Disrupting Exec Ed, Because Long Classroom Hours Don't Work

Jan. 10, 2018

In the Headlines

How do you respond to a client who says, "I am done with the classroom! Our executives dread the long hours sitting in a class working on a case. We are looking for the WOW factor." These exact words were the first thing the L&D Director of DP World told me when I first met her.

I have to confess that I was really jetlagged and, for a second, I thought I had misunderstood her. And yet she repeated the same words only more slowly, concerned that her English was not great. Her English was excellent. It was me and I was excited and incredulous at once.

Her request was such a breath of fresh air and it totally validated the approach we had proposed and why I was having that conversation. Today some executive development programs still smell of musty old classroom and slide-driven content, more concerned with their own existence than with the lives of the executives that take part in them. Today I see part of my job to disrupt traditional executive education models, testing not just new content ideas but also the methodologies we use to deliver such content and the impact we create in the participants’ lives.

DP World was ready to innovate and gave us an opportunity to bring in new thinking. DP World wanted their next generation leaders to be exposed to the difficulties of a complex world, not shielded in a classroom on an academic campus. They wanted to combine the new insight that you can get through academic rigor with the grit of real business outcomes. And they wanted their executives to become sophisticated global leaders just as some of their clients and peers were. 

Here are three things we co-designed that created the WOW factor DP World was looking for:

  1. We incorporated some microlearning modules. If you are not familiar with the concept, it typically involves short bursts of learning followed by application. It better suits modern learners and non-native English speakers and it helps with retention and concentration. Of course not all topics can be taught using microlearning. We found it to be especially effective when addressing a specific business challenge or when trying to progressively build and test interpersonal skills. This approach helps to create greater connection between content and real work.
  2. We turned participants into business hackers. A big part of learning today has to be the opportunity to test ideas and apply them to real life situations. As part of the program, we had DP World visit a global company who was tackling a substantive business challenge. Using user-centered design principles. we prepped the DP World executives who then spent the day as “consultants/disruptors” to the hosting multinational in a “hackathon” format supporting the hosting company’s senior team in devising new ways to tackle their business challenge. Both teams got a great deal out of the hackathon: new ways to look at existing problems, leadership coaching, cross-cultural awareness, business insight, and new relationships, to name just some of the outcomes. Hackathons are a great way to break the traditional collaboration styles.
  3. We incorporated Fortune 50 mentoring. DP World executives were eager to acquire the sophistication and professionalism of their peers and clients. We designed with them a mentoring program where each DP World executive was paired up with a Fortune 50 “most admired company” executive who could offer some behind-the-scenes insight on their leadership journey. The key differentiator here is the opportunity to be mentored by someone who has been specifically selected to match your development journey because of their expertise. There is no random matching, but a clear line that connects the mentee’s growth with DP World’s strategic objectives. The mentor is on-boarded with a clear sense of what they will contribute, since our designers implement what we call “learning curation” because in leadership development one size does not fit all.

There have been times when this was not a smooth ride and we knew that disrupting would make us all uncomfortable. The biggest learning has been to think through the potential pitfalls to each learning innovation we designed into the program. In the end, disrupting executive education has been a very rewarding experience where the real proof of success is in the testimonials of the program participants, whose lives have been changed for the better. In the words of the VP of HR at DP World, “we expected the WOW factor, but we never expected that our executives would come back transformed.”


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