Custom learning programs created in partnership with well-known and well-respected colleges and universities have become increasingly popular as a tool for executive education and development. But the bridge between the corporate and academic worlds is not always paved with learning like gold. In order to create the results required to justify the expense and resources needed to facilitate such a relationship, CLOs should concern themselves with fit, senior-level executive buy-in and participation, and effective, continuous communication.
“I think the biggest determinate for both a prospective client company and for us is what’s the fit? I think of that in three different ways,” said Clark Callahan, executive director, Tuck Executive Education, Dartmouth College. “The first is organizational fit. If you look at a place like Tuck, it’s small. It’s focused. The style here is very collaborative and everything that we do, we’re very discerning. We won’t work with huge numbers of companies in a year. Fit is very important. Another level of fit is what I would call capability. If the issue that we’re trying to address through this custom initiative is about something in the company strategy, do we have the right players in strategy or the needed areas to help address that issue? The third facet of fit is what I would call process and approach, how you engage with the client and how the client wants you to engage. It ties into that notion of organizational fit, but it’s very specific to ‘How will we work together?’ We can be very flexible about that, but we find that in keeping with the Tuck approach, a very close, collaborative working relationship, the work product is owned jointly, and that’s something that you want a client to be comfortable with.”
Aside from ensuring that their organizations’ mission or values are in concert with a potential academic partner, CLOs also must ensure that they have the full endorsement and potentially the participation of other top executives. Callahan said the CLO is usually the primary partner and contact, and as such should be the one to bring other executives insights and contributions to the table. “It’s pretty common that exec ed initiatives are sponsored by a CEO who has some role in the delivery of the program. Senior execs will often be paired with faculty members. For example, one of our faculty will do a day on strategy, and instead of doing Harvard cases, we’ll do an application exercise applying that framework to a business issue in that company.”
Callahan added that it’s one thing to say ‘Yes, this initiative is important, and I think we should do it’ and another to design the program so that it drives organizational alignment and not just individual executive development. “It’s harder than it sounds. Is everyone at a senior level in the company aligned with the objectives of both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the initiative? That’s what CLOs are responsible for, but that’s a hard thing to do. That’s something that can definitely jeopardize or impair success potential.”
In order to avoid a failed or perhaps derailed corporate/academic relationship, it’s critical to set realistic expectations about what the proposed initiative will accomplish. Clearly define how the project will proceed at the beginning, middle and end. If after all due planning diligence has been exercised things still fall apart, communication can help right the situation. “Look at the reasons internally in organizations that projects derail,” Callahan said. “A lot of it has to do with the people side of how is the project managed? That’s often true in exec ed work, especially custom work. By its nature custom exec ed work is really intensive. You have to develop a strong working relationship with a client and hiccups happen. It’s always important that we ask, ‘Are we making our client look good? Are we working in a way that’s reflecting well on them and helping them to advance the cause in their organization?’ If our answer to that is at any point no, then we need to do something about that.”