How to Get the Most Benefit from an Executive Development Program

In my current role as Director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and interact with hundreds of our program participants.

In former roles, in managing leadership development programs at large companies, I would always take the time to talk to participants before and after they attended an external executive development program.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot, including how to design programs that meet the needs of real-life executives. There are a lot of variables you need to pay attention to – the instructors, the design of the program, the venue, to name a few. However, there’s an important variable that I may have the least control over – but matters as much as anything else – and that’s the participant.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again – same program, different participants, and wildly different results.

So what’s the secret? Why does participant A get a 200% ROI, yet participant B only gets 20%? I’m pretty convinced it comes down to the following:

(btw, I wrote this in the context of an executive development program, but many of the tips would be applicable for any training program, conference, or learning event.)

1. Connect, connect, connect!
While the rest of this list isn’t in order of importance, this one is THE most important for sure. The participants that learn the most, take the most away, and continue to learn and develop, well after a program has ended, are the ones that make every effort they can to connect with others. They network with the participants, the instructors, guest speakers, heck, even the cab drivers. It only takes a little extra effort – arriving a little early in the morning, putting the cell phone away on breaks, and exchanging contact information. More importantly, it’s a mindset – that everyone has something to share, and a willing to extend yourself to others. Being an introvert, I realize it’s not as easy as it sounds – so while it can be exhausting, it’s worth the effort.

2. Do the prework and evening assignments.
Most executive development programs are heavy on the pre-work and evening work – case studies, assessments, interviews, etc…. They are designed that way intentionally as a way to maximize the time spent in the classroom. It’s always obvious when a participant has either taken shortcuts or crammed at the last minute. They are scrambling to catch up and can drag down their teams or partners.

3. Take risks.
If you’re an introvert, see #1. If you hate making presentations, volunteer to go first. If you’re a right-brained analytical, try out some new creative techniques. If you have never tired sushi, then plug your nose and give it a try.
When I was learning to ski, the instructors always said if you’re not falling, you’re not learning. Taking those risks – and either succeeding or failing and learning – is what development is all about.

4. Listen for understanding, not to judge.
In other words, keep an open mind. Believe me, this is WAY easier said than done. We are naturally conditioned to evaluate, judge, accept what already fits into our worldview, and reject what does not. Successful senior managers are especially prone to this. Force yourself to suspend this tendency, and listen for possibilities.

5. Keep a journal and create an action plan.
Although programs often encourage participants to do this, when I walk around, I often see a lot of blank pages. The ones that I see actually implement ideas back on the job seem to refer back to their own notes, not the formal course material. They internalize it, take ownership, and figure out a way to adapt it to their own work back on the job better than those that don’t. And yes, tablets are replacing the old Moleskin journals, and they work just as well.

6. Meet with your manager before and after the program.
I’ve talked to managers who were not even aware their employee attended an executive development program – they thought they were on vacation! Meeting with your manager prior to a program to set learning goals and expectations, and after a program to review learnings and action plans – helps you hold yourself accountable. It’s also a good way to help justify your manager’s decision to invest in your development – and show your appreciation.

Also, if there are alumni from the same program within your own company, take the time to reach out to them. It will help prepare you before the program, and give you a support system after the program.

7. Maintain your energy level.
Get a good night’s sleep, avoid too much alcohol, and maintain your exercise routine while attending a program. Some programs even build a wellness component into the week – so if you don’t already lead a healthy lifestyle, a program may be the catalyst to get you started. More energy = more learning = more ROI. The participants I see in the fitness center are the ones that participate, ask the best questions, and outshine the karaoke kids.

8. Clear your slate for the program.
No, it is NOT impossible to do this. I’ve seen high level, highly successful hard-charging executives manage to clear their calendars, delegate their responsibilities, and avoid conference calls, phone calls, and even emails for 3-5 entire days. They get tons more out of the program, and their careers don’t fall apart while they are off the grid. This is how they manage to network more (#1), exercise (#7), and do their evening assignments (#2). It takes some thoughtful planning to pull this off, but its well worth it, and can even be invigorating.

If you follow these tips, you’ll double, triple, or quadruple your ROI. It doesn’t mean the program has to be ALL work and no play. It’s a shame to go to a new city and spend the entire time in a hotel or conference center. Many programs will either build in a night out, or allow participants to have an evening on their own. Go ahead, get out and see the sights and experience the local culture – in moderation. The informal social time can help build stronger, lasting networks, and helps create a memorable experience.

Share these tips with anyone planning to attend an executive development program, or help build the list by adding your own tip in the comments section.