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Coping With the Need for Certainty in Executive Development

By Wendy Shepherd
The executive development industry has been particularly bad at explaining the value we bring, often recoiling at the question of impact or even colluding with the myth of certain outcomes. 


I am passionate about the value that business schools can bring to individuals and their organisations. This stems from my own experiences where the opportunities I have had within my career have almost always been preceded by a period of study.

What frustrates me is that business schools and the executive development industry in general has been particularly bad at explaining the value we bring, often recoiling at the question of impact or even colluding with those purchasing development in the myth of certain outcomes.

For the last 15 years I have been researching how impact occurs from executive development, in order to improve approaches to both the management and measurement of impact.

The outcomes of my research have taken me further towards answering some thorny questions: - 

  • How do business schools generate 'value' through executive development?
  • How might we respond to nervous purchasers of our services hoping for guarantees?
  • How can we maximise the return that organisations get from their investment in executive development?

Generating Value from Executive Development

As part of my research into the impact of executive development I reviewed 1,500 published case studies of executive development, and this is what I learnt. 

Firstly, there is a propensity within the literature to only talk about the positive outcomes of executive development. However, having worked in the industry and interviewed many practitioners and participants, the reality is that nothing works in all contexts.

All development will have an impact, but beware, the impact might not be what you were hoping for, unless the intervention is carefully designed and managed with impact in mind. 

Secondly, the value of executive development is not only generated, as often described, through the use of a particular piece of knowledge or skill in practice. There is clearly value in the use of knowledge and skills, however, there is far more to it than that.

Executive development creates a pause for reflection in the busy flow of activities. Tutors and other participants provide new lenses to view old challenges. These lenses are often communicated through the use of models and frameworks. The lenses help broaden perspectives, promoting new insights and variety into the participants repertoire of responses for handling complex challenges, often leading to a change in priorities or the initiation of new actions.

Executive development often helps participants ask new questions and start new conversations. By developing skills that aid discussion, and a conceptual awareness and vocabulary to simplify the communication of complex ideas, executive development brings people together to share their experiences and learn from each other. Often these collaborative and supportive relationships continue beyond the development setting.


Responding to nervous purchasers hoping for guarantees 

I believe we need to position ourselves somewhere between colluding with the illusion of certainty of outcome and the alternative of refusing to engage. What nervous purchasers are potentially seeking is assurance that their investment will be properly managed.

We need to work in partnership with our clients, with a commitment to quality of process rather than certainty of outcome. We need to support our clients and provide guidance on what they can also be doing to manage their investment. And finally, we need to be more open to discussing not just what works in specific contexts, but also discussing what we know doesn't work and how it can be avoided.


Maximising the return that organisations get from their investment

Too many of our conversations regarding impact focus on post experience measures. The problems that our participants face are often complex and cannot be solved with simplistic algorithms. We need to embrace complexity early on in our discussions with clients; seek to understand their context, and make their challenges central and our tools and frameworks peripheral to our discussions.

We need to have a model of how we believe the development journey will impact the participants and use this model to manage the process from end to end. As the rubber hits the road, we need to be willing to adjust as we learn more about the participants and their needs.

And finally, we need to think wider than knowledge and skills when we are designing programmes. Handling complexity cannot be taught, it has to be learnt. We are there to guide and promote learning rather than provide guaranteed solutions.



Learn more about Cranfield's Design for Impact™ here.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.




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