Out-Of-The-Box Approaches To Executive Education

By Russ Banham

Chief Executive

School days, school daze. Many CEOs are rethinking their expenditures on traditional executive development programs. It’s not that an MBA from a marquee institution has lost its value, it’s just that quantifying the impact on business outcomes is elusive. Sure, employees come away from the experience with enhanced knowledge, but applying it to business needs doesn’t happen overnight, given entrenched management structures and the demands of today’s fast-changing global business environment.

No surprise, then, that many companies are taking a fresh look. Led by CEOs who are firm believers in the value of continuous education, such organizations are sponsoring a wide range of internal programs customized to specific business needs and goals. Like more traditional Exec Ed, the programs are intended to fill skills gaps, but they’re also designed to produce more tangible results. By developing more perceptive and engaged employees, the programs improve productivity, reduce turnover rates, burnish a reputation as an employee-centric business and offer the opportunity to explore new business concepts inspired by employees’ exposure to new ideas and thinking.

These innovative approaches are many and diverse and can help companies inspire employees, address skill gaps and introduce new perspectives on an ongoing basis:

Peer networks.

Executives develop relationships and share benchmarks, best practices and advice in facilitated groups that meet in person several times a year and virtually as needed. (Chief Executive offers The Chief Executive Network and Senior Executive Network. Members are placed in industry-specific, revenue compatible, non-competing groups facilitated by trained experts to share innovative ideas, solve specific problems and uncover best practices. More information here.)

Leadership training seminars.

In most urban centers, top experts come to town to host seminars that get people out of their seats to role-play mock business circumstances, like what to do when a competitor brings out a disruptive new product.

Cross-mentorship programs. 

These harness the learnings of older employees who mentor younger ones, with a quid pro quo of getting some needed technology refreshers in return.

Temporary assignments abroad.

Employees absorb the nuances of a geographic market’s unique culture, laws, regulations and business practices by spending time at a company office or facility in a foreign country.

Cross-discipline job opportunities.

By taking on diverse positions across an enterprise for a short period of time, employees really learn the ropes, helping them become future leaders.

Open-door gatherings. 

People from up and down the corporate rungs come together as equals to share their experiences and ideas. Game-changing innovations are not confined to senior leadership ranks. The goal is to inspire all employees to bring their most brilliant musings to work.

“Education comes in many different ways,” says Therese Tucker, founder and CEO of BlackLine, a Los Angeles-based publicly traded provider of financial and accounting automation software. “We’re doing the traditional things like supporting the continuing education credits of the many CPAs we have here on staff but are also trying out other ideas—with great success.”

So is Russell Johnston, CEO of QBE North America, part of Australia’s QBE Insurance Group, one of the world’s top 20 general insurance companies. “We have a philosophy here of putting the employee at the center of all we do, even ahead of our customers and shareholders,” Johnston says. “We put a lot of effort into internal programs focused on leadership. Not only am I very passionate about leadership development, I’m a certified instructor on the subject.”

Other CEOs riding herd on novel education approaches include Gaurav Dhillon, co-founder and CEO of SnapLogic, a provider of data integration technology solutions; and Tom Wheelwright, who heads up WealthAbility, a Tempe, Arizona-based provider of wealth attainment strategies. Both are fans of conventional MBA programs and non–degree granting courses within business schools, but they also advocate for nontraditional continuous learning opportunities.

Cross-Generational Collaboration

At SnapLogic, CEO Gaurav Dhillon is a big believer in the value of cross-mentorship, where older and younger employees advise one another on their respective areas of expertise. These days, there’s plenty for Millennials and Generation Z to teach.

“Generationally, younger people are more adept in their use of technology and multi-tasking; it just goes with the territory,” says Dhillon. “They can text and listen to you at the same time. Older people in the workforce, on the other hand, have patience and prioritization capabilities—judgment that can only arrive after years of experience, including bad experiences. There’s great value in cross-mentorship programs in which each generation’s unique abilities come together.”

Wheelwright at WealthAbility also values employee education programs focused on ways that encourage more enjoyable and effective collaborations, as opposed to filling skills gaps on an employee-by-employee basis. “I’m a big believer in seminars where everyone participates as a member of a team,” he says.

