Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Executive short courses are back on the agenda for many corporations. What can business schools achieve through executive education? What sort of courses are appropriate? And how do you measure value and return on investment?

On Wednesday, 14 May 2014, an FT panel of experts will answered readers’ questions on this page.

On the panel were:

Mike Malefakis

Michael Malefakis, associate dean of executive education at Columbia Business School

Mr Malefakis joined Columbia Business School in 2010. Before this he was director of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and chairman of the International University Consortium for Executive Education. He has a masters in international affairs from Columbia University.

Ruby Chen
Ruby Chen, deputy director of executive education at Ceibs

Ms Chen joined Ceibs in 2011. She has also worked at Peking University Guanghua School of Management and spent 17 years at McKinsey. Her roles at McKinsey included organisation specialist and director of the McKinsey Leadership Institute in China. She also completed the company’s mini-MBA programme.

Winfried Ruigrok

Winfried Ruigrok, dean of the Executive School at the University of St.Gallen

Mr Ruigrok founded St Gallen’s MBA programme, which he ran from 2005 to 2010. He is also the director of the Research Institute for International Management. His research includes corporate governance, and the internationalisation of top management teams and boards. The University of St.Gallen ranked 27th in the world in open enrolment programmes in the FT 2014 Executive Education rankings and 43rd in the world in customised programmes.

Brendan Noonan is, senior vice-president of group learning and development at Emirates

Mr Noonan is is an aviation veteran having working in the industry for over 30 years. He was appointed to his current position in 2008 and is responsible for the learning and development needs of more than 65,000 staff worldwide. He has an MBA from Bradford School of Business in the UK and is a board member of the London Business School - Global Business Consortium.

Della Bradshaw, FT Business Education Editor


Charlotte: Welcome to our Q&A. Here’s the first question:

Can an academic with limited practical experience really deliver in the real world?


Della: Some can, some, can’t. That is why it is so important to choose the right business school or professor for your project. Sometimes it is just really helpful to have someone with a very different view of the world address your company’s problems.


Mike: Today’s real world is changing faster than ever before and one of the key elements to adapting to that change successfully is gaining insights from outside one’s own area of experience and expertise. There are situations where an expert with no practical knowledge in your industry or area can introduce a radical new idea. Academics have honed their thought process to find new and novel ways of analyzing information and proposing hypotheses.

That said, it is only one input into generating a new strategy, new product, new service or other new venture. Practical experience ultimately will provide the filter needed to determine the right steps to delivering in the real world.


Brendan: Academics do have a lot to offer. Many assist organisations in terms of marketing and strategy, and add value to the organisation in association with senior managers who have the business knowledge.


Winfried: Leading business schools usually offer a mix of professors with lots of practical experience plus some with stronger academic credentials in their programmes. This mixture can be quite powerful. Afterall, an experienced former manager is not automatically a skilled educator, just like a good scholar is not necessarily a poor educator.

Moreover, leading business schools typically work with executive education faculty whose work has been developed in close cooperation with – and has been acclaimed by – “real world” companies and organisations.


Charlotte: FT agony aunt Lucy Kellaway answers this question in her column. “Maybe, maybe not,” she says. “I have another, even more radical idea: save even more money and come up with the strategy yourself. Strategies are two a penny – the hard bit is the implementation. And as it is you who is going to have to implement it, it might be a good idea if it was also you who drew it up.”


Mike: Regarding Lucy’s comment about doing it yourself. I agree, go for it! But before you stumble forward, at least try to gain some insights from others, ranging from academics, practitioners, your colleagues and, dare I say, your competitors. You need to check your assumptions against divergent points of view and experience.


A number of subjects are taught on short exec ed courses that require much more time to be more than box ticking exercises. Which subjects can be taught on short courses properly? And where can commercial consultancies add greatest value in supporting exec ed short courses? ~ Charles Macdonald


Brendan: Interesting question. It’s difficult to release key managers from business for long periods of time so short exec programmes are an acceptable alternative that meets business needs. A good programme will include on the job components to test the transfer of knowledge and also provide participants with the opportunity to feed back to the respective college on the impact of the learning.

Regarding your second question, consultancy provides a similar service to business but academia provides the theoretical proved concepts.


