“Best group I’ve ever worked with.”
“Interferes with my research.”
“I got a consulting gig out of it.”
“Not enough pay.”
“I learned more from them as they did from me.”
And the memorable: “I don’t do one night stands.”
If you’ve been in university-based executive education for any length of time, you are very well aware of how business school faculty can view the industry – good, bad and ugly! Inevitably, there are executive education enthusiasts and skeptics at every school. So, for the first in our series of Perspective articles, we thought it appropriate that we start with faculty. How do they view our industry? Why are there supporters and detractors? What motivates them? How could we persuade more of them to engage with executive education departments?
We contacted a number of faculty members, representing schools in various geographic regions and of varying size and complexity, and asked them a few questions about executive education. Their responses were honest, direct and often surprising. These are thought leaders, after all. So, what do they think of us?
Specifically, we spoke with:
Melvin Smith, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University
Daniel Skarlicki, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia
Nelson Repenning, MIT Sloan
Bertrand Moingeon, HEC Paris
The 30,000-foot view
We asked our faculty friends to share their big picture thoughts about university-based executive education. The good news is, we heard many more pros than cons! Melvin Smith referred to Weatherhead Executive Education as “the front door to the university.” He went on to say that while the department is not a huge contributor to the school’s finances, “it is a reliable source of dollars that funds other initiatives.” He also stated that executive education contributes significantly to the schools’ reputation. “People in the community understand the university and the Weatherhead School of Management better because of executive education.”
Bertrand Moingeon also spoke about the reputation effect. “Executive education has helped strengthen our international reputation,” he said. “This has happened through rankings, and international partnerships with other leading institutions. The executive education activity at HEC Paris has increased 15 fold in the last 20 years. It is now a significant part of our revenue.”
Enhancement of the school’s brand was a point of focus for Daniel Skarlicki. “Having a ‘downtown’ presence helps build the school’s brand,” he said, “And it creates connections with and between downtown business people. We don’t measure the impact of all of these connections, but they are crucially important – our students tell us we truly add value to their professional and personal lives.”
All four of our interviewees brought up the financial contribution that executive education makes to the “mother ship,” but each had a slightly different perspective on it. Daniel had a particularly thought provoking point of view. “There’s never enough money to do everything,” he said. “Executive education helps there. The income can help the school recruit and retain world-class researchers. And it can attract donors to the school. A company is more likely to make a financial contribution to the school if they have been positively impacted by executive education.”
Money aside, we asked our guests about the other benefits of having a robust executive education department. “It allows me to stay in touch,” said Nelson Repenning. “Clients are literally leaving their offices to attend a program. So, we find ourselves dealing with real issues in real time. In contrast, MBA students are away from work for a couple of years, so the issues don’t have the same immediacy.”
Bertrand agreed. “Executive Education is a terrific way to stay closely connected to the business world,” he said. “HEC Paris’ role is not only to provide state of the art academic research, but also to convert it into actionable knowledge relevant to practitioners. Educating leaders is part of our DNA, and life-long learning is part of our mission. It’s how we leverage our investment in research.”
This theme – bringing research to life in practical ways – came up again and again in our conversations. As Daniel put it, “Universities exist to create and disseminate knowledge. We are a public university and therefore have an obligation not to be an ivory tower. Executive education provides us with a real audience that is interested in results, not just theory. It enables us to make our content available to the public. By getting a better understanding of the challenges business people face, I am able to ask important research questions and reframe my writing to make it more consumable. The clients come up with ideas. They are ‘Unofficial Collaborators’”.
“It’s a learning laboratory,” said Nelson. “The stuff that we teach really matters.”
Bertrand added, “When you teach an executive program with a group of 30 participants, you have the opportunity to leverage more than 500 years of cumulative professional experience. That is what makes each session a unique experience – it’s a learning experience for everyone. And it’s fun!”
Melvin also noted the immediacy effect. “Teaching in executive education gives you the opportunity to stay close to what organizations are dealing with,” he said. “And it allows you to make an immediate difference in the lives of organizations and individuals. That is very gratifying.”
