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The insider’s guide to buying executive education

12 March 2015

The article at a glance

Jaspar Robertson, Senior Business Development Director at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), shares 10 essential things you need to know about executive …

Category: Insight

Jaspar Robertson, Senior Business Development Director at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), shares 10 essential things you need to know about executive education.

Business deal is done

1. Know what your organisation wants

It sounds obvious but very often the person commissioning executive education – usually a senior learning and development specialist – isn’t the person with the problem. It’s operational departments or other parts of the business that come to the HR person. So you might be trying to achieve an outcome that you’re not totally au fait with. You should be very clear what learning outcomes are needed to solve the problems presented.

2. Executive education is just one piece in the jigsaw

Ask yourself this: “What is it that we are trying to achieve, both for and through our people, in the next few years?” In many cases, executive education in particular becomes a tool beyond skills, knowledge and techniques. It becomes a mindset shift, or a basis for a mindset shift. Is your company ready for that?

3. Embrace challenge

The relationship between provider and buyer is delicate. On the one hand, there needs to be a connection and an alignment of philosophy; on the other, be wary of those providers who happily agree with everything you say. Of course, people will come and say they can do everything you want them to. But are they asking questions?

4. Mutual understanding is key

A supplier should be able to replay your desired message back to you in terms that you understand. That’s not about repeating a message but about demonstrating that they understand it. A good supplier will say: “By the end of this meeting I want to be able to actually understand your outcomes and, just as I’m about to leave, I will summarise those back to you.”

5. Beware the “usual approach”

This is a real red flag: the provider who talks about their “usual approach” or the way they “normally do things”. Ideally, you want a provider who is willing to work and co-create with you, not deliver an off-the-shelf package wrapped in your company logo. You’re looking for flexibility and the ability to respond to changes in your requirements. It’s essential that you as a commissioner understand the difference between truly customised and packaged programmes – there will be a significant difference in price. Off-the-shelf can be done very quickly and cheaply but it is not necessarily going to have the type of impact we believe most companies are actually looking for.

6. Get the whole picture

A successful executive education programme will involve many stakeholders, from an organisation’s leadership to the participants themselves. Carrying out a needs analysis is vital. This should involve a mixture of data collection using both secondary and primary techniques, and should include interviews with the key stakeholders to validate their views, their thought processes and the manner in which they hope to implement the changes or restructuring that the organisation is looking for.

7. Think partnership

A good executive education programme will be a truly collaborative exercise, building on the strengths of both organisations. It’s very much a co-creation. We can do as much needs analysis as we like but, ultimately, people working in your organisation at a senior level understand their own organisation much better than an external organisation can. So using your own people to contextualise is really important. They can put the nuances into the programme that mean participants will actually recognise it. It’s not as simple as just using the correct jargon. It’s understanding the manner in which your internal processes operate.

8. Agree on standards

It’s a given that everyone wants a high standard of delivery. But what does one define as high quality? This is back to a challenge for the commissioners. Where did they draw the line? What did they expect to happen in the room and how did they expect their participants to respond to whatever stimulus is being offered? If they wanted a high standard, what standard are they referring to? If it’s not defined, it’s an unquantified immeasurable. If we can get to a quantifiable, measurable, desirable quality measure, it makes everyone’s life easier.

9. Look beyond handouts

Consider format as well as content. Actually getting people’s attention – getting them to engage with what is happening in that room at that time – is really important. A piece of paper in front of them with a copy of the slide on it doesn’t increase interaction. Electronic copies where people can access material as it’s being delivered, or after it’s been delivered, mean that the participant’s attention will be on the task at hand, not trying to figure out what page of the handout they’re on.

10. Good feedback takes time

Trying to evaluate a programme immediately after it’s been delivered isn’t always the best time. By all means ask the participants while it’s fresh in their minds, but remember that you won’t see the true impact until six to nine months down the line. Are people actually applying the thought processes and the frameworks that they were offered? Establishing a programme of evaluation that picks up with participants – and ideally, their managers – down the track will help you evaluate the true impact.