Della: Well, there are short courses and short courses… some executive programmes can last up to twelve weeks, which means in actual classroom participation time they are probably longer than some of the more recent Executive MBA programmes.

But there is no easy answer to this question, and it’s particularly important as many companies are demanding shorter and shorter executive courses, in a bid to save money and reduce the time employees spend out of the office.


Mike: Most executives and heads of organisational talent are more sophisticated these days than a decade or so ago. If you frame a short course as an end all, I would agree that other than updating specific knowledge in a skill gap area such as finance, there is limited impact. However, if you look at a course as part of a learning journey that includes short courses, online updates, social learning, project based, and on the job learning, it can be of tremendous value.

At Columbia, we offer several shorter courses on topics such as leadership, innovation, influence and negotiations. They include pre-work and post-programme work that helps embed the learning to be better applied at improving your performance on the job or your organisation’s performance in the market place. It is about offering a convenient way to access new ideas, knowledge and frameworks. That is also why we are enthusiastically moving forward with online programmes. We all need access to convenient ways to learn and if several short “learning chapters” are woven together it can be a powerful way to drive your own performance.

Business schools used to think they could do it all on their own. I believe that most of us now realise that we are one part of solving the puzzle and we welcome collaboration with consultancies where they have a particular expertise that adds value to our client.


Winfried: A lot will depend on the course preparation and follow-up. If this is managed well, a lot of material may be covered even in short courses. A key variable is the level of seniority and experience that participants bring to the course. Seasoned senior executives will be faster in picking up and relating course content to their organisations.

Box ticking exercises may work well with junior and middle managers, but I would be suspicious about short courses for senior executives offering box ticking exercises since these are unlikely to take into account organisational realities. On average, more technical and functional themes may be covered well by short courses (e.g. finance, marketing or accounting).

Regarding your second question, historically business schools are stronger on content and frameworks, but they have recently become stronger also on process issues. Here consultants may indeed play a supportive role. The longer the course, the bigger their impact may be.


Ruby: It’s a bit hard to define “short” as sometimes a short course is part of a longer learning process. When the course is well designed to meet a clearly defined group of target participants who have with similar objectives, and the information being provided can be taught in a short time, it’s possible.


What do you think of executive coaching and the benefits that being coached can bring to the business and particularly the bottom line – notably when mapped against the often high costs involved in taking on external coaches? Do you think internal investment in training suitable employees to be coaches could be more beneficial in order to create a culture of coaching? ~ Lisa Giles


Winfried: Coaching can bring great results to individuals being coached, although much depends on the attitude of the person receiving coaching, and on the chemistry between the coach and the person being coached.

I think the more important question is that companies should ask themselves if they really only want to provide coaching. A coaching programme usually works primarily on an individual level. A coaching component embedded in a broader leadership development or executive education programme has the advantage that it may open up new avenues for the organisation as a whole (or an important part of it) AND for the individual who receives coaching.


Della: A few years ago there was real demand for business schools to show a direct link between executive courses and coaching and the corporate bottom line. But whatever professors tell you, it was impossible to come up with a formula to prove or disprove cause and effect.

Interestingly, these demands evaporated with the recession – when you might have expected the need for such information to grow.

Does executive coaching mean a more profitable company? I will leave it to the rest of the panel to decide…..


Brendan: This is a common challenge faced by many organisations – should we go external or do we have people capable internally? Internally, you will have people who have internal knowledge and understand the business. The problem is that often executives don’t want to show their weakness (or admit they have some) to internal people, however they feel more secure and comfortable with someone not connected with the organisation.


Mike: It depends on what the organisation wants to achieve. However, I would say both are important. We teach leading as a coach in our programmes as leaders should be great coaches to empower their employees. At the same time, we have a professional executive coaching session embedded in many of the programmes to help participants find their own answers to their business challenges and organisation’s directions.

People will be more open to external coaches as they are outside of the organisation; power dynamics, etc. On the other hand, internal coaches understand better what is going on within their organisation.


Ruby: Coaching should be an integral part of corporate culture when it comes to developing sustainable leadership for any organisation. Whether it’s outsourced or obtained by leveraging internal resources really depends on a number of factors.

