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Executive Development – Who’s the Boss? By Dan Martin


They might not like to admit it, but occassionally even big bosses needs training. That's where executive development comes in. With a plethora of options from a variety of providers available, getting help to make the head honchos even better at their job isn't a problem but what can be more challenging is deciding who is responsible for managing a company's executive development needs. Should senior managers be left to decide, dictate and organise their own training or should the L&D department take the lead? Dan Martin investigates.

If pushed, most people, no matter on what rung of the business ladder they are, will admit there's room for improvement when it comes to the way they do their job. Even the most experienced chief executive of a multi-national corporation could probably do with developing their expertise in areas such as leadership, communication and strategic thinking.

Throughout the UK there are a multitude of business schools, universities, training firms and coaching specialists offering courses on improving the skills, knowledge and behaviours of Mr or Mrs CEO.

So signing up to a training course – whether it involves sending employees offsite or running an in-house programme – isn't a problem. But the key challenge for businesses is ensuring that the real development needs of an organisation are being met and making sure the training is appropriately managed.

Many senior executives will probably believe they have all the answers and it should be up to then to decide what training they need. But what about when it comes to picking a programme and ensuring it runs smoothly?

The CEO knows best?
What the senior executives in an organisation say goes. They have got to where they are because of skills and experience that allow them to successfully run a company from the top and ultimately they make the final decisions. For many firms, this applies when selecting executive development training.

Research released last year by Oxford's Saïd Business School found just 21% of executives believe their organisation's executive development strategy was delivering the skills and development needed to meet their corporate objectives. The fact that so few programmes are working, says David Feeny, director of executive education at the school, is why executives need to take much of the responsibility for driving forward development programmes. "Top executives need to be drawn into any major executive development decision," he says. "They need to be completely aware, agree on its objectives, get involved and offer support."

Despite all this, however, it is clear that the L&D department has a key role in the process and can make sure any adopted training really is appropriate to an individual's – and perhaps more important – an organisation's needs.

Jo Hennessy, director of open programmes at training institute Roffey Park, admits that if senior managers are taking responsibility for their own development and thinking responsibly about the issues, L&D departments should not muscle in and take over but they should make sure they are kept up to date with progress. They can also, she adds, take in lead in more longer term thinking.

"They are more likely to be better at longer term issues such as evaluating the success of a programme rather than just basing it on the kudos of an institution," Hennessey says.

How shall we do it?
Deciding which programmes are most appropriate to their needs is one of the biggest challenges involved in executive development. "Organisations should firstly look at the outcome," says Hennessy. "What is it that executives are seeking to achieve as individuals and more widely as an organisation? Decide what the organisation needs individuals to do and how that is linked to organisational goals."

Once the required outcome has been settled upon, the type of training to be put in place needs to be selected. Courses focusing on executives' content and knowledge will be appropriate for some organisations, while those dealing with behaviour and attitudes will be most suitable for others. When it comes to the method of learning, several options are available – group based, mentoring, coaching, self managed among them. Many experts argue that programmes which include a combination of all such options are the most successful.

Providers will usually offer the option of open or bespoke training. The former are generally public, offsite courses, while the latter are usually individually designed training brought into an organisation. Hennessy argues that bespoke training will work well for organisations which have identified a particular business imperative for a number of people in an organisation. "Training all those involved at the same time in a common experience has many merits," she says. "There are often unanticipated outcomes from bringing people together."

Open programmes meanwhile, Hennessy adds, will be best for those wanting to develop a specific individual's needs which are not common to others but they are in a pivotal role and need to be developed immediately. "Open development is particularly useful for someone who needs to develop their personal effectiveness," she says. "The more confidential environment of open courses enables people to experiment and show a bigger shift of behaviour than they would in front of their own colleagues. We often recommend for this reason that people from the same organisation don't come together to such courses."

Prove you can help us
With such an abundance of institutions offering executive development training opportunities, it is crucial to ensure the most appropriate one is selected.

For Kelliher, the benefits of external providers is clear. "They can often create a development experience not available internally in the organisation, by bringing people together from different contexts – very often real learning takes place by helping people see 'outside the box'", she says.

When deciding on which provider for opt for, organisations should ensure the institution understands just what they are trying to achieve. Making sure the institution is providing training appropriate to the organisation's needs and not just what they have provided for the past half dozen clients is vitally important.

On this issue, those providing the training share the responsibility. "Providers must satisfy themselves that they have really understood a client's agenda," says Feeny.


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