The Subtler Values of Executive Development - IEDP
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The Subtler Values of Executive Development

Revealing the hidden values of high-level executive programs

Wednesday 02 May 2012


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A key debate often aired in executive development and education is the importance of evaluation and return on investment. I would argue that whilst this is important the primary and frequently ignored reason for executive and leadership development programs is cultural.

It is often stated that the purpose of an executive education program is to develop a skill or competency. A typical client discussion with HR or OD professionals often includes the superficial goal of:

Our needs analysis indicate our leaders need to become more agile and manage complexity whilst achieving operational excellence’.

These are valid objectives however, I would conclude the cultural ‘rites of passage’ is the overriding objective of many executive development programs. The deeper reason is cultural initiation and developing senior leadership shared values. We need to accept this and work with this key dynamic in program diagnostic and design. It is no doubt encouraging for senior talent to be invited to this elite gathering and development process , but does it benefit the organisation ?

HR departments are often delegated the task of sourcing executive development programs, but unless it has true executive sponsorship it has little chance of creating any real organisational impact.

For many clients the ‘week at Oxford’ or ‘Harvard’ is as much a cultural initiation into subtle membership of an elite talent group. This is backed up with the detailed quasi-science from the HR/OD team on ‘talent pools’, ‘hi potentials’ and ‘not ready yet’ categorisations. Names of programs, such as the ‘Executive Institute’, ALP, ELP etc become cultural artefacts that leaders can use in the past tense to acknowledge membership of a talent pool.

The bulky A4 program binder though very old tech is still in strong evidence in book shelves in executive offices that I visit as a badge of attending the corporate executive program and telling the visitors to your office that you are part of the core team.

In executive programs community building is frequently illustrated by the presence of senior board members often in more informal dinner settings who often are invited on the first and final day to hear presentations of ‘break through’ ideas and proposals.

Prof Noel Tichy of University of Michigan who worked with GE in the 1980’s took this dynamic further. He successfully grasped the role of culture building in developing leaders. His focus and drive to encourage the then CEO Jack Welch to lead the ‘leaders as teachers approach’ was a master stroke. Leaders at GE were ‘encouraged’ to develop a ‘teachable point of view’ and lead cascade teaching session throughout their organisation. This was in turn sucessfully linked to lean six sigma initiatives and is still deeply embedded in leadership development in GE 30 years later.

Ed Schein wrote “Culture is the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously and define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organization's view of its self and its environment.’’

Perhaps Geert Hofstede gets closer to the reason for executive development in his comment “Culture is the collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from those of another. Culture in this sense is a system of collectively held values.”

This is crucial among the senior executive team who by definition are the determinants of strategy and business plan. It is crucial to them that the next generation of leaders or ‘talent’ are versed in the cultural clues that dominate the organisation.

The implication that executive program design is based on an elite meritocracy philosophy is something that educators, business schools and researchers should embrace and allow it to refocus our narrow assumptions of evaluation and ROI. Simply put we need to assess how our designs support the broader culture and networking building needs of senior leadership teams.

Unless your executive development program has a cultural initiation goal it has little chance of success. Does this mean we are in the business of developing leadership clones or something more dynamic?

What are your experiences of these cultural issues?

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