If you are thinking about attending an executive education course this year, be prepared to have a lot of choices. Today’s crop of executive education options offer a vast range of topics, formats and learning channels, most of which are designed to help learners transform their leadership style for a more digitally driven workplace.
This is good news, as recent research suggests that executives need a lot more education to keep up with the rapidly changing workplace. Executive Development Associates’ “2019 Trends in Executive Development” report determined that “digital culture shock” is driving most of the interest and evolution in executive education today as leaders seek new knowledge and skills to help them adapt. Changing business strategy (34 percent) and digital transformation related to AI, analytics, blockchain and other technologies (22 percent) were cited as the most influential issues facing executives today.
These pressures are changing the kinds of content that executives — and the learning organizations that are paying for their education — are seeking, said Michael Chavez, CEO of Duke Corporate Education. “Strategy courses have become a lot less relevant in the shadow of disruption,” he said. They are rapidly being replaced by content and modalities that challenge leaders to think differently and to engage more fully in the learning process.
Learning by Doing
The days of spending three hours listening to a lecture are over, Chavez said. The new crop of courses are far more participatory. Today’s leaders can choose from a variety of experiential learning environments, where professors leverage design thinking strategies, cross-department collaboration, and immersive learning scenarios that force participants to interact, engage and even act out their roles in leadership scenarios.
This trend is being driven by organizations that don’t want to pay for their people to just sit and listen, and by instructors who recognize that immersive learning can be a transformational experience. It is also proving to be an appealing model for learners, who are often surprised to find they enjoy the opportunity to engage more fully in the learning process.
That was the experience Alex Katzman had when he attended University of California, Berkeley’s three-day on-site High-Impact Leadership Program. Katzman, who is chief growth officer of Enervee, an online marketplace for energy-efficient products, wanted a course that would help him evolve his leadership skills to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding workforce. “A lot of other executive ed courses felt more like management training or they were industry specific,” he said. “This one focused on how to be a better leader.”
Katzman also liked Berkeley because of its respected name and proximity to his office in Los Angeles. But he was surprised by the format the workshop took. All of the instructors came from acting and performance backgrounds, and the content focused primarily on helping participants build their leadership presence and learn how to make emotional connections through leadership. “It was very interactive,” he noted. The course included many physical exercises, work on posture, voice projection and using inflections to create tension in storytelling. “We spent a lot of time practicing how to tell a story in two minutes while creating excitement,” he said.
Katzman hadn’t expected to spend so much time engaging and performing, and he was a little uncomfortable at first, but he’s glad he took the class. “Learning by doing is so much more powerful than just listening,” he said. He’s now applying those skills on the job, and he feels like it has helped him develop his skills as a leader, mentor and coach.
Take Charge of Your Career
While not every executive education course is taught by actors, this kind of interactivity and collaboration is becoming much more popular among trainees and their employers. It’s also bringing new players into the space, including acting schools like Second City in Chicago, which offers an improv-based leadership workshop. In other programs, students work collaboratively to solve hypothetical business problems, and even take on roles in immersive experiences, like having to rescue skiers trapped in an avalanche, or negotiate the release of hostages — both courses offered by Group Experiential Learning.
It may sound more like an adventure vacation than education, but these learning programs can have a powerful impact. They force participants to make decisions quickly using ambiguous information, and to collaborate and problem-solve in high-stress situations — all skills they need to thrive in today’s workplace.
That doesn’t mean every executive needs to be ready to strap on snowshoes to become a better leader. But they do need to know what they want to get from an education, said Ed Hoffman, senior lecturer in the Master of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy at Columbia University in New York. “Leaders today are working in a high-octane environment that no-one has ever experienced before,” he said. They have to constantly be assessing their current skills and what they will need to stay competitive in the future.
That includes evaluating whether your current skill set could one day be replaced by technology and what you can do to remain relevant, Hoffman advised. He noted that one of the most in-demand skill sets today is applied data analytics, but it’s possible that in a decade, those tasks will be largely automated. “It is dangerous to think that the skills you have today will carry you for a career.”
He also noted that executives can no longer rely on their company to make these decisions for them. “You have to take care of your own career,” he said. While some organizations are good at creating and acquiring learning opportunities for their high performers, it is foolish for any ambitious leader to assume that someone else will take care of their learning needs.
Hoffman believes it’s an executive’s job to constantly update their career plans and to commit to being a lifelong learner.
“If you are at a stage in your career where you need to improve your skills, or you want to become a driving force in your organization, executive education can help with that,” Katzman said. He urged learners to look for a program that speaks to them, and to be open to new modalities of learning — even if it makes them uncomfortable. “It can help you develop skills you know you aren’t great at, and that can be a real benefit.”
This article was originally published as “The Experiential Leader” in the July/August 2019 issue of Chief Learning Officer.