Myth-busting Executive Ed

Nov. 7, 2017

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The challenges that enterprises face today are arguably more complex than at any other time in the past century. As a result, the benchmark for workforce talent and skill keeps climbing, and executive education is key to meeting it. While the name is nothing new, the concept and delivery of executive education, for those doing it right, has evolved dramatically, said Joe Carella, assistant dean of executive education and the head of Eller Executive Education. In a recent chat, he discussed what “doing it right” means at the Eller College, dashing misperceptions that many still associate with “executive ed.”

MYTH: Classes are built on traditional pedagogy.

For many, “executive education” conjures some version of what they knew from their undergraduate or graduate experience: faculty lectures, readings, exams. In fact, Carella said, today’s executive education uses
a much richer and more varied mix of instruction. A lecture will more likely be a “micro-lecture,” he noted, perhaps incorporated in a business simulation or a hackathon, with participants working against the clock in small teams. “Gamification” can also be a great way to get participants familiar with material before class, especially younger learners, he noted.

MYTH: Everything happens in class.

The end goal of executive ed is behavioral change, Carella said, and that happens in the workplace, not just in class. In good executive education, coaching bridges those worlds. Just as a coach works with athletes to identify strengths and weaknesses and craft an individualized development plan, good executive education includes personal coaching
and opportunities to apply learning in participants’ work environments. “The coach sits alongside their learning journey to give feedback, help them apply it and provide reinforcement, which is the key to real change,” Carella explained.

MYTH: It’s the continuation of an MBA.

In Carella’s estimation, this is probably the most common misconception around executive education: that just as an MBA confers a general, well-rounded knowledge set for business leaders, executive education takes that same, wide-angle approach to advance business professionals to the next level.

“An MBA is structured around disciplines,” Carella noted. “Finance, marketing, accounting. In contrast, Eller Executive Education takes an interdisciplinary approach to specific challenges. If the challenge is expanding to a new market, for example, the coursework will integrate a number of disciplines to solve that specific problem.”

MYTH: Classes are standardized.

While Eller Executive Education offers open enrollment leadership programs in addition to fully customized programs, even those “standard” courses are increasingly customized to client needs, Carella said. Once underway, class participants might identify together, for example, a challenge that all or most of them are facing in their work, and the instructor will adapt projects, activities and opportunities to apply learning accordingly, bringing focus to solving that problem.

MYTH: There’s only so much you can do.

Universities are constrained in how liberally or quickly they can evolve traditional programs. The oversight
of accreditation agencies, the importance of rankings and the firm grip of campus governance all dictate that classes toward a degree conform to certain norms. Those same rules don’t apply in the world of executive education, Carella said.

As a result, executive education is much more likely to track to the latest findings of neuroscience and adult learning theory (“andragogy”) and can draw on a virtually limitless toolkit to meet learning goals. Millennials might reverse mentor their Boomer peers, animal therapy could be a vehicle for instruction in non-verbal communication and a class might be challenged not to find its way through a case study but to find its way out of the desert, miles from civilization.

MYTH: It’s a retreat and/or reward.

It’s true that high-performing employees are often primary candidates for advanced education, but executive education should not be framed or thought of as a “reward.” For starters, the programs aren’t easy. “They’re not the business equivalent of a day at the spa, where the highlight is time away from the office, a chance to network and a nice lunch,” Carella said. “It's work, and it requires the full attention and concentration of everyone enrolled.”

“More sophisticated organizations are realizing that the future of business lies in how well you orchestrate your resources,” Carella said. “Talent is becoming the crucial competitive advantage.” Executive education should be seen as a way to raise skills across the board, and not only through direct enrollments, but also by graduates sharing what they’ve learned.

MYTH: It’s turnkey for universities.

Just as the experience of advanced learning has changed for participants, the landscape is dramatically different for colleges. Whereas executive education once might have been a consumer-provider relationship, with businesses shopping for classes like office equipment, the dynamic today is necessarily more of a partnership.

“Most organizations today recognized the need,” Carella said. “Where some get tripped up is in failing to tie executive education to organizational strategy.” Today, colleges play a much more consultative
role, helping organizations make those strategic choices, define needs and also figure out how best to disseminate learning gains throughout their organization.

Finally, Carella pointed out, today’s executive ed requires a lot more work up front. Gone are days when a college could simply recycle materials from existing core programs. While Eller Executive Education may draw inspiration from select graduate courses, the content and instructional design is labor intensive. “We can work outside of the box,” Carella said, “but with that freedom comes an even greater demand for excellence.” – Eric Van Meter


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