• Learning

The Demand Side: New Models in Executive Education

Impressions, insights, and takeaways from Day Two of UNICON’s Directors’ Conference 2021, hosted by Fundação Dom Cabral (FDC)


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This is Part Two in a three-article series documenting UNICON's Directors' conference 2021, with Parts One and Three found here.

Day two of this year’s UNICON Director’s conference, hosted by Fundação Dom Cabral, considers the demand side of executive education. What is the market demanding? What are the new aspirations at both the organizational and individual level of executive learning? How will change in the working lives of professionals, changing business models, and changes to the role of business in society, give rise to change in executive education?

“Change is nothing new,” reflects Professor Carlos Arruda, Professor of Innovation and Competitiveness at FDC, offering a grounding perspective on a complex issue. “Remember Heraclitus in 544 BC, who said, ‘No man ever stepped in the same river twice—first because it is not the same river, second because it is not the same man.’ Today we are living in times when our rivers are changing much faster, and we are changing much faster too.” It is the pace of change that is new.

This past year—perhaps more so than any other in recent history—has seen that pace of change reach an extreme velocity for many of us, and the pandemic is not the sole accelerating force behind that, but rather one force amongst myriad disruptive forces hitting at once. “We are in the middle of a pandemic situation, in the middle of a technological revolution—with huge impacts on our behaviour, on our jobs, our politics, and on our economies—and we have growing concerns around climate change, social inequality, and the future of our society as a whole,” states Professor Arruda.

As others have described, we are living through a ‘perfect storm’ of change factors, with no aspect of life nor business left untouched or unchanged. Neither too are the demands and requirements of executives left unchanged—as Day 2 of conference reveals.

Andrea Cruz Lima, President at Whirlpool Corporation in Brazil, has studied at various points in her career at Harvard Business School, INSEAD, and Kellogg School of Management—and is clearly passionate about lifelong learning, and about executive development in particular. She encapsulates succinctly the profound shift taking place in client demands in the sector, “We are moving beyond needing leaders equipped for a VUCA world. This was a term coined in the 1980s after the Cold War. The model we see most relevant to us now is ‘BANI’—which characterises our business world as Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear and Incomprehensible.”

This new reality—of a strained and straining ‘BANI’ world for executives—is another framing of the opportunity/challenge presenting itself to executive education in the immediate years ahead. How can the sector help and support the modern professional navigate and thrive in this challenging new reality?

Cruz Lima highlights the mental health of her workforce as becoming “a key side-effect of the pandemic.” She paints a concerning picture of people, “moving to a space of increased anxiety, panic, depression, solitude.” Senior executives like Cruz Lima are having to act swiftly in response. “We are providing a full program of support,” she explains. This support includes a new set of ground rules, designed to address the problematic blurring between work life and personal life that all of us will have experienced this past year. Under these new rules, “Meetings are for 9-5 only, there are no meetings at lunchtime, no WhatsApp after 7pm, no emails at weekends. We need to respect people’s lives. Working through the crisis left us with some bad behaviours.” Cruz Lima is acting fast to draw a line under those bad behaviours, to ensure the well-being of her people.

Clearly there is a challenge here for executive education: to be attuned to these stresses, and supportive of bringing distance, time and perspective between work life and personal life.

Richard Lobo, Executive Vice President at Infosys Ltd sees some cause for optimism in the area of work-life balance, noting that, “The pandemic has given us some visibility of what the future might be. We do not need to rush to offices every morning and come back late every evening. Some of these transformations will be here to stay.”

Another transformation Lobo sees as ‘here to stay’ is the transformation in learning. “Previously the challenge was always bringing the individual to the classroom,” he reflects, “Now, the individual is free to access many different classrooms, with the help of technology. Once they get used to this, there will be a huge appetite for increased learning—of new skills, new languages, new qualifications.”

Another area of transformation in learning, again related to technology, as Lobo notes, is an enhanced ability for learners to “apply our learning to a real-life problem more rapidly than before. Previously there has always been a skills/transfer gap. We learn something in an executive education program, but back at our own offices we forget the learning because other problems we are dealing with take precedent. When you are learning in real-time, this skills/transfer gap reduces.” The skills/transfer gap has been cited as one of the major obstacles hampering the impact of executive education in the past—the suggestion it can and is being reduced is a significant one.

Lobo concurs with Cruz Lima too, adding, “There is a negative to remote work and remote learning that we cannot ignore. Looking at each other through small windows on a screen, not interacting in real-time, not shaking hands, not meeting face to face. From young students to senior executives, this is really having a strong impact and it is important not to ignore it. Technology is fantastic—and I speak as someone from a tech company—yet we cannot stress enough the importance of getting back as soon as we can to human connection, human behaviour, human facilitation.”

