A recent study by the Financial Times/IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance found that executive education was in the top five priorities for senior leaders, above even financial management and strategy development and execution. “As we are moving into the 4th industrial revolution,” says Gustaf Nordbäck, CEO of the Alliance, “in a world where we are seeing an increasing speed of innovation, it’s more important than ever to focus on developing future leaders and create a learning mindset across the organizations.”

Many businesses will be facing succession challenges in the next five years, says Mark Healy, executive director of The Ivey Academy. Executive change in the future requires training for future executives in the present. Furthermore, he adds, “executive education is a really great way to translate strategy into action,” because while leaders are learning new skills, they can also develop the organization’s strategic plan as a learning project.

“Today, organizational leaders are having to work with two challenging situations that are potentially in conflict: coping with transformational change and delivering sustainable growth,” says Nordbäck. To meet these challenges head-on, executives need to understand strategy and planning but also how to motivate and empower employees. They must be able to choose the right action at the right time but also be courageous and self-aware. “All of this – and more – is the goal of executive education and development.”

How Should Organizations Deliver Executive Education?

Business schools are often a preferred provider of executive training. Many offer customized education programs for corporate customers. These programs can be expensive, which, executive educator Dr. Franziska Frank writes in a new “Executive Education Service Pack,” makes this model “mainly for smaller numbers of highly valued employees” (i.e., executives).

“In these days of unprecedented choice in terms of learning delivery media,” says Nordbäck, “for most of the learning scenarios, the most effective way of delivering learning is via blended learning – that is, a mix of face-to-face and online learning.” He notes, however, that we need to redefine blended learning. “It’s no longer simply about supplementing formal learning events with additional materials,” but “about delivering a holistic and engaging learning experience that will drive results.”

Recent Training Industry research found that while leadership training is most often delivered through instructor-led training and on-the-job training, leadership training participants believe that on-the-job coaching, followed by on-the-job training, is the most impactful way to learn leadership skills. Indeed, executive coaching, formal or on-the-job, is a popular and effective modality to develop executives’ skills.

Healy says that leadership development should provide ample opportunities for practice and action. “We are in the behavior change business, not in the knowledge transfer business,” he says. “The only way you’re going to really drive behavior change is through action and practice.” Case studies, simulations, role-plays and other types of experiential learning enable leaders to practice the skills they’ll be using back on the job.

Picking a Provider

The first question to ask yourself, says Healy, is where you are in your development and strategic journey. If you’re still early in that journey, you may need a smaller provider or consultant to provide some advice without developing a program. If you’re further along, look for a provider “that has really good strategy chops,” so it can understand your strategic priorities and translate them into talent strategy – and then translate talent strategy into an effective program.

“A really good business school should be able to do that, but not all business schools have brought all of these services under one roof. Some consulting firms have, and so that’s a different sort of option.”

Based on the Corporate Learning Alliance survey, Nordbäck has several recommendations for organizations looking for an executive education provider:

  • The provider should have a proven history of delivering results.
  • The provider’s content should be “current and practical.” Programs should “break the mold of the traditional business school academic model through more practical content based on current business issues and a forward-looking approach.”
  • The provider should be able to measure impact, including on organizational change and customer engagement and satisfaction.

Measuring Impact

“There are no very accepted industry-wide metrics that everyone looks to,” says Healy. Additionally, there’s no “best metrics” to use for all executive education programs – it depends on the organization and its goals. He does, however, recommend looking at three factors: the retention and promotion rates for executives who participate in your program, strategy execution, and “that sense of internal camaraderie and network-building” that often results from good executive education.

“Executive education needs to work harder – and the results have to be measurable,” says Nordbäck. Metrics should include employee engagement, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and financial metrics. By blending formal and informal learning, incorporating plenty of opportunities to practice, and helping leaders learn on the job, your executive education program can deliver these results – and more.