There is ongoing debate about the role of executive education, particularly programs run by business schools. Do organizations use executive education to reward? To breed loyalty? Or do they see it as a truly transformational experience that can help leaders grow and organizations succeed?
Over the course of the last 50 years, the scope and mandate of executive education programs has evolved. Initially, it was focused on supporting transition points in leadership journeys, such as being promoted to lead a business unit or becoming a first-time manager, among other scenarios.
Business schools gradually began accompanying organizations and individuals across a broad spectrum of issues. On the custom side, that meant combining a consulting-like approach to customer needs with a tailored solution through leadership development. This included supporting organizational transformation, culture transformation, strategy formulation, and execution.
On the open program side, this meant responding to company needs with programs geared to the imminent priorities. This meant developing offerings, for example, in cryptocurrencies, digital marketing, cybersecurity, and the like.
And then came the pandemic.
The work-from-home mandates of 2020 and early 2021 caused many employees to evaluate their work differently. Employee needs drastically changed. It was a great challenge for all organizations to adapt accordingly. Leaders struggle with concrete issues:
- Should we still own office space and corporate headquarters?
- Should we continue to support and encourage remote work or demand that everyone return to the office?
- And with the current war for talent, how do we engage and retain a generation that looks at work with a very different perspective?
Benefiting from In-Depth Research
Business schools are uniquely positioned to address such questions through executive education. The in-depth research conducted in schools such as HEC Paris allows faculty to analyze weak signals, understand trends, and draw recommendations. Access to thousands of young students allows real-life conversations with the constituencies that will hit the workplace in a couple of years. Working with organizations around the world allows for a diversity of perspective and opinions. This research then is funneled into programs that support leaders and their organizations in many ways.
First, it provides the diversity of thought that allows participants to consider different scenarios. Second, it helps leaders work on the skills needed to navigate this new work reality: managing remote teams, delegating to individuals one rarely meets, building innovative solutions where serendipity is harder to find in offices with less opportunities to meet “by chance.”
It is also able to address the essential question asked by Millennials today: What is your purpose? Organizations that cannot reply to this question are not attractive to employees. And Gen Z has options. They can choose who they want to work with. They are not impressed by brands, nor feel that they will work for the same company for their entire career. They are attracted to start-ups, to non-brands, to ethical companies and new ways of working.
A great example of infusing insights from a business school into an executive education experience was our program with a family business located in the Middle East. This company had grown into a $5 billion conglomerate. But there were real concerns that this company had become inefficient and needed a cultural transformation.
Infusing insights from across the business school, we developed a learning experience for leaders to manage tomorrow’s generation. Senior leaders considered important questions around being a role model to younger talent. The level just below grappled with how to be a visionary leader who inspires people. We worked with this company to make this shift to a professionally run global family business that didn’t lose its sense of humanity and loyalty. Impact was evidenced through higher employee satisfaction scores and upticks in retention and metrics that underscored improvements in reducing bureaucracy.
In another instance, a global bank that finances HEC Paris research took part in a program on the future of work. Leveraging different research insights, the program run for this bank addressed how to engage youth, remote work, and instilling a sense of purpose among the workforce.
Also, an energy company collaborated with the school’s start-up ecosystem. Experiences with the incubator program led to 15 new ideas, resulting in more well-rounded Research and Development leaders at the company while revamping its innovation portfolio.
These examples underscore how the academy provides the rigor and thoughtfulness to draw the map and navigate a path forward that supports positive work cultures and sustainable, scalable organizations.