· 10 min read · News

Educating the boss


Executive education is a key weapon in the war to retain talent. Sheri Winn asks what HR managers should look for when helping executives choose a course for their development needs

Development of the next generation of business leaders is one of HRs most important responsibilities. Succession planning, coaching and executive education all have an impact on the depth of leadership within a company.

But training senior level employees requires both research and forward planning. With the variety and number of executive education courses on the market, how can HR ensure that executives are choosing the right programmes and getting the best value from them?

One way to find your way through the maze of courses on offer is to create your own bespoke solution. Seven years ago, utilities company ScottishPower formed a partnership with US-based Wharton Business School to develop an in-house, customised programme for senior executives. Sandy Begbie, director of group organisational and leadership development at ScottishPower, says this partnership forms an integral part of the businesss long-term strategy.

It can be difficult for us to attract people, so we have a core philosophy of employing people early on and developing them, he explains. The partnership with Wharton enables us to do this. It has huge significance internally our CEO still spends one day a year at Wharton to talk through the changing needs of our business and how these can be addressed as part of the course.

Each year, employees are nominated by the ScottishPower executive committee and have to fulfil set performance and potential criteria to take part. The programme involves four modules spread over the course of a year, a team-based project and solution that is delivered to the board, plus up to six weeks of external business school education.

The programme changes each time it is run, Begbie adds. Wharton designs each course around the needs of individual delegates, matched with the needs of the business and then finds the right people to run it.

ScottishPowers HR department also advises the delegates on the best external courses to take as a complement to the in-house programme. The advantage here is that our people get an individually-tailored course but can also benchmark themselves against the market on the external courses, Begbie says.

The programme has played a big part in our transition from public to private ownership, Begbie continues. Our managers were very Scotland-centred and we had a traditional public-sector culture that sat badly with our plans to expand into the US. Our executive and senior management needed to be developed on an international basis.

Begbie adds that the majority of the top 50 executives at ScottishPower have come through its executive education programme. Of course, its difficult to say whether or not they would have stayed with us and got as far as they have anyway, he says. But they all say to me that the programme has contributed enormously to their career development.

Off-the-shelf business school courses can be as valuable as bespoke solutions providing the delegates and their HR departments have done their homework, says Guy Saunders, director of open programmes at London Business School (LBS).

Part of this involves choosing the right course. We spend a lot of time trying to ensure that we are the right business school with the right programme and we will even reject applications if we can see that people arent suited to the course, he adds. We actively encourage potential delegates and HR departments to speak to our programme directors to find out as much as they can before they sign up to a course.

Not doing enough research limits value and may end in disappointment, he adds. If a delegate wants to learn a specific skill, like management, there is little point selecting a course that aims to change attitudes or behaviours. Cranfields High Performance Leadership course, for example, focuses on personal development rather than leadership formulae.

Its not a nuts and bolts skills course. We dont tell delegates how to be leaders, says Jacquie Drake, director of the Cranfield Praxis Centre that runs the course. Instead, we ask them to look inside themselves to find out the kind of leader they are. Its intended to give a sense of direction and make delegates feel stronger about dealing with problems. The only people that have ever expressed disappointment with it are those that were expecting a toolkit approach.

Chris Nichols, joint director of the Strategy and Leadership programme at Ashridge, says his course delivers awareness of how you tick as a strategic leader. Its a tough market, and we try to help people to be more original, more capable of developing strategy and getting the most out of their team, he adds.

As well as the skills and attitudes that form the basis of individual course structures, delegates should come out with increased confidence, self-awareness, inner belief and new direction, the course leaders say. According to Saunders, delegates from the LBS Senior Executive Programme cite the opportunity to benchmark themselves against their peers at an international level as being of greatest value.

There is a big role for HR to play throughout the process, Saunders says. Too often, people decide they want to go on a course and go to their HR department for help. HR then gives them a selection of course dates and they choose a programme based on whats most convenient, or whats the cheapest. This brings absolutely no value HR needs to work out the persons specific needs and actively help them to choose a course on that basis.

