Straight And To The Point

The new focus of executive education is job-specific

As a new team leader at a major pharmaceutical firm, engineer Lionel Edlam was tapped to attend leadership training. The four-day session featured role playing, situational models, and class work and included everything from examining the role of the executive as an agent of the company to productivity issues with junior employees. Edlam, who works in engineering administration, was also assigned a coach to help him build on his leadership skills after the course. “In order for you to be consistent with the things expected of a leader, there’s a certain level of training you need,” Edlam says. He noted that after his course, he was immediately able to apply his training to his day-to-day work life. That is what companies expect today — an immediate application of lessons learned.

Companies spend millions of dollars yearly to ensure that their executives have the skills and knowledge to successfully meet any business challenge. Under the umbrella of corporate training, executive education courses include everything from one-day, in-house technical training classes to 30-day Outward Bound-type challenges at off-site facilities. Education has become so important to corporate strategy that many firms now have chief learning officers who are charged with influencing the corporate bottom line through employee education.

After declining for several years, executive education programs are now rebounding. But they’re evolving in a world of new challenges. Before 9-11, open-enrollment programs, which gather groups of executives from different firms, drew more interest. Today, more companies are partnering with business schools or other outside vendors to create their own customized executive education programs. Companies can no longer afford to train their executives through hypothetical case studies if they want to have a competitive advantage. “It’s very critical when you’re dealing with the executive population that they aren’t wasting their time,” says Venetta Coleman, an organizational psychologist and senior manager of organization and management development for PepsiCo Inc. “Any time you pull them out of their jobs and sit them down, it can’t just be for general information.”

Problem solving has become another priority for companies. Gordon Armstrong, director of marketing for Duke Corporate Education in Durham, North Carolina, uses pharmaceutical firms as an example. For years, they had been sales-driven organizations. Now, many are driven by marketing. To figure out how to make this kind of transition, companies are hiring firms like Armstrong’s. The training develops executive talent that is focused on results, Armstrong says.

As the goals of executive education are becoming more specific, CEOs are becoming more involved in the planning and execution of the programs. They see it as a valuable tool to sell their agenda. “Seventy-five percent of our custom engagements now are with the CEO or the top 200 people in the organization,” says Ethan Hanabury, associate dean for executive education at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. “Seven years ago it was 20%. The CEO didn’t see it as strategic to the business. That has changed.”

It’s not just CEOs who recognize the importance of executive education. Employees do, too. Hanabury says

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