experience, it's folks that have the technical skills to be efficient and competent, but also have the creative skills to think about ideas in new ways, and then the relationship skills to bring people together," he noted. "I think that balancing act, when you find the hard skills and the relationships and synergy, those are very valuable assets in an organization."

At the executive level, those skill gaps pose a challenge to executive education programs. They can be addressed with both open enrollment and custom programs, but there is no secret sauce. "Executives, like all people, have strengths and weaknesses," Thayer said. "Given the complex organizational and cultural challenges many executives face, there is no singular body of knowledge that can be provided as a 'silver bullet' remedy."

This also contributes to the need for customization, she said, because it increases the need for educators to collaborate with executives and their organizations on programs that are based on a company's specific strategies and challenges.

Organization men and women

The understandable desire of management to train people in "our way" of doing business can augment a variety of organizational goals, especially the establishment of the desired culture. Michelle Fellenz, manager of human capital development for UW Medical Foundation, said the Foundation designs customized programs based on its cultural and organizational core competencies. They range from basic classroom types of programs, such as navigating change and managing conflict, to management and leadership development programming.

With the cultural training, the Foundation has performance standards and core leadership competencies in place. It offers training to a variety of audiences, and speakers talk about leadership philosophy within the organization. There is representation from various functional areas so that managers gain a sense of organizational culture, the expectations for individuals in management roles, and face time with internal subject matter experts.

At a higher level, the Foundation's leadership development program concentrates on nine core competencies, including acting systemically. "We base the program around competencies that have been identified as critical for success in leadership roles within the organization," Fellenz said.

Enrollment in the leadership development program is application-based, and it will be run annually. "Right now, the program is geared toward directors, department administrators, and others in similar roles," she said. "We also make sure that people who supervise these individuals are aware of that, so they can encourage and support individuals who apply."

The Foundation reviews the applications to find the best cohort of 12, looking at diversity of background and length of service within the system, and the development needs identified on their application. "It's about an 18-month program, so diversity is important to keeping that momentum and helping folks along the way," said Fellenz, who has worked with various companies during the past 20 years, customizing programs in health care and manufacturing.

Over those 20 years, she's seen executive education change in one very important way – the alignment of core competencies. In the past, organizational performance standards and leadership competencies often were different within an organization. More recently, employers have aligned the two elements with a development focus. "If there are a set of common competencies for performance success, it would make sense to have programming around those same competencies at various levels, by position, so people can develop those skills," she said.

Online on call

Although some institutions are moving away from public executive education offerings, MBA programs and other offerings are available on more channels. Rovy Branon, associate dean of online learning and technology for the continuing education division of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, said there are a number of executive skills acquired outside formal educational environments. "There is a growing expectation that high-potential employees are comfortable using online education as a tool to improve their skills," he noted. "While planning specific job experiences and mentoring programs are popular leadership development techniques, online programming is also increasing."