Lobo goes on to describe interesting work being done by Infosys with Stanford School of Business Executive Education, based around ‘learning on the job’ and the use of specialist assignments in executive learning programs. “We take a business problem, and we ask our leaders to apply the tools and techniques they have learned to solve it,” he summarizes.

Crucially, they measure the results. Lobo gives an example: “One specific business problem we had was people were not tending to rotate from their jobs. Somebody sits in a particular area or department, and they rarely wanted to change. We gave this problem to a group of our leaders. They used the tools and techniques they had learned from the executive education program and they came up with a solution—and we measured to see the actual impact. In this case the results went from 11% rotation up to 26% in just one year of implementation. These are the kinds of problems we set.”

Lobo considers how much more valuable this methodology was, compared to what might usually be fed back after a program—verbally in meetings, or as a presentation to peers. “The company benefits. The leaders benefit. It is a combination of business school expertise and our own understanding of our own business problems,” he concludes. This is a useful methodology to keep in mind in the context of reimagining the ‘executive education classroom of the future’—and how in some cases, the workplace itself provides the classroom.

Manager of Talent Management at Natura, Veronica Souza’s response to the stresses and strains on her workforce is emphatic: “We are redesigning the way that we provide leadership training.” But it is not a straightforward task, as she explains, “Normally we provide training that requires people to really engage their minds—but their minds are very full right now! This makes it a particularly challenging moment. We need to look for new ways of learning. We need to transform what we are doing.”

Souza shares an example of a leadership development program at Natura that is truly transformative for those involved. “In 2019 we had started a largescale digital transformation initiative,” she recounts, “We provided a lot of training in agile management, and other new management mindsets. Our people said, ‘The training is great, but we are not putting the new knowledge to work effectively.’ Certain obstacles were stopping them from implementing what they were learning.”

The solution for Souza and her colleagues was to take the executive leadership team to the Amazon. “The Amazon rainforest is the centre of the country here in Brazil,” she explains, “It is at the heart of Natura too—and we have a big factory there. We spent four days in the forest, with our food provided by the land around us. We talked with community leaders, and we brought together executives from different parts of the organization who would not ordinarily connect—not only top executives but other types of leaders too.”

Souza has a poetic way of capturing the impact the program had on those involved, describing how, “We spent four days looking for the brightness inside ourselves. This training was very powerful. What we realised is that we are looking for wisdom. We do not only need our people to be smart, to be intelligent—but we are looking for human wisdom, and we found this wisdom in the forest. This program was very transformative for us.”

Souza’s story speaks to a key theme of this conference—that in an increasingly crowded marketplace in terms of accessible content, and low-cost competition from new, asynchronous online providers—that high-touch, experiential, even life-changing programs such as these can be the key to creating new value between clients and business schools. “For the future,” says Souza, “We are looking for learning with experiences. We want to find solutions that go beyond talking around a subject or providing a set of tools. We are looking for new experiences.”

Echoing a point made by Caryn Beck-Dudley on Day 1, Souza also notes that she and her colleagues at Natura are, “bringing in artists, musicians, actors, writers—and challenging ourselves to bring ‘art’ into our executive learning. We are facing so many different pressures right now, that a softer approach is the best way to provide knowledge. We are looking for experiences that connect people with people.”

“We tend to focus on organizational needs, but it is important to look at how individual needs are changing too,” said Paul Ferreira, Professor of Leadership and Strategy at FDC, while hosting a fascinating session on ‘Understanding the Future of Individual Development’.

For Ferreira there are three main forces of change at play at an individual learner level today. The first is the fourth industrial revolution, and the already arriving or soon to arrive technologies inherent within that. The second is demographics, with work forces changing due to greater longevity of life, and greater diversity of all kinds. The third force—and for Ferreira the key force to focus on—is the changing relationship between employee and employer. “We are seeing tensions in this area around personalization. Executives want more and more personalization, while corporations still want some conformity. Executives want more flexibility, while corporations are better able to function with a certain amount of standardisation. Executives want to be more age and skills agnostic—while for organizations age and skills are important as they provide markers.”

Ferreira explains how career structures are being redefined, and not necessarily in alignment with organizational needs. “Careers historically used to be relatively stable and predictable. A career meant a set of capabilities more or less aligned with the needs of the organization or industry—a mastery of certain skills, and fair salary as compensation.” Now we are seeing a “decoupling,” Ferreira says, between the needs of the organization, and the needs of the individual.

“The half-life of skills is shorter, and there is increasing pressure to renew skills more rapidly,” Ferreira notes. “There is the issue of skills portability too. With more boundary-less careers, how can we help executives build more portable skills?”—and thus support individuals as they experiment with different career structures. These issues are crucial for a sector looking to design executive education fit for the future of work—with greater impact at the individual, as well as the organizational level.

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