If you are Harvard Business School and you need to determine how best to improve your executive education offerings, what do you do? The answer: market research, of course.

Srikant Datar, the dean for executive education at HBS, says he spent several years speaking to “hundreds of companies and alumni” in order to “figure out what they were looking for” and how Harvard might adapt its offerings.

“What we heard is that more often leadership positions are being given to younger executives who’ve only been with the company for two or three years. They are getting more responsibility but they need more executive training,” he says. “The big paradigm shift is moving away from executive education and toward executive development.”

Another trend was that companies did not necessarily want to spare senior managers for months at a time for an educational programme. “We realised we needed to develop new ways for executives to still be with their companies and reduce the time they have to be here.”

This autumn HBS will introduce two newly revamped executive programmes – the leadership development programme and the general management programme – responding to that industry feedback. The biggest changes include introducing more distance-learning products as well as shortening the lengths of the programmes. In addition, HBS has slightly changed the type of executives it targets for each programme.

HBS says it does not plan to alter its advanced management programme – tailored for very senior corporate executives – nor does it expect the changes it has made to its other two programmes to have an impact on enrolment figures.

“The faculty teach the participants but the participants teach each other even more, so it’s important for us to have a critical mass [of students],” says Ralph James, executive director of executive education.

The new leadership development programme is geared towards those executives with eight to 10 years of experience who are beginning to be considered by their companies as potential division heads. Participants are typically vice-presidents, directors and project managers. The programme consists of five units, two of which take place at the school’s Boston campus.

The first component, which lasts for two months, is an interactive distance-learning course on accounting, finance and quantitative methods – so that once participants get to Harvard they can hit the ground running. “This is so that you have the analytical skills you need before you arrive on campus,” says Mr James.

During the second module, participants spend two weeks on campus taking classes from the five-member core executive education
faculty. The classes, which primarily use Harvard’s
case-study method, are in
marketing, operations, strategy and negotiations.

In the third unit, which lasts three months, participants go back to their companies but also work on
individual and group strategy exercises. In many instances, they are assigned to virtual teams with fellow participants located around the world.

“They learn how to work, build teams and make
decisions across cultural boundaries,” says Prof Datar.

Nada Martini, who recently graduated from Harvard’s pilot programme, says this particular unit was by far the most challenging.

“In the business simulation, we were each given a role – like head of marketing or head of sales – and we had to work together and fight it out in the ‘marketplace’ against the other teams,” she says.

Ms Martini, a former management consultant who now works at Siemens in New York City, recalls that of her team of five, no one was from the same ­continent.

“The time difference made it really tricky,” she says. “We had some people working on the project at home at 11pm on a Sunday while others were working on it from their office on Monday morning. It was intense,” she says.

The most important lesson she learnt from the experience? “Finance can kill you if you don’t do it right,” she says. “It’s crucial that you manage your cash flow as well as you manage every other part of your business.”

The fourth module takes place back at Harvard and involves more classroom-based learning. During this time, students are assigned a personal coach – trained by HBS – who customises their leadership development. The coach’s main role is to give students feedback on their progress in the programme as well as advice on general management practices.

Ms Martini says she was sceptical about the coaching concept but has since been won over. “It’s a person who knows you but is not working alongside you,” she says. “They have seen you
interact with your team but it’s up to you to provide information about yourself and what you want to improve.”

Since her graduation, Ms Martini has kept in close contact with her coach.

In the fifth and final unit, which lasts two months, students continue working with their personal coach, monitoring their progress. “Students are also supposed to use this time to reflect on what it means to be a leader,” says Prof Datar.

Harvard has also revamped its general management programme. The course is geared towards division heads and country managers with some profit and loss responsibility, who have typically at least 15 years of experience.

It, too, has five units, three of which are home-based. The overriding goal of the programme, according to Prof Datar, is that participants learn how to diagnose problems and issues in their companies – including re­cognising threats and opportunities – and learn how to take action to improve them. The course is meant to teach students how to execute changes in turbulent or uncertain environments.

This course, says Prof Datar, underscores the value of distance learning. “Whether it’s a technology or global issue, it’s important that participants go back to their companies [in between campus-based modules] and try to think about the knowledge they’ve gained,” he says. “Then they come back focused on action and ways to implement change in their business.”

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