Would that be a revolution?

By Jorgen Thorsell, Justin Bridge and Fiona Gardner
2 November 2012

Executive development or executive education? Observations from the frontier of executive learning.

Paradoxically, dramatic revolutions that happen with a ‘bang’ are often less dangerous than evolutions that creep in over time. A revolution forces you to respond immediately. However, an evolution comprises incremental changes that can go unnoticed with catastrophic consequences.

Think of Kodak and the evolution of the digital technology. Due to the gradual growth of digitisation throughout the ‘90s and ‘2000s’, Kodak did not recognise the mortal danger this posed until it was too late. In January 2012, almost 100 years after the sinking of “The world’s most unsinkable ship”, Kodak, for 131 years regarded as one of the world’s most unbreakable companies filed for bankruptcy. In doing so it became “The latest American giant to falter in the face of advancing technology” (Dealbook.com).

What does this have to do with executive education? Well, there is a parallel albeit somewhat less disastrous. According to the article “Customised Executive Learning” in the EFMD business magazine Global Focus (Wijk & Anderson, 2012), new ways of developing executives are on the cusp of taking over from the more traditional methods, which have been championed by business-schools and academic institutions for decades. This is especially true for many advanced global corporations which have, for some time, distinguished executive development from executive education, and begun to favour the former as a means of enhancing business impact from executive learning.

What’s the difference?

Whilst executive education is rooted in the business schools’ classic methodology of teaching theoretical knowledge based on proprietary research, executive development has a behavioural focus and is aimed at improving the performance of managers, executives and their business regardless of the theories and ‘teachers’ employed. Corporations have long struggled with and complained about the task of transferring knowledge gained through executive education into meaningful actions and impact ‘on the job’. This is not because the knowledge is not valuable, but because achieving significant, immediate and sustainable impact on the business is of even greater importance. It is generally believed that the expense of gaining knowledge cannot be fully justified unless that knowledge is provided in the specific form and context required by the recipient to make a sustainable difference in his or her workplace. And since executive education tends to take place in classrooms detached in time and space from the workplace, the likelihood of the knowledge being immediately relevant is low.

Over the past ten years or so, executive development has matured to meet the demand for immediate job relevance and sustainable impact. By making the executives’ own current job challenges the starting point of the learning journey, executive development provides a learner-led process that enables individual executives to realise what they must do to increase their impact and, even more importantly, how they can do it. But the approach is not solely behaviour-focused although it is a key feature. The learner-led process still offers relevant theories and best practices to deepen the executive’s understanding of his or her situation and provide a range of different perspectives and insights. However, rather than being presented ‘carte blanche’, these are provided according to each executive’s unique challenge so theory and best practice insights are both immediately applicable and result focused.

In a nutshell, modern executive development creates impact by supplying knowledge, insights and learning just-in-time to an individual executive’s specific job-based circumstances, thereby making it immediately relevant and thus stimulating sustainable behavioural change. Thus, the classic challenge of transferring knowledge into meaningful action and impact is eliminated.

If leadership is a relationship

Executive coaching has gained tremendous popularity since it was ‘introduced’ to the corporate world in the 1970s due to its ability to enable executives to improve on-the-job performance. In a resent global study (Mannaz, Global Leadership Survey, 2011) coaching was identified as the most powerful executive development practice alongside with leaders teaching leaders and action learning. Coaching has become a fine example of the modern concept of executive development (just described) because it provides ‘just-in-time’ learning geared to the individual and highly relevant to his or her current professional reality.

Recently more methodologies and technologies have emerged which move the effectiveness of executive development forward. Of most interest are those that involve both the leader and his or her team in the learning initiative. Traditionally, leadership has been considered a matter of personal traits, either learned or inherited. This idea has been supported by research that propounds the notion of the leader as a lone beacon of inspiration. Consequently, both executive education and development initiatives have, for the most part, been delivered to executives in isolation from their people and job reality. However, there can be no leaders without followers and vice-versa, and this makes the relationship between the leader and his or her people a central pillar of leadership. Based on this insight it follows that effective leadership development is contingent upon the development of an effective leadership relationship and as such must involve both the leader and the direct reports in the development process.

Over the past twenty years, ‘360 degree’ survey instruments have served the purpose of eliciting qualitative and quantitative feedback from an executive’s team, the superior and peers. Through it the relationship dimension of leadership has been somewhat included in leadership development. However, according to our long experience using ‘360 degree’ instruments most feedback on the results of the survey is given to the recipient without the real-time sharing, intellectual involvement and emotional commitment of the respondents. Not only does this leave the feedback open to (mis)interpretation, but it can also lead to a ‘witch hunt’ as recipients endeavour to track down ‘who said what’. Even worse, ‘360’ feedback is often ‘sanitised’ to prevent such retribution, leaving it so bland that it leads no further than to a shrug of the shoulders and the observation that “No-body’s perfect.”

Involving team members in the leadership development process not only encourages them to share responsibility for enhancing the leadership relationship, but also to avoid the “not invented here syndrome”. This is often faced by pumped-up executives who come back from transformational development programmes and try to sell ‘new-world’ ways of doing things to colleagues who are still living in the ‘old world’. The shared approach to leadership development – in which both ‘sides’ of the leadership relationship are involved in the development process – provides all parties with full insight into why change is needed, how it will take place and who will be responsible. True and immediate impact is assured when learning and development include both the leader and the led, and are deeply rooted in their collective daily challenges.

In a leading global tyre manufacturer we have observed how a tailored ‘360 degree’ instrument was used to generate focus on how to improve leadership within management teams according to what was defined as ‘best leadership’ for executing a new global strategy. The approach enabled all managers and their teams to effectively close leadership competency gaps that were needed to effectively move the company forward.

In summary, we see that today’s advanced corporations demand that the entire ‘eco-system’ around each leader is meaningfully involved in these and other development initiatives, too. They realise that true leadership development requires all relevant parties commit to developing the leadership relationships, not just the individual leader in isolation.

“Building a programme of leadership development that accelerates the execution of corporate strategy and improves leadership performance, is like killing two birds with one stone”

Killing two birds with one stone

Another significant trend is the integration of leadership development and strategy execution into one coherent, accelerated process. If leadership is the single most important factor in successfully implementing a new strategy (and experience suggests it is), it follows that leadership development initiatives should be closely connected with the process of doing just that. Building a programme of leadership development that accelerates the execution of corporate strategy and improves leadership performance, is like killing two birds with one stone.

According to our experience, integrated development kicks-off with the ‘top’ executives deciding what ‘best leadership’ should look like when they begin the journey of implementing a new corporate strategy. A cascading process is then rolled-out across the entire organisation. All managers, with the requisite support and preparation, conduct the process of identifying and closing the gaps between current leadership capabilities (both for themselves and also within their team or teams) and those demanded by the new strategy. In this process individual leaders in collaboration with their teams are enabled to grow and the strategy is implemented more deeply and effectively. Experience suggests this approach is highly rewarding from both a leadership development and a strategy execution point of view.

The CEO of a global manufacturer of building materials, who spent two years travelling the world “preaching” the new corporate strategy to all corners of his organisation, was staggered to see how little effect his individual efforts had on the actual implementation of the strategy. By going back to the drawing board and coming up with a leadership development programme that engaged all management levels to close leadership ‘gaps’ and take full responsibility for executing the new strategy with their teams, the CEO rapidly gained full buy-in into the strategy and installed a new set of leadership practices geared to effectively execute the strategy globally.

Getting much more for much less

Since the economic crisis of mid-2008, an understandable theme in executive development has been emerging: Corporations are demanding much more from executive development but are prepared to pay much less for it. And whilst this has placed enormous pressure on providers of executive learning, it has also driven numerous innovations, many of which have been technology based.

‘Virtual Learning’ has spearheaded much of this innovation, especially through the use of and growth in virtual coaching, webinars, virtual classrooms sessions, social media and e-learning. However, it is still early days in the development of technology-based tools and concepts for facilitating and enabling behavioural change. In particular, e-learning programmes still struggle to capture the full commitment and attention from the learner in the way a face-to-face programme can. Despite this, we are likely to see considerable advancements in the world of virtual learning in the coming years, which will enable a far deeper level of trust building and better two-way communication in the virtual setting, leading to greater commitment and learning.

At Mannaz we has recently created a unique way of taking the best from a number of technologies and adapting it to an on-the-job, learner-centric and multi-location approach, called ‘Flexible Learning’. Through this methodology clients experience more learning for less money. We discovered the key to success is to minimise face-to-face interventions while maintaining the same high learning output. ‘Flexible Learning’ achieves this via a virtual kick-off followed by an e-based competence screening for each participant. This helps them realise – for themselves – the competency gaps they have and which they need to close. For each individual a set of focused learning sources (e-learning modules, literature and webinars to name a few) is then identified according to their unique learning objectives.

Because of the high level of ‘ownership’ of the learning objectives and the personalised nature of the set-up, participants find it both highly relevant and motivating. Consequently, the commitment to learning and the impact in terms of growth and performance is high. Contributing to this is the fact that participants’ current projects serve as an effective real-life, real-time vehicle for exercising the skills acquired through the e-learning. This is not only highly efficient, but it also eliminates any arguments that ‘training’ is too far-removed from daily working life to have real business benefit.

The approach does not only apply to individuals. Project teams are also being virtually coached to maintain steady focus (through regular reflection and e-learning logs) on the learning part of daily work, not just the action. Nor is face-to-face contact eliminated in entirety. Participants attend face-to-face ‘milestone’ events (such as one or two-day workshops), which enable a critical review of their progress at crucial milestones along the learning journey. This reduces the face-to-face days to (typically) a third of those used in the more traditional approach. In summary: This type of multi-technology solutions has proven very strong in achieving sustained learning and behavioural change at a significantly lower price (in terms of money and time away from work) than its traditional cousins.

In the case of Flexible Learning a global client of ours measured and documented the acquired learning and impact. Pre-testing of participants competencies showed between 35%-38% knowledge of the subjects at hand prior to commencing the development activities. Post-testing, which was performed right after the completion, revealed a result of 68%-81%. An on-the- job test three months later revealed a higher score of 70%-89% which demonstrated that the participants translated the acquired learning into specific behavioural change producing a significant positive impact on the performance of their current projects.

In our view, the field of content is not where the next significant breakthroughs in executive development will come”

What is around the corner?

As the evolution of executive education and development gains momentum, it is interesting to anticipate what awaits us in the future. Whilst they agree innovation will continue to be driven by an urge to improve the impact of executive learning for less expense (of time, money and other resources), most executive learning and development experts expect this innovation to be focused on the nature of the content, not how it is delivered. However, in our view, the field of content is not where the next significant breakthroughs in executive development will come from.

Instead, we expect to see innovation in the creation of sustainable on-the-job learning, delivered in a way (and in a learning environment) where all parties in the leadership equation take an active role. The key challenge is how to capture job-based, participant-led learning in a qualified and meaningful way. The key question is how to make on-the-job learning a deliberate act that will serve as a fact-based platform for more learning that is relevant to and can be readily shared with other managers. Social media may be a feasible solution here.

Professor Robert O. Brinkerhoff has already pointed to the fact that 40% of learning fails due to insufficient preparation and, consequently, the lack of qualified and focused ‘take-aways’ from the learning ‘intervention’. Another 40% relates to how to truly anchor learning back at work after the intervention. That in itself calls for innovation in how we manage the end-to-end process of learning in organisations. Brinkerhoff recommends defining and managing the overall learning process in the same way other business processes have been defined and managed with such rigour for so long.

From our studies in effective leadership development (Mannaz, Innovation in Leadership Development 2009 and the Mannaz Global Leadership Survey, 2011)we have recognised the importance of learning being readily available to individual managers, ‘just-in-time’ to meet their specific, role-based needs. This objective is still long way from being met, and we are seeing the more traditional approaches of mentoring and coaching being in demand of late. However, as expressed in this article, we believe more platforms need to be discovered and developed in order to fulfil the need for learning ‘right when you need it’.

According to the same studies, the concept of real-life/real-time experiential learning is regarded as one of the most powerful approaches to executive development. Consequently we expect the demand for this approach to grow as well.

Executive development is not only about improving leadership and management competency in an organisation, but it is also about creating impact on overall business performance. Therefore we foresee another significant push for more sophisticated ways of ensuring both direct and indirect impact on performance. This raises the perennial question: How to measure the effect of executive development. We believe this will not be limited to mere bottom-line ‘number crunching’, but will be inspired by work at the frontiers of behavioural science and how behavioural change is measured.

A revolutionary evolution?

Today, many large organisations have sophisticated corporate universities doing a significant job in advancing executive development. Their commitment to this work leaves us with great confidence that the coming decade will witness significant advances and breakthroughs in the field.

Recently, as if to prove this point, we experienced that one of the world’s largest multinationals spent a full year investigating the most effective, efficient and innovative ways to “refresh” its programmes for their large global pool of managers and executives. In its search for suitable external partners, the organisation’s learning and development executives asked their potential vendors only to document the depth of their expertise in designing and delivering programmes of experiential learning, including in-role learning and full-engagement of what they labelled the complete “eco-system” of the participants. They had no expectations to have any suggestions for learning solutions presented. We are now into a stretching and mutually enriching design process with this organisation that will bring executive development to new heights and widen the gap to executive education even more.

This is how the frontiers of executive development are being pushed to new levels, leaving us in little doubt that executive development is in the midst of an exciting evolution that to some may be quite revolutionary.

This article has been published in the European Foundation for Management Development’s (EFMD) magazine Global Focus.

A Chinese version of the article by Jorgen Thorsell, Justin Bridge and Fiona Gardner has been published by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD).

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