Impact on Teaching Skills
Next, we turned to the impact that teaching in executive education can have on faculty. Does it make them better teachers? “Teaching in executive education gives me a chance to try out new material,” said Nelson. “Having to customize material for a client helps me to refine it.” He gave a compelling example: “I do a lot of work in the automotive industry around the concept of the ‘Capability Trap’ – the cost to organizations of not investing in the long term. I taught in an executive education program for an energy company that was dealing with safety issues. It was an acute example of a Capability Trap. Teaching in that program made me rethink my model. As a result, I have now developed an expertise in safety.”
“Executive education is a learning opportunity for faculty,” said Bertrand. “Especially when we co-develop custom programs with companies. Teaching in executive education brings additional concrete examples to other teaching assignments. You can test the relevance of what you have published. And you can identify new research questions.”
Daniel agreed. “It keeps me fresh,” he said. “It is a change of pace. It makes me a better teacher. In the executive education classroom, I learn about challenges that I can share in my MBA classes.”
Melvin concurred that teaching in executive education programs helps with his degree program teaching. “I learn from the exec ed participants, and I develop teaching material that I can use in degree programs. Also, the degree programs I choose to teach in have been influenced by my work in exec ed. I choose to teach in our EMBA and Masters in Positive Organizational Development degrees because they are populated with the same kind of students I see in exec ed. Students who have significant life and work experience tend to get more out of the things I teach. It’s hard to find that level of experience in a Full-Time MBA or undergrad class.”
Tension with Research
Perhaps the most commonly cited reason faculty offer for not engaging in executive education is that it interferes with their research activities. This turned out to be a provocative issue in our interviews.
“While there is variance within departments, I would say that each department in our school views executive education a little differently,” said Melvin. “Organizational Behavior, for instance, readily sees the value and participates heavily, whereas some other departments might be a bit more difficult to convince. OB research topics are often of interest to exec ed clients because they are so practical, but that’s not always the case with every department. On the whole, I would estimate that about one third of our faculty highly value exec ed. About one third are indifferent. The final third may even frown upon it and consider it a distraction from research, especially for junior faculty trying to get tenure.”
Nelson understands Melvin’s final point. “At MIT we rarely use junior or non-tenured faculty in executive education,” he said. “But there is not much faculty tension around exec ed. We are not a big case-based school (there’s an outfit down the street that does that pretty well!). We are all about bringing research-based findings into the classroom in a practical way. And since that’s almost the definition of executive education, you’ll find that it’s popular with MIT faculty.”
Daniel added an interesting human perspective. “Fear of failure matters,” he said. “Faculty are people first. Some researchers are very theoretical, and they struggle with executive education. We often hire for research skills first, and teaching skills second. Executive education requires a different skill set. Time is a fixed pie, and no one wants to waste it doing something badly.”
Melvin agreed that only certain faculty work well in executive education. “You need to learn the rhythm and flow of teaching an executive education session,” he said. “It’s more about application than theory, and it forces you to think hard about your approach to pedagogy.” That said, Melvin is convinced that teaching in executive education makes him a better researcher. “I get to test out ideas,” he said. “I can float concepts, explore their applicability, generate interesting research questions and even find research sites.”
Opinion is also divided at HEC Paris. “The vast majority of professors recognize executive education as a very successful activity,” said Bertrand. “But they are not all equally involved. Those who don’t teach in exec ed or in the EMBA do not consider it a core activity, and do not understand why it requires long term investment – like in facilities. But several of my colleagues have used data from custom programs to publish academic papers. HEC Paris does a good job of helping researchers to learn the pedagogical skills required to be a successful professor in executive education.”
Although our faculty guests were – for the most part – effusive about the opportunity to participate in executive education programs, we pressed a couple of them on what frustrates them about the field.
