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Finishing at School Is Just the Start

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he Start How to get a return on the thousands of dollars spent on executive education once retrained staff return to the office.

What could be more annoying? You attend an expensive management program, only to find that on your return to the workplace your employer is either unwilling or unable to use your newly-learnt skills.

This is not as improbable as it sounds. While most companies now recognize the value of executive education and happily send their executives on courses, they can then subsequently be at a loss to know how best to use their retrained employees once they return to the fold. Lynne Delay, coaching manager at the Center For Creative Leadership Europe, says that, even today, this scenario still occurs.

“I find this a frustrating aspect of my job,” she complains. She says that customers are content to spend thousands of euros to send someone on a program but then unwilling to spend a further 3 per cent on supporting what has been learned when that person is back in the workplace.

But the tide may be turning.

“The wiser companies are seeing that it is one thing to have the program, but more and more of them are thinking in terms of processes — ‘how do you sustain this back in the workplace?’” she says. One way to get the best out of employees once they have undergone training programs is through coaching or coaching support, says Delay.

CCL coaches follow participants, checking with them to support them in progress and talking through any problems they might encounter. By combining real work with what participants have learnt on their course, “you are really magnifying their results”, says Delay.

At Fortis, the financial service provider, coaching is an integral part of the group’s commitment to executive education. At the end of CCL training, Fortis participants initially make a personal development plan for the coming years “to build a bridge between learning experience and the hard work”, says Alf Overmars, director of the talent management center of excellence at Fortis.

Participants then attend a program at IMD in Lausanne where they can identify new ideas and trends in terms of business performance and management.

Armed with business knowledge, the students are brought together in their sixstrong learning groups. “They are in the same type of business and have the same problems, and so the people who can, then come together on a regular basis,” says Overmars.

“This is one way to keep them learning and extend the learning.”

The coaching element then comes to the fore, and the employee embarks on a year-long coaching process designed to complement their executive education to date.

The employee is also paired with an internal coach or mentor, someone from the top 200 senior managers within the organization. This aspect of the coaching is carefully done, beginning with a fourway meeting between the person to be coached, the mentor, the mentor’s boss, and corporate human resources. “We designed this set-up — we want people to have a clear look at their leadership style and we want to broaden the scope of our participants,” says Overmars.

At Philips International, employees who have taken part in executive education are also supported by coaching sessions. But Jef Pauwels, vice-president of corporate HR, leadership and organizational development, says the group has also adopted action learning as an integral part of much of its executive education. Executives, once they have embarked on a course, are expected to work on a specific project with relevance to the business.

“Executives have to make sure it is close to the daily work performance,” says Pauwels. “They must find a project themselves and this reinforces the learning — it brings it to real life. It gives a push to learning and a push to applied learning in the workplace.”

In the past, says Pauwels, executives studied projects that were on a more abstract level. Today, however, the group insists that people work on topics close to the daily business such as a strategy plan for a corporate customer.

At TNT Express, the global courier sends its managers from all over the world on an executive development program run by Warwick Business School in the UK. The six modules are delivered over three years and an integral aspect of each module is the assignment.

Each assignment dovetails closely with the group’s daily business. “What we are doing through these assignments is giving them [managers] a practical application of how these things [such as leadership or performance management] are done,” says James McCormac, chief operating officer at TNT Express.

So often, says McCormac, employees return from a course with what appears to be a certificate of attendance, rather than achievement, but the assignment obliges employees to apply what they have learned. The best of the assignments are used as input into TNT Express’s planning.

The Projects Academy, a partnership between British Petroleum, the Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering at MIT, was set up to reshape and rethink the way BP manages bigger projects. It uses coaching, mentoring, assessments and projects in the yearlong program.

Once the executive has graduated from the program, BP switches its emphasis to placement considerations “aligning BP’s business needs to the individual’s proficiencies and competencies”, says Jim Breson, projects director of the academy.

Some initiatives can arise indirectly, through employees from far flung corners of a company finding themselves thrown together while learning. On returning to the workplace these relationships continue, with executives supporting each other.

For many companies it seems that it is back in the workplace that the real learning begins. While business schools and management training programs supply the nuts and bolts and act as the catalyst for learning, it is when executives return to the field and apply their new found knowledge that executive education stands or falls.

Spending vast sums on business education really pays off only if companies are also prepared to invest in a well thought out infrastructure for employees once they return to the fold.

A system that links individuals with senior leaders of the company, and closely aligns projects with executive programs, can succeed in putting the great concepts learnt at business school to work for the company, says Breson.

But it requires sustained effort. “We have worked hard to put this in place,” he says.