In addition, HR can formulate an action plan for achievement with the delegate and remind them of it while the course is going on, he adds. Asking the right questions once its all over is vital ask whether they have set aside some time to review their achievements and new knowledge and ask what they are going to do differently as a result. Six months later, ask what changes they have made and whether they can ascribe them directly to what they learned.

HRs role should be that of mentor, says Drake. Nichols agrees, but finds that HR is often less involved than it could be. Id love to see HR take an active role in the development of top people, he says. But there tends to be an assumption that at a certain level, people will sort out their own development.

It comes down to HR having a thorough understanding of the people within their company their strengths, weaknesses and development needs, he adds. There is a huge strategic role for HR in aligning that to future business requirements and advising people accordingly.

Neil Riding, managing director, TGI Friday's

The Ashridge course was a watershed, says Neil Riding. I cant say I used everything I learned on day one, but during the past two years as managing director there have been some very significant challenges to my leadership. The course helped me to become much more confident and more self-aware.

Riding comes from an academic background he took a modern history degree, originally intending to be a lawyer. Instead, he became a sales engineer and then joined Courage. In the subsequent five years at Allied Domecq he rose from the position of area manager to a board position as retail director.

Strategy is often seen as something mystical, Riding says. People grossly overestimate how complicated it is. The process often appears similar to a relay race. You have some clever people locked in a room making the decisions, who hand on the results to the operations director, who passes them on to the people to implement the strategy.

Four years ago, when Riding had moved on again to the position of operations director at Pizza Hut, he began to feel that there was a gap in his knowledge and experience. Id always been confident in my ability to take the baton once the strategy had been written, but there was something missing, he continues. What he felt he needed was a much better understanding of strategy, along with the full toolbag of skills and techniques. So he began to shop around for a course.

It was the pragmatic nature of the Ashridge course that attracted him. I was hoping it wouldnt be dry and academic, he says, and it wasnt.

The course combines classroom time with pre-course preparation, virtual learning and one-to-one coaching, and the programme itself teaches strategic and behavioural techniques together. The theory is that when people sit at their desks, they cant compartmentalise time spent on strategy and time spent on leadership, so neither should the teaching style.

Module two of the programme includes a live case study, where delegates team up to address a real strategic problem at one of Ashridges partner companies, which volunteer to take part. Riding says he was pleasantly surprised at how unstuffy the course was, and he particularly enjoyed the live case study, which included discussion of results and 360 feedback from other delegates.

The people in Ridings cohort worked well as a group, he says. They came from some very different backgrounds from the public sector, traditional businesses and the dotcoms, he says.

The Strategy and Leadership programme made me realise that strategy works best when the people creating it are also the ones rolling up their sleeves, Riding continues, and everybody involved fully understands the process.

Course facts

Business school: Ashridge

Course: Strategy and Leadership Programme

Attended: 2000

Course structure: Two weeks classroom time plus coaching and virtual learning over a four to six month period

Cost: 10,250 + VAT inclusive of all residential costs

John Christie, store operations director, Tesco Express

I used to think that intellect played the key role in success, says John Christie. But I came away from the High Performance Leadership course realising it doesnt. Leadership and behaviour are by far and away more important. Focus and vision comes with the ability to manage your own life, and as a result you bring far more to your team.

As part of his review process in 2001, Christie and his HR business manager identified that he needed some external stretch in two areas of development leadership skills and strategic thinking.

People development is very high-profile within Tesco at director level, says Christie. You have to be clear about your requirements. He considered several courses at Cranfield, before selecting High Performance Leadership (HPL), followed by The Director as Strategic Leader.

Run by Cranfields Praxis Centre, the HPL course is now in its third year. It focuses on the demands that leadership at a high level places on individuals emotionally, ethically and personally. According to the brochure, it involves learning what to do when you dont know what to do, and takes delegates through what is described as a leadership journey.

Christie thought the course would be fairly pragmatic and traditional in its approach. He quickly realised he was wrong. Initially uncomfortable with its touchy-feeliness, he wondered how he would justify the investment and apply it to Tesco. It was a very unusual environment not a natural one for me, he comments. Tesco is a pragmatic, fast-paced and focused organisation.

