Managers who want to sharpen their skills often seek out the executive education programs offered by major business schools. But suppose the entire organization is involved in a change of direction? It may be time for the whole management team to head to campus.
Organizations of all types and sizes have found that an effective way to facilitate a strategic change is to team up with the Kellogg School to design and carry out a Custom Executive Education Program.
The reasons for exploring a custom program vary. Perhaps there has been an abrupt change in the competitive environment. Frequently when top leadership changes there is a need for a uniform and thoughtful shift in corporate culture or strategy. Sometimes the need for change is felt but the underlying reasons are complex. In each case, a custom program can be an effective way to make a difference.
When a firm is considering a custom program at the Kellogg School, chances are that the first conversation will be with Al Isenman, Professor of Management and Strategy and Director of Custom Programs; or his colleague, Joseph Hannigan, Associate Director of Executive Education.
Knowing When the Time is Right for a Custom Program
“Every organization reaches a point where change is needed or a new generation of leaders must be developed,” says Isenman. The main indicator that a custom approach is appropriate is when large numbers of managers need to embrace the same strategic change or to learn similar skills. What is not so easy to predict is when that moment will come.
“This is a specialized approach to executive education,” says Isenman. “We make it widely known that we offer custom programs, but we can’t predict when individual organizations reach the moment of change. So we usually find out about a potential customer when the telephone rings.” When it does, a careful process leading to a custom program - and often to a relationship that lasts for many years - gets underway. “Almost every custom program comes to us because an organization is at a crossroads,” he says.
A point of distinction for the Kellogg School’s custom programs is that they are almost always initiated by a firm’s senior management and are carried out at the strategic level. All programs are held at the Allen Center, an executive education facility dedicated to executive learning that anticipates all educational needs. “It is helpful to get your people out of context,” says Isenman. “While it might be attractive to use the hotel down the street from an organization or to use their own facility’s training room, we have found time and again that it is more effective to use a facility designed for executive education. By not having to worry about food, lodging, or transportation, participants are free to focus entirely on the topic at hand."
Preparation for a Custom Program
The planning process for a custom program is central to its success. Typically the first face to face meeting is held at the Allen Center and includes an in-depth conversation with senior members of the Kellogg faculty, each with background in some aspect of the potential client’s area of need.
After agreement that there is a good fit, the next step is a series of in-depth meetings to frame the problem and outline a program. “We ask the client to put together a design team - three, four, or five key individuals who know the business and know the issues,” says Isenman. “We also assemble senior members of our faculty who might be part of the team to join this discovery in which we gather background information in as much depth as possible. They tell their story. We listen. And based on that we agree on the outline of a program and who will teach it.”
Isenman says the discovery process depends on the needs of the client and the complexity of the topic. “Sometimes what they bring to us is fairly straightforward or the situation demands fast action. On the other hand, one company met with us eight or ten times over the period of a year and we had as many as 12 faculty members involved.” The key is to get to the heart of the issue.
“We had an organization that said, ‘We want to have a marketing program and Kellogg is the premier marketing school,’” says Isenman. “It would have been easy to offer a few marketing courses, but instead we said, ‘Tell us your story. What are your issues?’ So we talked and at the end we said, ‘That’s very interesting, except you haven’t said anything about marketing.’” Isenman says the core issue was customer focus. “It was not at all evident that marketing courses would help them get past the issues that were keeping them from becoming a customer-focused organization. That was a question of culture.” It was an insight that shaped a successful multi-year relationship.
When the project gets underway, the client organization often finds that the program continues to evolve. “If you have 250 executives taking the custom program in groups of 35-40 people, which we find is the ideal size, it means that there will be five or six programs held over the course of a year or more. Through discussions in the class, the faculty members learn more and more about the organization, so that delivery by the sixth program will be somewhat different from the first. We learn together.”
Custom Programs - Driven by Need Not the Economy
When an organization invests in a custom executive education program, the decision to move forward tends not to be affected by turbulence in the economy. “In many ways, a change in the environment or context in which an organization operates highlights the need for the rapid organization-wide change that can come through a custom program,” says Hannigan, who worked closely with the FBI to deliver a set of custom executive education programs on leadership issues and change management in the post-9-11 years. The program began with classes for senior management which proved to be so effective that the FBI asked Kellogg to develop a program for other levels of management as well.
Over the course of the past 36 years, Kellogg has developed hundreds of custom programs for clients of all sizes and types including manufacturing, technology, government and service firms such as law, accounting, and consulting. Many of the relationships have continued for years as firms realize the value of having a major business school and its faculty as a strategic partner. “It goes beyond the classroom,” says Isenman. “These firms will frequently recruit our MBA students or set up internship programs for them. Faculty members who have put so much effort into learning about the firms will often be asked to help with individual consulting assignments."
It is often said that one of the best ways to make an immediate impact on the practice of management is through executive education. It is true for the individual manager. It can also be true when an entire organization goes back to school.