Each year, the firm sponsors a two-and-one-half-day leadership seminar focused on personal development. “I remember a new hire here who dreaded having to go to the seminar, thinking it would be another lecture with flip charts,” says Wheelwright. “She was in horror at the thought of having to spend eight hours stuck in a room. However, once it was over, she said she couldn’t wait for tomorrow.”

Wheelwright leads the annual seminar, which involves role playing and other collaborative exercises drawn from Robert Kiyosaki, founder of the Rich Dad Co., a private financial education organization. Kiyosaki is the author of the Rich Dad Poor Dad series of personal finance books, which have sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. In 1985, he acquired Erhard Seminars Training and rebranded the controversial company as a business education firm focused on leadership. He and Wheelwright have collaborated on a book and are close friends.

“Robert’s seminars are not the usual ‘rah rah’ Tony Robbins stuff, not that there is anything wrong with that,” says Wheelwright. “Instead, his seminars are more transformational than instructional, more geared to getting people to engage with others in creative expression. We use his role-playing techniques to get employees to open up and freely express their wildest business ideas. Research indicates that people who participate in such exercises retain up to 90 percent of the experience after two weeks. This compares to 50 percent when engaging in discussions and 20 percent in instructional, lecture-type classes.”

While he encourages the workforce to pursue outside professional education opportunities and the attainment of an MBA, not all academic institutions provide worthwhile programs, Wheelwright says. “Since we’re in the wealth education and accounting business, we employ several CPAs who have to take 80 hours of continuing education classes every two years, which we fund in full,” he notes. “But nobody enjoys sitting in a room taking copious notes as some ‘talking-head’ instructor lectures on some esoteric subject, with a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation of bullet points in the background.”

Wheelwright also advocates the “personal replenishment” benefits afforded by sabbaticals. The company provides a paid, one-month sabbatical to employees, which can be added to their vacation time to “really unwind,” he adds, calling sabbaticals a “crucial way to achieve better work-life balance. Employees who remain here while their colleagues are on a sabbatical are told not to bother them unless the issue is critical. We don’t want them to feel stress while they’re away. We want them to rest their minds, absorb new experiences and come back with fresh perspectives.”

Finding Stellar Seminars

Johnston at QBE North America is a proponent of seminar training—if they’re the right fit. Prior to becoming the insurer’s CEO in May 2016, he was president of the $6 billion U.S. casualty division of the large international insurer AIG, which he previously served as COO.

During his time with AIG, he took a series of leadership seminars taught by Professors Jack Weber and Carol Weber (they’re married) at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. “It was the most impactful course I’ve taken in my entire career,” he says.

Both the The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times rated the leadership seminars number one in terms of teaching quality and impact among all other university-based leadership development programs. Not only did the seminars give Johnston keen insights into people performance management, they inspired him to become a seminar instructor. “I’ve got a certificate hiding around here somewhere,” he says.

Johnston prefers seminars that take employees out of their comfort zones rather than those designed purely to increase technical competencies. “I have nothing against executive MBA programs, but they tend to dwell on business-as-usual instruction as opposed to looking outside one’s technical competency to grasp what is really going on in the world, in terms of innovative technologies, processes and new business structures,” he explains. “My philosophy of executive development is to hire technically competent people and then get them thinking about change management. I’m a passionate believer that to become an effective leader in today’s disruptive market environment, you need to develop people equipped to handle change and innovate.”

At QBE, this process begins the day a new hire attends the onboarding orientation. “The minute they come through the front door, we put them through a pretty rigorous leadership profile, in which we assess their leadership competency and cultural fit,” he explains. “This tells us where they need to improve and how we should go about it, through seminars for the most part.”

To spread institutional knowledge and stimulate the development of novel ideas, Johnston hosts a monthly morning coffee klatch with a random selection of employees from across the business, everyone from senior executives to administrative assistants. He asks the same question at every gathering—“What can we do to make the company better?”

“Since I’ve arrived here, I’d say half the things we’ve implemented literally came from the ideas that percolated at those morning sessions,” Johnston says.

Ultimately, it’s that idea-generating power that justifies devoting time and resources to executive education. Continuous learning can be a powerful tool in any CEO’s arsenal, particularly when grappling with the single biggest challenge facing leaders today—the need to reinvent their businesses on an ongoing basis.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and a contributing writer to Chief Executive.