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Forewarned is forearmed, but for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the most preparation many executive education participants carried out before their course was to pencil in the date and time of the course in their diaries. However, the last few years have heralded a sea change as schools, employers and the students themselves have realised that for participants to make the most of their course, preparation is essential.

Initially this was limited to pre-course reading and working on case studies. But as companies demand greater return on investment, schools have raised the bar.

A good example of this is the 21st Century Leaders programme, which has been created by Saïd Business School, Oxford in collaboration with corporate psychologists YSC and the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford. The programme will run in October, but preparation has been intense. YSC is planning “a deep dive diagnostic” in which participants will benefit from a one-on-one tutorial to explore the leadership opportunities of that particular individual.

Alongside pre-course reading materials, there will also be a corporate diagnostic with YSC and Said in which they will try to establish the organisation’s perspective and objectives. “This preparation is really for them [the participants],” says Tracey Camilleri, associate fellow on the programme.

“We hope to make the discussions as effective as they can be, for them to think through what their particular leadership opportunity is and to talk them through what they can get from the course. We try to make sure that the course is useful to them as individuals.”

Peter Degnan, executive director of the Wharton executive education programme at the University of Pennsylvania, stresses the value of preparation when putting together an executive programme.

Ahead of a custom programme the school carries out a needs assessment with the senior management team of a client, which can last as long as several months. During this period there is an analysis of skillsets and any gaps in them.

“This is a very successful approach, once we have spent quality time with the client, understanding their needs, then we can design a programme that will hit those objectives that have been identified,” says Mr Degnan.

With open programmes, adds Mr Degnan, the onus is far more on the individual. Participants are expected to take part in online surveys, and carry out their own self assessment, focusing on their perceived strengths and weaknesses.

Self-assessment also plays a key role at the Center for Creative Leadership Europe. Allan Calarco, CCL Europe group manager for open enrolement programmes, says: “The days of a person registering for a course and then coming the next week have long gone.”

A philosophy of self-awareness is an integral part of CCL Europe’s approach and participants are expected to prepare fully for the programme, a process that Mr Calarco stresses is a very time consuming one.

Eight weeks before joining a programme, CCL Europe participants take part in a battery of assessments known as 360-degree assessments so that participants know their strengths and weaknesses and what areas they need to focus on.

When participants arrive they receive feedback from an assessment specialist so that they can become aware of how they are perceived by others and whether or not they wish or need to alter these perceptions.

CCL Europe has added a pre-programme interview with the participant’s boss or manager, says Mr Calarco. The manager will discuss how the participant has reached this point in the leadership development experience, aspects of the participant’s job that he/she does well, topics that the participant is currently working on and also aspects that the CCL Europe teacher should be aware of.

At IMD, Robert Hooijberg, professor of organisational behaviour, says that, with preparation becoming more and more important, the school is trying to think creatively about how to help its clients and secure the best results.

As well as asking participants to look at case studies, Prof Hooijberg asks students to consider the delegation of their [office] work while they are studying. “They kind of think they can continue to do their jobs with e-mails and BlackBerries and I think it is good to make them think: ‘You are making a major investment and therefore we need a physical and a mental presence’,” he adds.

Participants are also urged to look at the biographies of their peers to help them make the most of the networking opportunities during the course of the programme.

Successful preparation would appear to hinge on a participant’s self-awareness.

Clients are much more focused and sophisticated in their needs, says Bill Shedden, director of Cranfield’s Centre for Customised Executive Development in the UK. “You have to spend much more time getting that right.”

As schools invest more thought ahead of their programmes and companies become more demanding, it would appear the onus now lies with the participant. A successful programme depends on thorough preparation. The days when an executive programme was a euphemism for a few days’ break are long gone.

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