For most students at business school, working attire consists of smartly tailored suits. But over the past five years, Ashridge has welcomed a cohort of students to its executive education programmes for whom working dress is rather different – a pair of shorts and a rugby shirt.

The programme, which was devised for England Rugby, has proved so successful that the UK school is launching what it calls the Ashridge Sports Business Initiative, designed for sports coaches.

John Neal, director of the initiative, says that rising demand for such a programme highlights the extent to which managing sport is about more than just athletics. “It’s about performance management and development,” he says. “And the sport element is dead easy – the real difficulty is creating a cohesive team that understand each other.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that sports teams are turning to business schools, for whom team working is a central part of how and what they teach. However, sports teams have also tapped into academic resources for other forms of training.

In the US, the executive education department of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has developed a six-day course that helps participants manage their personal investments and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.

“For this group, it is the one place these guys have had an opportunity to come and learn all this financial information – somewhere where somebody is not selling them something,” says Kenneth Shropshire, founder of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

It has proved so popular that other schools such as Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Stanford Business School and Harvard Business School are offering similar programmes.

Sports teams are not the only non-corporate clients tapping into academic resources. Increasingly, schools are finding that everyone from hospitals to the military and other public sector organisations are knocking on their doors.

Through its Institute for Not-For-Profit Management, New York’s Columbia Business School works with, among others, the New York Police Department (running its Police Management Institute) and the Fire Department of New York.

Healthcare professionals have long turned to business schools to help improve the financial and people management aspects of what they do. In the US, the University of Tennessee’s College of Business in Knoxville has, since 1998, been training doctors to become business leaders in the healthcare market through a year-long Physicians EMBA.

In the UK, during the early 1990s, the National Health Service started working with various institutions to develop programmes both for senior staff and for employees lower down on the institutional ladder.

It started when Sir Roy Griffiths, Sainsbury’s managing director, was brought in to examine NHS leadership and management. He famously declared that if Florence Nightingale had been walking the wards, she would have been looking for the person in charge.

“They began to look more broadly at how the NHS could be helped to develop a more robust way of running its services,” says Naomi Chambers, director of executive education at Manchester Business School, which frequently works with the NHS to develop customised programmes for the organisation.

The range of skills such clients are seeking varies. Some organisations want to hone their broader management expertise as well as enhancing their technical skills.

The three-day programmes being put together by Oxford’s Saïd Business School, for example, are the first stage in the development of a Government IT Academy that aims, among other things, to help the UK government create “joined-up” leadership for its IT professionals, as well as to foster innovation and improve the management of change.

When it comes to public sector organisations, educational priorities can shift with changing political and budgetary agendas. The NHS is one example. “The signal being given out at the moment is that they are focusing on knowledge and skills rather than the softer end of leadership,” says Prof Chambers. “There has been a focus in the past five years around leadership development. But then these things will come round again – because you need both.”

This is an opinion shared by the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Faced with criticism for its part in the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the FBI looked to the management education community to come up with a series of custom-built executive education programmes.

It wanted not only to improve day-to-day communication with other intelligence agencies but also to sharpen up its leadership skills. It chose Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the first programme took place in the spring of 2004.

For business schools, while these non-traditional clients have certain specific needs, in the end, say professors and administrators, designing programmes for them does not require a radically different approach from that taken with mainstream executive education programmes.

“You need to understand their situation, then identify what are the specific skills and mindset that you want them to get out of it, and then you find faculty that are appropriate for those needs,” says Daniel Diermeier, Kellogg’s professor of regulation and competitive practice, who teaches the FBI programme.

“And that’s not so different from working with corporations.”

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