Tuesday, January 24, 2012

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.


davidburkus said...

Great thoughts. How many people do you think do the pre-work though? I'll admit, I'm always tempted to skip it.

Mary Jo Asmus said...

How about hiring a coach to make sure you stay accountable to that development plan :)?

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks. From my experience, it depends. For our custom (company specific), programs, it depends on the culture. I've also seen more pre-work compliance with higher end external programs, vs internal programs (with the exception of high potential, prestigious programs). We also try to make sure the pre-work is engaging and relevant , and not just busy-work. As a participant, if I think something is fluff, I'll skip it too.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks. I'm seeing more programs these days incorporate coaching into the program, or for post-program support, but I've never seen a participant hire one on their own. Good idea though.

Poul Andreassen said...

The uniqueness of your article is indeed something that is influential in nature, ALL work and no play……This article of yours is very thrilling to follow.
Thanks for sharing it in such a delightful manner..!

Maurice said...

Hi Dan, thanks for sharing. Participated in several programs myself. 2 comments:
1 I did hire a cpach at some point myself. Sometimes I also now advise others to do so and not be dependent of the company.
2. Once heard a professional development person say: these programs are not extremely useful for companies; many people will not change a thing, and others that are proactive would find their way in any case. Woould be interested in your view.

Dan McCarthy said...

Poul -

Maurice –
What a provocative comment! It made me stop what I was doing, think, and immediately respond. Thanks for the distraction. (-:

Regarding #1, I agree. I think the paternalistic days of sitting back and waiting for your company or manager to take responsibility for your success are long gone.

However, I’ve seen companies take this position to the extreme, and leave development entirely up to the employee. In other words, its sink or swim, every person fends for themselves, a Darwinian approach to leadership development.

I think that’s shortsighted and self-destructive in the long run. Development should be a partnership, with both parties putting some skin in the game.

BTW, if you pay for it yourself – you’re more likely to take it seriously in order to get your money’s worth. There would be no missed coaching appointments. You and Mary Jo may be on to something.

As for #2: sure, there’s some validity in what that professional development person said. Any training, coaching, or development is a waste of time and money if the person does not see the need to change and/or doesn’t want to. 0% ROI, maybe even a negative.

And he is right – high potential, successful people will find a way. They take ownership of their own development, are proactive, and don’t let barriers (bad bosses, no training budget, etc…) get in their way.

When it comes to leadership and executive development, most successful executives get the most development from (in order of impact):
1. Job changes
2. Stretch assignments
3. Other people (bosses, coaches, ,mentors, etc…)
4. Formal training, books, etc…

Big however #2: again, to take that to the extreme and say training and development programs “aren’t extremely useful for companies?” If this were true, why would we bother sending our kids to school, going to college, going to med school, getting a CPA, taking the Bar, etc…. i.e., shouldn’t a motivated person who wants to be a doctor just “find their way” and skip all those formal courses and residency?

I think the best development plans incorporate all four elements of the list above. Formal programs have their place, but they should not be the only means of development.

Again, thanks for raising some interesting questions and debate. I’d be interested in what others have to say.

Supervisor training said...

Very wise thoughts. I could not agree more!

Anonymous said...

This has been a great conversation. I've been an executive developer - both working inside organisations to create the programs and outside as a consultant and executive coach.

More than 10,000 people have accessed our leadership programs and I agree with Dan that the design of a program, including the way that people are "warmed up" to the program are key. People who volunteer, even if they don't volunteer until they're actually at the program get a lot more out of it.

We have had a 97% success rate of translation of the leadership lessons learnt into real work - even after 3 years or more.

And all of our current leadership programs incorporate executive coaching as part of the program. You have to choose the executive coaching and you also have to take responsibility for setting up meetings etc and the participants report this as the most powerful learning they get from the program.

I now believe that executive coaching - individual support - should be part of all leadership development initiatives.

Amanda Martin

Dan McCarthy said...

Supv training -

Amanda -
Thanks. Right, the "volunteer" aspect (wanting to learn and change) is critical.
I'd be interesting in learning more about your programs. If you'd like to connect, please send me an email (see "about me" tab).