Adding Value to Executive Education: Preparation and Follow-Through Magnify the ROI

In this column, Professor Stephen Burnett, Associate Dean for Executive Education at the Kellogg School of Management, focuses on the importance of looking at executive education as a process, not an event. Necessary steps include rigorous preparation before the program and a specific plan for putting the education to work afterward.

The worldwide economy is starting to emerge from an enormous shock to its system. As this recovery takes place, one thing is certain. An improved economy will not mean a safe return to old and comfortable ways of doing business. Managers should be turning to the question of strategic adjustments to what the new economy will bring. It is a moment tailor-made for executive education.

Executive education is an efficient way to make a direct impact on the practice of management. It is a tool that can be used by organizations of all types as they adjust to the new economy. But as with so many other things in business, the old, comfortable ways of approaching executive education will have to change as well.

Probably the most common mistake made by those who participate in an executive education program is to view it as little more than an event in which a person goes to a program, experiences it, and goes home. Properly done, an executive program is a three-part process�the preparation, the program itself, and the follow through.

How Should I Get Ready for an Executive Education Program?
To prepare for an executive education program, the first step is to ask and answer some basic questions. Why am I coming to this program? What has motivated me? What are the problems or practices in my organization that need a fresh perspective? This framing of the issues should not be done in isolation. The participant�s boss and colleagues should be fully engaged so that they know what the focus of the program will be and help shape the way that knowledge will be used when the participant returns.

This holds true even if the program has more to do with personal development than a functional area like finance or marketing. For example, a lot of people come to the Kellogg School�s leadership programs recognizing that the program will be addressing material that is highly personal, such as their leadership style or what motivates them to achieve. But even in this case, the participant should start the process with a conversation with his or her boss. �Let�s talk about my next position. What do I need to know? What skills do I need to prepare myself? Are there deficiencies in my performance now that I need to address before advancing?�

I have occasionally come across organizations that are rigorous about preparation for open enrollment programs. It is heartening to learn of cases in which participants meet in advance with their supervisor to focus on why they are attending and what will be done as a result.

What are Some Strategies for Getting the Most out of the Program Itself?
The way a program is experienced should be molded by the preparation. The members of the faculty, while they are prepared to teach, are also open to questions that can shape the content. If you are prepared for a program and know what you are looking for, you will be in a position to seek out the information you need. It is a much more active approach than sifting through the material provided to see what is useful. In this way, an executive program can be tailored to the needs of each group of participants. Also, since a large part of the program is what participants learn from one another, good preparation will lead to great conversations among peers.

Let�s suppose, for example, that you are having a supply chain problem. Perhaps you are not getting the quality that you need or you are having trouble controlling costs. When you�re in a study group with participants from other companies from all around the world, you are in a position to say: �This is a problem I�m having in my company. Are any of you having this problem as well? And if you are, how are you handling it?� I have seen this happen time and again, with information being freely shared when good questions are asked.

What Should be Done when I am Back on the Job?
When an executive education participant returns to the workplace, there should be a thorough debriefing, coupled with a plan for putting insights into action. The participant should be very clear about how she or he will be asked to report back regarding what was learned. A participant will be more fully engaged in the material presented in an executive education program knowing that it will be the subject of a formal debriefing meeting with their boss and 30 other people. The objective of that session should be specific decisions about how to put the best of what was learned into action as quickly as possible.

Despite the worldwide shock to its system, the economy will recover. But it would be a mistake to assume that when the recovery comes, old patterns of behavior will yield the same old results. That is why this moment - which I hope will ultimately be seen as the start of the recovery - is an opportunity to look at all kinds of new ideas, develop new strategies, and find solutions to problems in a highly focused way. That is where the true value of executive education can be found.

But remember. The program itself is only part of the process. What happens before and what takes place after can make all the difference.

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