Perspectives – Clients

Perspectives – Clients

Second in our series: Perspectives – Faculty Clients Deans

Perspectives – Clients

If you ask an Associate Dean or Director of a university-based executive education department what keeps them awake at night, you’d better get comfortable: it’s going to be a long list!   Faculty engagement, revenue generation, staff development, program management, and cost control are just a few of the insomnia-inducing aspects of a career in executive education.   But at the top of every list sits the client.  Simply stated, without the client, there is no department.   The client is our raison d’etre.   And when it comes to clients, most of us in the industry have two primary concerns: finding clients, and keeping them happy.

For the second in our series of Perspective articles, we turn to the all-important issues of client acquisition and satisfaction.  How do clients view our industry?  Why do they engage with us?  What do they consider to be viable alternatives?  What do they think we do particularly well?  In which areas do we need to improve?  What’s changing for them that might impact us?

We contacted a number of university-based executive education clients in a variety of industries and geographic locations, and asked them a few questions about executive education.  They were exceptionally generous with their time, observations and advice. Their responses were always helpful, sometimes surprising, and occasionally sobering.  If you’ve ever wondered what your clients say about you when you’re not in the room, you’ll want to read this one!

In this article, we will incorporate the highlights of the conversations we had with:

Adam Charania, Vice President, Human Resources, Rocky Mountaineer. Worked with the Sauder School, University of British Columbia

Ken Topolinsky, Senior Vice President, Engineering & Applied Technology, Hunt Oil Company.  Worked with the Cox School, Southern Methodist University

Emily Domzalski, Vice President, Procurement at a $10 billion CPG company based in the Midwest.  Worked with a small university-based executive education department

Jeanette Sanderson, Talent & Organisational Development Leader, Aurecon.  Worked with Melbourne Business School

The Decision to Invest

While each of the clients we interviewed had a slightly different reason for creating an executive education program, there was one common theme: developing the next generation of organizational leadership.  “We had already created a very successful two-week leadership development program with the University of British Columbia,” said Adam Charania.  “But we realized that we needed to develop leadership skills deeper in the organization.  It wasn’t enough that the top leaders had a critical skill set.  As a luxury rail operator in the Pacific North West with a very discerning customer base, we need to ensure that skills like emotional intelligence, communications and high performance permeate the entire organization, and are palpable to our partners and our guests.”

For Ken Topolinsky, it was industry trends that drove the need to seek leadership development help.  “Fluctuating prices have created a fair amount of instability in the oil and gas business for a number of years,” he said.  “As a result, many good people have left the industry, and a lot more are just a few years short of retirement.  So, we had something of an ‘experience chasm’ in the company which led to a focus on retention of high potential individuals, and succession planning.  We introduced competency assessments for technical staff, and realized that we needed help in the areas of finance and accounting.  So, we wanted to develop a program that would plug those knowledge gaps, as well as sending a signal to our high potential employees that we’re willing to invest in them.”

“We knew we had a shift coming in company leadership in the relatively near future,” said Emily Domzalski.  “Several senior executives were nearing retirement.  We have an exceptionally strong culture, and several of the executives who were planning to retire literally embodied that culture.  We didn’t have to teach it, we just said, ‘watch Fred – that’s what our culture looks like.’  But with the departures of those influential executives on the horizon, we recognized the need to formalize and propagate our culture with new hires and existing people managers in our rapidly growing company.”

Jeanette Sanderson said that her organization reached out to Melbourne University just to talk about leadership development.  “We recognized the need to increase the leadership strategy competence of our top 50-100 leaders,” she said.  We have a limited budget, but wanted a customized program, and we wanted to start right away.  We were delighted to be able to co-design a really effective program.”


Several of our clients considered alternatives to the partner they ultimately chose.  When Adam decided to develop the new program, UBC’s Sauder School was not yet the chosen vendor.  “We conducted a mini-RFP,” he said.  “We received responses from consulting firms, both large and boutique.  I was struck by just how slick the responses were from these firms.  These folks have pretty deep pockets, and they think about the entire business, not just training and education.  Some of these firms were charging more than UBC, but some were charging less.  If we didn’t already have a relationship with UBC, and really appreciated what we would be getting, it would have been harder to turn down these proposals.”

Ken considered two alternatives before choosing SMU’s Cox School.  “We thought about University of Texas, Dallas, but weren’t sure they could meet our needs,” he said.  “We also looked very closely at Petroskills, which is a provider of training to the oil and gas industry.  But they didn’t have the foundational finance and accounting classes we felt we needed.  I just wasn’t sure what to do next.  I know Frank Lloyd (Associate Dean of Executive Education at the Cox School) on a personal level, and I asked him for advice.  That’s what led us to use SMU.  Without that personal connection, I think there’s a 50/50 chance that we’d have developed this program!”

“We considered doing something ‘homegrown’,” said Emily.  “At the time, I led the organizational development efforts for the company.  I happened to take a class at the local business school, and was impressed at how well their approach to leadership dovetailed with our company’s.  In fact, it was a little uncanny!  Their business development person followed up with me, offering our company a free seat in their signature leadership development program, which I convinced the Vice President of Human Resources to use.  She did, and knew instantly that we had found our partner.

“As I look back on it with several years of hindsight, it was really more about happenstance and luck than any great strategic alliance,” continued Emily.  “This partnership fell into our lap.  If the school’s business development person had not been so persistent, and had not offered us the complimentary seat, the partnership would probably not have happened.  It makes me wonder if executive education departments do an adequate job of marketing themselves.  We didn’t know what the school had to offer, and if we hadn’t accidentally bumped into each other, we would have gone in a completely different direction.”

Before settling on the University of Melbourne, Jeanette considered another university-based provider.  “I was surprised to receive a very standard reply, laying out what they do,” she said.  “Then our CEO suggested we reach out to Melbourne.  They have an incredible reputation, so they were top of mind, but it took a nudge from the CEO to initiative the first call.  The conversation was immediately very different to the one we had with the other potential provider.  Melbourne focuses less on what their capabilities are, and much more on what we needed.  They asked, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ which took the discussion in a much more creative direction.”

The Executive Education Partnership

The program that the Cox school created for Hunt Oil was a little less traditional than most executive education experiences.  An evening program, it began with dinner, at which faculty mixed with the participants.  “Being on the SMU campus was part of the appeal,” explained Ken.  “Everyone liked getting out of the office.  And the faculty brought great energy; they were absolutely top drawer.  We had participants in the program who had Ivy League MBAs, and they thought the instruction they received was as good or better in the SMU program.  The faculty were magnetic, and promoted great dialogue.  Truly second to none.”

The credibility of the experience was a powerful factor for Adam.  “It was important to us that the participants knew they were getting a quality experience,” he said.  “We knew they would appreciate access to cutting edge research from professors with real world experience.  That’s a formidable combination.”

Jeanette’s positive experience with Melbourne began long before the program started.  “They were flexible, and willing to co-create,” she said.  “They introduced me to the professors, and I had at least one conversation with each of them about what we wanted, and what approach they recommended.  More than anything, it was clear from the beginning that they wanted to build a long-term relationship.  That’s what I want too.  I don’t want to waste time explaining our business to multiple providers.  And I want a provider that can accommodate change.  The world is changing fast, and I don’t want to be locked into a program that is sure to become outdated.”

For Adam, a longer-term partnership had an additional benefit.  “A five-year commitment allows the professors to get to know us – our culture,” he said.  “Ultimately, this is about finding a partner who will provide an end-to-end solution.  It’s hard to do that without some degree of longevity in the relationship.”

Jeanette feels that Melbourne’s ability to build relationships truly sets the organization apart.  “I never felt like they were selling me anything,” she said.  “They have a very genuine way of connecting, and were authentically curious about our business.  They invite me to read articles and attend events that are not at all connected to overt business development.  And it is a relationship based on honesty.  Melbourne does not believe that the customer is always right, and is willing to push back when they disagree with me.  I love that they challenge our thinking.  It makes it feel like a true partnership.”

Ken also appreciated the role that the administrative staff played in creating a successful program.  “They tied it all together,” he said.  “They were there in the classroom to introduce the professors and provide additional programmatic context for each session.  And they were always there at the end of each session.  I thought that was a nice touch.”

Emily talked about the important role that exec ed staff plays in managing the relationship.  “Faculty are quirky,” she said.  “They march to a different beat than most of us.  But I don’t mind that.  I like the quirkiness that comes from devoting your life to researching a narrow field of study.  But the staff have to manage that.  They have to make sure the client sees only the best of the faculty.”

Measuring Success

A frequent refrain in the university-based executive education industry is that we could do a better job measuring the impact of our work.  For the most part, the clients we interviewed felt that their engagements with executive education departments were extremely effective, but had a difficult time quantifying the impact.

“The program we created is overwhelmingly well thought of,” said Ken.  “People are extremely grateful that they got to participate.  I’m sure it will have an enduring impact.”

“OD people tend not to think about ROI,” said Emily.  “We’re not running a charity – every dollar has to go further.  Like it or not, the client is investing in people who will retire, resign or exit the company.  Those losses need to be factored into any ROI analysis.”

“Our CEO has been asking about which new skills are being deployed,” said Jeanette.  “He wants to understand the impact on the bottom line.  We used our own evaluation, and one created by Melbourne, but those told us more about participant satisfaction, and less about measurable outcomes.  I know the experience has had soft impact, but it’s difficult to measure anything more solid than that.”

Adam utilizes mini 360-degree feedback instruments, as well as engagement surveys.  “And Sauder provided surveys and reviews,” added Adam.  “We are confident that what we’re doing is working.”

Client Advice for Executive Education Professionals

We asked our clients what advice they would give to folks who work in university-based executive education.  They had some terrific words of wisdom to share.

“Invest in meaningful relationships,” suggested Jeanette.  “And remember, that takes time.  Don’t walk away after two meetings.  In our business, we are patient with our clients.  We expect the same from you.  Also, remember that what you do is more valuable than ever these days when talent is so hard to attract and retain.”

Emily also noted that the relationship can, and in many cases, should be bigger than the executive education department, or even the business school.  “I understand why the executive education department might want to ‘own’ the client relationship,” she said.  “But they really need to think about the bigger picture.  Beyond the exec ed engagement, how else can both parties benefit from a real strategic relationship?  How else might the business school leverage the relationship?  What else can the university as a whole bring to the table – the engineering school, undergraduate programs, etc.?  Exec ed staff should be willing to explore those options, even though they lose a little control.  It will end up ok.  And without that deeper organization-to-organization relationship, you run the risk that your engagement with the client is purely transactional.”

Adam had a word of warning.  “Consulting firms see the opportunity in the executive education space,” he said.  “It’s hard for universities to attract the same high-quality business development people, and create the same slick presentations.

“You might want to leverage technology more than you do,” he continued.  “Try to compete with gamification.  And be practical.  The more real you can make things the better, using role playing, job aids and pre-reads.  And, above all, listen to client feedback:  it’s your most valuable tool.”

Ken wondered why university-based executive education was not top of mind for his large and successful organization.  “There doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to market these programs,” he said.  “This possibility was not on Hunt’s radar.  Why didn’t we know about this?”

And Finally…

We want to thank our guests for taking valuable time to participate in these interviews.  They had to prepare, set aside time for the conversation, and then review the final piece.  We are grateful for their commitment.

This is the second in a series of three articles we are calling ‘Perspectives’.  In this series, we will explore university-based executive education from the perspective of key stakeholders: faculty, clients and business school deans.

Next up: deans.  Would your dean be willing to share his/her opinion about our industry?  If so, please reach out to us.  All comments can be kept confidential or be attributed.  Dean’s choice.

Link to June 28 2018 webinar on YouTube

“Perspectives – How University-based Executive Education Is Viewed By Faculty and Clients”:

Michael’s PowerPoint Deck:





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