Externally yours: executive training at business schools

It seems more and more organisations are sending management tyros on external development training. What do they get out of it? 

In keeping with an almost universal acknowledgement that long–term corporate success relies on honed leadership skills throughout an organisation, business schools are a major port of call for the design and implementation of strategy-led programmes.

“Tailored executive education is a significant part of our business and it’s growing,” says Margaret de Lattre, director of tailored executive education at Ashridge College. It provides bespoke leadership programmes for a wide range of clients – from large international organisations to small UK family-owned businesses.

“Really great leadership development is relevant for SMEs and global organisations alike,” says Helena Clayton, director of open programmes at Roffey Park Institute,which has worked with Lexmark, Southern and Severn Trent.

“Increasingly, organisations understand the importance of investing in the development of their people in ways that are innovative, that mirror the needs of the business, and very often they recognise the importance of balancing personal development with organisational development.”

Jonathan Davies, associate professor at Henley Management College, founded in 1945, says there’s been a rise recently in demand forhighly-tailored programmes.He puts this down to value for money.

“There is a growing trend for tailored leadership programmes, with businesses particularly keen to persuade individuals to adopt more of a leadership perspective, as opposed to a management view. This involves looking at the long term, creating the right vision and sense of direction, and then building the skills that are required to develop that. The challenge of change requires people to take on more of a leadership perspective by inspiring people to meet change positively and deliver results. As a concept, leadership is a significant step up from management.”

Looking outside

While some organisations may have learning and developmentdepartments capable of designing an effective leadership programme, many businesses are still opting to co–ordinate such programmes with external suppliers.

“Organisations use a business school to enable their people to gain an external view of their own business,” explains Davies. “It enables them to think out of the box, understand the bigger picture and see a different perspective. With corporate programmes, companies often feel that if they operate in-house training there is a danger that delegates will not be sufficiently far enough away from both their organisational culture, and their specific job demands, to look at their role in a more objective way.”

The more companies can view a problem or issue they’re trying to sort out as systemic, and the more broadly and holistically they can view and build appropriate interventions the better, says Clayton. She says the role of an external training provider is to be a critical friend –someone with no axe to grind, who can challenge things and offer an independent perspective.

This view is shared by Philip Vale, executive director of executive education and enterprise at Durham Business School.“We can very quickly put something together that addresses the real issues – some of which will be unsaid within the organisation. Without appearing to do so we can cut through the claptrap. If we’re working with an organisation closely then we’re sure of being on-message and the company is sure of what we’re saying.

“This brings a sense of clarity and purpose to delegates –a confidence that they know what’s expected of them. That helps accelerates their development.”

Strong reputation

Davies believes business schools’ residential settings also offer delegates an environment that’s conducive to reflection, change and enhancement. “The school and the people in the faculties generally have a strong reputation. This is certainly true of Henley, and it’s what companies often aspire to be part of. There’s a perceived kudos attached to attending a reputable business school.”

As an organisation, Roffey Park’s whole purpose is learning, says Clayton. “We are learning all the time about current trends and contemporary issues. We are the cutting–edge of learning, and organisations get the benefit of that learning through us.”

Rather than simply farming out leadership development to an external business school, companies also appear to be embracing their role in the design, implementation and evaluation of a programme.

“After talking with Henley, many companies are very keen to get involved because we adopt a very strong partnership approach right from the outset,” says Davies. “We look at what a company’s needs are in detail and then jointly design, create and deliver a highly customised programme to meet the client’s objectives.

“As well as being involved with the design and creation of the programme, companies may contribute their own internal speakers and be part of post-module discussions and support. Programme follow-up is an increasing trend where support for delegates, once they’re back within a company, is provided through coaching, facilitation and reviews.”

De Lattre says Ashridge’sapproach works best when an organisation wants to work with it as a partner, with both client and college developing the skills or thinking ofleadership delegates to meet specific strategic challenges or opportunities. “Each programme we design is individually-crafted and our clients tend to be companies who want a combination of the latest theory, practical implementation and in-house support to implement change.”

Bespoke leadership development courses are usually designed for middle management level and upwards, although, according to Henley, in some cases it may be used to fast track high-potential managers. Courses can vary from one-off, 15–day intervention to a year’s worth of programmes for strategic dialogue. Apart from covering core competency development for leaders they may also focus on achieving particular strategic outcomes of value to the employer.

Cost-effective option

Companies looking to invest in bespoke leadership programmes should expect to pay around £2,000–£4,000 a day for a two-tutor course per group. But while the prices may seem high, Vale says many companies actually find business schools a cost-effective option. “You’re going to need a team of specialist people to do it – and only the biggest of organisations will have that. This is the bread and butter of a business school.”

Vale adds that business schools also possess another valuable commodity – students. “We have a significant portfolio of programmes at Durham, including the MBA, which require placements within companies” he explains. “We send our undergraduates out to businesses for no extra charge – which means they’re effectively gaining a free consultancy resource.”

This mutually beneficial arrangement recently came into play when Durham ran a bespoke management development programme for 15 managers from across several sectors within Newcastle airport. At the same time, some of its MBA students worked on projects within the airport’s commercial department.

Case study: Thistle Hotels

Thistle Hotels comprises 47 hotels across the UK. In May, it launched a senior management development programme with Henley Management College. In a two-year programme comprising six modules, delegates will work on key areas such as leadership, finance, business acumen and marketing strategy.

“Henley worked directly with us to create a completely tailored course suited to our requirements,” says Thistle’s training manager Sarah How. “The company is undergoing many changes, and we have lots of plans in place to grow and develop further, so it’s important our employees are provided with the correct skills to really drive these developments and accomplish the success we have set out to achieve.”

Thistle says its choice of Henley was based on reputation. “Henley is a world renowned college with first-class academics,” says How. “It places a strong focus on the practical elements of learning, ensuring that what the students learn in the training sessions is relevant and transferable to their professional roles.

Thistle initially considered running its own in-house leadership programme, but opted to go outside instead. It believes the external influence will add far more value to the course – for both the candidates and the organisation – with discussions facilitated by an external body likely to be more open. “We also wanted this programme to exceed employee expectations and demonstrate our commitment of investing in our people,” adds How.

Thirteen Thistle staff are on the programme.It plans to evaluate the programme’s effectiveness through business and individual performance.

by Nadia Damon

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