“It’s time consuming – but I over-prepare,” said Daniel. “Remember – fear of failure matters! New programs take time to develop and grow, and there is definitely an opportunity cost. Because of the understandable calendar issues, my executive education time is booked far in advance. I sometimes find myself a year later regretting the commitment! The other challenge is that so many other factors like food, room set-up, temperature and parking can have an impact on student impressions. We need to get it all right.”
Nelson said he feels frustrated when a client does not have a change model. “This is an intervention,” he said. “The client should come ready to make a change. Additionally, I can sense it in the classroom when the program is not connected to a business outcome. I just know when the clients are thinking, ‘my boss won’t go for this’ or ‘this will make the situation worse.’ That makes for a difficult dynamic.”
In the spirit of continuous improvement, we asked what opportunities executive education departments might be missing.
From Nelson’s perspective, the biggest opportunity is working more closely with the client. “Understand their language,” he said. “Do projects. Figure out how to ensure that they have face-to-face time. Socialization is important. Use online for keeping in touch, not for delivering the program.”
“I just wish we could find the time to collect more data,” said Melvin. “It would help with our research, provide evidence-based feedback for clients, and possibly attract other faculty to participate. It could create a virtuous cycle, and it’s too bad we haven’t been able to make it a priority. “
Bertrand felt the same way. “We should systematically see executive programs as opportunities to gather empirical data for research,” he said.
Daniel sees missed opportunities. “I find it frustrating to be exposed to executives and students who request training in a variety of topics, but in realty we need to be highly strategic in what we reasonably can do,” he said. “That said, with more alliances, exposure to more industry segments and a broader view of national and international markets, I am sure we could be even more successful.”
One of the challenges every university-based executive education department faces is setting a level of compensation that is attractive to faculty, while not breaking the budget. We asked our interviewees for their thoughts on compensation.
“From an hourly perspective, I find executive education to be more lucrative than teaching in a degree program,” said Melvin. “But it is definitely less lucrative than outside speaking engagements and consulting.”
Daniel said, “I have not done the math on whether or not executive education is more lucrative on an hourly basis than teaching in degree programs. But I do appreciate that I am able to divert my executive education compensation into an account to help pay for some research expenses. It works quite well.”
“Executive education compensation is competitive with consulting,” said Nelson. “Except you can drive to work and sleep in your own bed at night. That matters.”
The Dean’s role
We asked our interviewees about the impact the business school dean can have on the active participation of the faculty in executive education.
“I think the dean certainly can have an influence,” said Melvin. “I haven’t sensed a strong point of view on faculty participation in exec ed from our current dean. But I have seen a former dean actually discourage certain faculty (especially junior faculty) from participating. I don’t know that I have experienced a dean who actively encouraged faculty to commit more time to exec ed.”
Daniel’s experience is the opposite. “Our dean’s office encourages faculty to consider participation, but is cautious not to distract faculty – especially junior faculty who are trying to attain tenure – from their research agenda,” he said. “In fact, we look for younger faculty to partner with senior faculty to co-teach an exec ed program so that they develop their skill set. This can help them in the long run. In the end, however, it is up to the individual faculty member to decide how they spend their time.”
Bertrand’s view is that the dean can offer incentives, “but the decision to participate in executive education is a personal one,” he said. “It’s more likely to be influenced by discussions among colleagues.”
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.
But more than that, we are grateful for their commitment to university-based executive education. In all four interviews, their enthusiasm for the industry was palpable. Perhaps Daniel put it best when he said, “It’s interesting to meet the ‘players’ in business. Those are some very special people. You find yourself asking, ‘why is this person the CEO’? And I love working as a team with the executive education staff – they take care of everything so you don’t have to worry about it. In the end, I do it to support the school. I like knowing that I do something to help the cause.”
This is the first 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: clients. Do you have a client who would be willing to share their opinion about our industry? If so, we would like to interview them. All comments can be kept confidential or be attributed. Client’s choice.
(Please begin to think about potential interview candidates for the upcoming
business school dean piece as well!)
Link to June 28 2018 webinar on YouTube
“Perspectives – How University-based Executive Education Is Viewed By Faculty and Clients”:
Michael’s PowerPoint Deck: