Executive Education Is Broken

"If you want your organization to be a learning culture, you need to embed learning directly into the fabric of how you operate."

- Ken Kesslin

In my experience as a business consultant, I’ve seen countless organizations rely on executive education to deliver their learning and development initiatives. Here’s why that strategy can be frustratingly ineffective:

  • It’s expensive, and because it’s expensive typically only senior leaders get to attend.
  • Information overload is the norm. Programs are delivered in multi-day sessions and information is “fire-hosed” at participants in order to justify the high cost of, and limited time in, the program.
  • There’s little or no practice built into the sessions. Even when there is some skill practice, it tends to use fabricated “role playing” rather than real work situations.
  • There’s no ongoing coaching. Programs lack the follow-on support needed to ensure they deliver the desired new behaviors/habits.
  • It typically lacks commitment from, and participation by, the senior-most leaders, making accountability back at work hit or miss. In addition, there are rarely mechanisms in place to hold people accountable to create value from their training experience back at work.
  • There is little, if any, impact data that demonstrates actual behavior change at work. Smile sheets are often considered sufficient measurement. If people “say” they like and value their experience, then the program is a success. This is counter to research that shows that people make more change when they are disturbed, upset, and even critical of an educator than when they “like” the session.
  • Even in the best Exec Ed programs, there’s often a lack of experiential learning.

Organizations are wasting time and money on ineffective programs—they pay lip service to the idea of creating a learning culture, but accomplish little more than feeling good about providing people with educational opportunities. Furthermore, without reliable data on the impact of a training program, there is no clear indicator of the ROI from these programs.

In my work as a consultant, I push organizations to think beyond one-off executive education programs and strive to provide learning and development opportunities that become integrated into the culture. This happens most effectively when individual leaders decide to bring learning directly into their teams on a regular and consistent basis.

To be fair, many leaders want to provide learning and development opportunities to their teams, but have to push past uncooperative HR or Talent Development departments. They have to fight against a bureaucratic system for budget, authority, and time to run learning initiatives with their teams.

Mark is just such a leader, running one of the product divisions of a globally recognized retail brand. His team of high-performing managers was eager to stretch and grow their leadership, their ability to collaborate more effectively, and their ability to prioritize so that they worked on only the most important projects. As is typical these days, the team felt overwhelmed and under-resourced and had little time to devote to their own learning and development.

Additionally, although Mark has a wonderful HR Business Partner and the company has a dedicated HR/Talent function, they too were overwhelmed with requests and under-resourced to deliver.

To truly embed learning into Mark’s team, while recognizing the limited resources available, we created a series of brief, one-hour monthly learning conversations on a set of topics that were customized to address his team’s current challenges. And we included a number of unique features to ensure that these sessions had a significant and measurable impact on his team’s performance.

First, Mark leads the learning conversations, not me. Not only is this great for Mark’s own development, but it dramatically raises the level of accountability that team members have to deliver results from these sessions.

Second, at the end of each monthly conversation every team members, including Mark, shares a small behavior change – something they believe will make them more effective – and they commit to do it every day for the next 30 days.

Third, each person rates themselves on their success with these commitments on a regular basis throughout the month. And all of that data is captured and later used to demonstrate tangible impact.

Finally, each team member selects a learning buddy on the team. And periodically, they check in with each other to see how they’re doing with their commitments. This peer accountability adds even more motivation to deliver on their behavior change.

By the end of the second month, Mark’s team members began to comment on the ways that their individual small behavior changes were helping improve overall team performance. I could see light bulbs going off in their heads and knew that they had begun to create an effective and sustainable learning culture within their team.

While most leaders are waiting for HR to give them a learning program, Mark did what proactive leaders can be doing right now – he created his own.

--Ken Kesslin