But Christie stuck with it and returned to the second module one month later. Once I started to understand the relationship between what I was beginning to learn and either the experiences Id been through or the challenges I knew I would face in the future, I realised how the course would help me. The leadership journey model seemed to fit both my personal and business life. There was a definite point when I began to really feel it was working.

It made me realise the importance of inner belief, he adds. I know that Ill come up against difficult barriers in the future, but I understand my strengths now and how to use them.

Christie talks openly with his team about personal development issues, and has just sent one of his managers on the HPL course. It isnt a one-size-fits-all sort of course, he says. It was timely for me, in terms of where I was in my career. I had already done some personal development and it reinforced things I felt I already knew in a very effective way. If you can create an environment where people are able to express their feelings, it builds a much stronger team.

He has also recently completed The Director as Strategic Leader programme at Cranfield, which he feels has complemented the HPL course very well.

When you come to the end of these courses, your mind is buzzing, concludes Christie. But the real test comes a year down the line. I drove away from the HPL course on a high, with a real sense of inner belief. At a subsequent performance review I felt far more prepared and confident about my ability to manage than I had ever done before. As a result, I was offered my current position and I couldnt have hand-picked a better job than the one I have now.

Course facts

Business school: Cranfield School of Management

Course: High Performance Leadership

Attended: May/June 2001

Course structure: Two modules, 5 days plus 3 days

Cost: 5,100 + VAT

Alison Porter, general manager, BT Message Services

Ive done a lot of courses, but the Senior Executive Programme (SEP) was one of the best I have ever attended, says Alison Porter. The group comprised a lot of chairmen and chief executives, and it gave me real confidence to know that I was working with people at this level. In the second week, I was picked as a leader for the group work. It was a revelation. It made me aware that I had more leadership skills than Id thought.

In 2000, Porter had been with BT for 13 years and risen to head of worldwide security. She knew that once she was in a specialist role, the avenues open to her could be limited and that breaking out might be difficult. Since 1991, she had followed a regular programme of training, attending courses at least every two years. One formative course had been Strategic Skills for Senior Women Managers at Cranfield University, which had helped her make a big leap in her career.

I wanted a hands-on course, something that would develop my general management skills, she says. I did some research and looked at the SEP. It seemed just right. I was fortunate to have a supportive manager, who had been an HR specialist. He recognised my potential and believed the investment would be worthwhile.

What was she expecting? The first surprise was the calibre and seniority of the delegates, replies Porter. There was a bit of a divide between the blue-chip companies such as BT and the smaller companies, but we learned from one another. CEOs of smaller businesses have a picture of the whole business while, inevitably, if youre working in a large company in strategy, you tend to see only your specialist area. The course experience has been useful for me in my current role, as I am now running a small business within BT.

The biggest revelation was the acting and theatre work, and it was here that Porter came into her own. Id always been interested in the arts, but I didnt realise how strong this was in me, she says. I ended up writing and producing the show we put on at the delegates dinner at the Caf Royale, which was attended by professional actors and actresses. I realised I could make things happen.

The theatre work also changed my awareness of my whole personal presence, explains Porter. I realised I had the ability to hold an audience. Presenting had never been my favourite thing, but now you cant stop me.

Another key development was that she took up a non-executive directorship role. My position as non-executive director at the Land Registry since early 2001 is directly linked to my experience on the course, she says.

Since the Senior Executive programme, Porter has attended a number of other courses, including Cranfields Managing Innovation and In the Zone courses, and a one-day seminar on Presence and Presentation. The SEP experience had another effect Porter has enrolled for evening courses at the Central School of Art and Drama.

Im a different person to the one who went on the SEP, concludes Porter. People tell me my body language has changed. I used to appear nervous, even if I was confident inside. Now theres a better match between the image I project, and the person I really am. I am also much better at motivating other people.

Course facts

Business school: London Business School

Course: Senior Executive Programme

Attended: March 2000

Course structure: Four weeks

Cost: 17,950