Executive Development: Opening the black box to manage the process

By Wendy Shepherd

I first entered the arena of executive development in 2006. At that time business schools were promoting the importance of customer value propositions. Unsurprisingly, I expected that the schools promoting the importance of value propositions would have theirs nailed.

Not so.

Often when clients ask about the potential organisational impact of their investment, there is what can best be described as a tumbleweed moment, followed by a clearing of the throat and a rather strangulated answer of “erm….it’s complicated…”.

Whilst it is no doubt a complex process, this response is not particularly helpful. Where else would organisations plan to spend, in some cases hundreds of thousands of pounds, without a commitment that the investment would benefit the company?

My frustration and embarrassment at the lack of clarity about organisational level impact led me on a quest for a more useful response. This was not to find an answer to the common question “how do we measure impact?” but rather to find an answer to what I believed to be a more important question: “how does impact occur?” Because, if we can answer this question, then we can manage the impact process towards a greater return on investment and measure the outcomes.


When it comes to executive development nothing works in all contexts.

The conclusion from my research was that when it comes to executive development nothing works in all contexts. All programmes will have an impact at the organisational level, however, the impact might not be positive if it is not carefully managed.

Hidden within the design of programmes are a number of ‘Impact Drivers’. These Impact Drivers can cause both positive and negative outcomes at the organisational level. It is the design and management of the drivers throughout the development process that determines their effect.

No-one can guarantee the outcomes of their development designs. If someone promises this they are underestimating the complexity of human behaviour and the environment we work in. What a good development provider should be able to do is explain how their programme works and how they intend to manage the process to avoid some of the common challenges of executive development, many of which are typically unanticipated.


Design for Impact

Design for Impact™ is Cranfield CED’s approach to the design, management and measurement of impactful development. The approach is supported by a toolkit that helps reveal important information about a client’s unique context so that we can tailor our approach to maximise value for both the participants and the sponsoring employer.

As an impact enthusiast, I am always happy to engage in discussions about impact. Please feel free to reach out for further information about my research and its implications for the design and management of development interventions.


Design for Impact

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About the Author

Dr Wendy Shepherd is an expert in learning design with responsibility for the design and delivery of customised executive development programmes. She has an Executive Doctorate from Cranfield School of Management where her research interest was The Organisational Impact of Executive Development. Her experience includes Programme Directing development interventions in the areas of Strategic Management, Sales and Marketing, Careers Development, Leadership and People Management. She has directed programmes in Europe, China, Asia Pacific and the USA. View full profile.

Tags: leadership, executive development, article