When an organisation has a strong and active coaching and mentoring system in place and managers make it a high priority, it could work really well, and arguably be more cost effective. However, it does require extremely good, fundamentally strong in-house coaches. Hence, in emerging markets, we see a huge need for outsourcing this significantly important task to those with expertise.


Winfried: @Della, it is not so much business school professors who are looking to establish a link between executive education (or coaching) but rather executives themselves who inevitably ask for the bottom-line effects. In a recent survey of 428 Learning & Development directors in continental Europe we found that less than 8 per cent of respondents are able to assess the effects of their executive learning and leadership development activities in financial terms. Two-thirds (over 66 per cent) of all firms in our survey indicated they are unable to quantify financially their “return on executive Learning & Development”.


Della: Thanks Winfried – interesting statistics.


I have signed up for an executive course for experienced middle management in a respectable business school in Boston. I spoke to countless people who had done such programmes in different schools and did quite extensive research online – even on Linkedin where information on notable alumni of the business schools is available. How would you advise people like me make full use of the time before, during and after taking such programmes? ~ Rhys from Singapore


Brendan: Rhys – my advice is don’t worry. They will send you pre-work, during the programme you will have plenty to do to keep you busy, and at the end of programme you will probably be glad to have some free time. Just relax and go with their instructions, they are the experts. Most importantly, enjoy it.


Ruby: That’s a great question Rhys. Before doing the programme: 1) Make a list of all the questions you have about the broad subject area/topics/specific classes that you’ve enrolled in. 2) Make a note of what you expect to get out of the course and 3) read cases as instructed well beforehand.

During: focus on learning, listen well, and exchange your ideas and thoughts. Always link back to your list of questions and expectations that you came up with before enrolling.

After the class: review what you’ve learned and see how you can apply this new knowledge in real life. It’s also worth remembering that after the programme has ended you can still tap into a valuable resource: your former classmates. We often underestimate the value of student-to-student knowledge transfer. But it is an important part of the learning process. This is why at Ceibs we put a lot of emphasis on not only the quality of our faculty but also on the quality of our class participants.


Mike: Before going to a programme, make sure you take the time to clearly define your learning objectives. Write those down and share them with your team, your boss and your loved ones (it’s all about accountability).

When you are there, realise that you will learn as much from your colleagues in the programme as you will from the faculty, so make the time to open up, share ideas and listen to others. Take the extra time even if you are jet lagged to have conversations after dinner or on a walk around campus. We don’t get much done these days alone so reaching out to start building a new branch to your global network is key and this is the time to do it.

While in class, review your learning objectives and be open for adding new ones that did not occur to you before going. A good executive education class will always provide unexpected insights.

On your 14-hour flight home, take the time to reflect before you hit the catch up phase or re-entry into the job. While reflecting, create your 7/15/30/90/180 day action plan. Sometimes the action plan is about further study, other times it will be about execution of your take-aways from the course. Do this in writing and create a post programme journal to track your progress.

Once you are back at work, carve out at least one hour a week to review your insights, lessons and carve out another 30 minutes to keep in touch with your new network of global colleagues. For the more social among us, you can flip that and spend 60mins on your network and 30mins on review.

At the end of the day, let your school know how it’s gone and what you are doing. We all love to hear about the impact our programmes have on executives. The steps I have outlined above are ones we encourage in a more formal way for all of our executive education learners. We have found that approaching your learning as pre-during-post with a lot of reflection, outreach and journaling leads to the greatest takeaways. Good luck!


Winfried: Obviously a lot depends on the strengths and ambitions you bring to the programme. But in general I would suggest the following. First, talk to the director of career services and make a plan on where you want to move next, obtain feedback on how realistic your plans are, and identify staff, faculty and adjunct mentors who may support your ambitions.

Second, make the most of the numerous meetings you will have with speakers from different and perhaps unknown companies. Third, make sure you keep an open eye and enjoy the experience. You will come across opportunities you had never previously thought of. You will meet some amazing people from all over the world and you will benefit greatly from their insights. In fact, you would not be the first one to set up a company with your fellow programme participants!


Della: I’m with Brendan on this one. Boston in spring? Enjoy!


Charlotte: Thanks everyone for participating. To find out more about executive education, visit our specialised hub.

Get alerts on Business school when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article