The Cobbler’s Children?
Given that University-based Executive Education providers are in the business of helping business professionals develop their skills, it stands to reason that we must be experts when it comes to the development of our own employees. Or does it? We thought it might be interesting to explore this topic in detail with a group of Executive Education providers. We contacted a number of representatives from schools in various geographic regions and of varying size and complexity, and asked them a few questions about the topic of staff development. What we found contains a number of best practices that you will surely want to incorporate into your own department.
Specifically, we spoke with:
Lynn Slattery, Director of Marketing and Open Enrollment Programs at University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business
Tina Narron, Chief Operating Officer at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School
David Brown, Executive Director, Client Solutions at London Business School
Alissa Materman, Managing Director of Executive Education and Kati Frazier, Director, both from UCLA Anderson School of Management
Suellen Tapsall, Director, AIM Western Australia + University of Western Australia Business School Executive Education
Whether the schools we interviewed did a little or a lot in the area of staff development, every one of them recognized the importance of “practicing what we preach.” Not only do they want to appear consistent to their client base, but also it is clear that each interviewee genuinely believes that individuals can learn and grow, and that they have a responsibility to help make that happen.
David Brown at London Business School makes this case exceptionally well. “We absolutely apply to ourselves the sorts of approaches we recommend to clients,” he said. “We turn our faculty’s tools on ourselves. In a way we use London Business School as a case study. We want consistency with what we teach and what our people learn. In fact, we are committed to creating a culture in which people get practiced at learning. That means they are able to learn, and then they are able to apply what they learn through experimentation. The former only works if you are open to the latter.”
According to Alissa Materman and Kati Frazier, UCLA’s Anderson School takes a similar approach. Speaking about the link between individual staff learning plans and the School’s performance management system, they said, “We do it because it’s our business. We want to try things on ourselves before we recommend them to the client. We introduced action learning and coaching at the staff level so that we could confidently embed these approaches in our programs. It’s nice to be able to tell the client that you tried something yourself, and it worked!”
Lynn Slattery explained that this concept is extended one more degree at UT’s McComb’s School. “We invite other departments within the business school to send individuals to our open enrollment programs at a reduced rate,” she said. “That way when they are out working in the community, they are better able to explain exactly what it is we do.”
UNC’s Tina Narron agreed that staff learning is essential, but cited the need to do more. “Compared to what we offer our clients, our staff development opportunities always feel a little light,” she said. “We run a very flat, lean and busy organization. It’s difficult to find the time and resources required for meaningful staff development. We know we need to improve in this area.”
Suellen Tapstall at University of Western Australia also recognized this constraint. “We are very busy, and we run a lean operation,” she said. “I sometimes worry that requiring staff to engage in significant learning and development activities can actually add to their stress. So the key for us is to remain flexible. But this is the space we are in, and so we are obligated to offer opportunities. I don’t want anyone on our staff to look back at their time with us and regret not taking the opportunity to sit at the feet of experts and absorb their world-class knowledge.”
The methods of professional development, their frequency, and the degree of accountability vary significantly by school. The most readily available, of course, is to “sit at the feet of faculty experts” – i.e. engage in open enrollment classes. Each of our experts offers such opportunities, but with some limitations. “We are comfortable with staff attending open enrollment classes,” said David, “but never more than one at a time.” Suellen added, “Our OE classes are pitched at a senior level. We want to make sure that everyone in the class is able to contribute to the discussion. So that might rule out some more junior members of staff from attending specific classes for which they just don’t have the necessary level of experience.”
UCLA also has a rule that no more that one staff member may attend a specific open enrollment class. However, for each OE program, they do hold a seat for the Dean’s use, and one for the Chancellor. “We also do pro-bono staff development work around the University,” added Alissa. “And we run a management seminar four times per year for campus leaders.” And while that might not be exactly staff development, it’s excellent politics!
One of the allures of working at a University is – of course – the availability of no-cost or low-cost degree programs. We found that most of the schools we featured for this article do offer this staff development opportunity, but not all. And several apply fairly strict conditions.
“Australia used to offer free degree education, but that is no longer the case,” said Suellen. “Likewise, the notion of a free MBA for university employees has never taken hold here.” At UNC, Tina identified several conditions that must be met before no-cost degree programs are made available to staff. “First, the degree needs to be relevant to their role. Second, we reserve these opportunities for our highest potential employees. Third, the employee needs to commit to staying with the Organization for a defined period of time after graduation. If we don’t offer a degree that is appropriate for that employee, we will fund them to attend another institution that offers the right qualification!”
While it’s natural for practitioners in the University-based Executive Education field to think about professional development in terms of classroom learning, our panel of experts also emphasized the on-the-job aspect of training. David explained that London Business School promotes peer-to-peer learning and shadowing as ways for employees to broaden their skill sets. He added, “We encourage people to develop by taking on stretch assignments like cross-school initiatives where they have an opportunity to interact with people from outside the department. Also, program reviews and portfolio reviews give our employees a chance to work with some thought-leaders in their fields. If they are open to it, amazing professional development can take place in these settings.”
Lynn laughed when we asked her about making stretch assignments available to her staff. “With a staff of 14, everything is a stretch opportunity,” she said. “You can stretch as much as you want to in this department. Program Managers are often pulled into Director tasks. That’s our reality. We all stretch.”
Kati from UCLA had a slightly different view of stretch assignments. “Stretch assignments go to the people who look for them,” she said. “These include faculty meetings, program development and ownership of our staff retreats. We notice when people step up and ask for these kinds of assignments.”
In our interviews, attendance at conferences was a frequently cited source of staff development. “I would love to have everyone attend UNICON conferences,” said Suellen. “One of our managers usually goes to the Team Development conference. We’re pretty isolated here, so it’s invaluable for them to meet and mingle with people who do what they do in other parts of the world. There is so much to learn.”
Lynn added, “Our UNICON participation is a huge component of our development strategy. Not just the Associate Dean and Directors attend. We rotate across the staff, including Program Managers and Coordinators. We rely heavily on UNICON conferences – especially the Team Development conference in the fall. This is where our staff learns about marketing, logistics, best practices, etc.”
Each of our interviewees stressed the importance of accountability associated with staff development opportunities. “Sharing the learning with others is a requirement for everyone who has an opportunity to attend a class or a conference,” said Lynn. “We tell folks to be prepared to debrief the rest of the staff. That’s especially true for UNICON conferences. We want them to share what they learned; ideas that they are going to try going forward.”
At several schools, the learning opportunities are tied to performance management metrics. “Every annual review at London Business School includes a question about learning and development,” reported David. “We encourage our clients to measure the impact of learning, so we hold ourselves to that same standard. The application of new learning is critically important to our staff and the growth of our organization. There’s a real link between individual learning and organizational learning. That’s why we promote it as much as we do.”
Suellen describes a formal development process at UWA. “Staff development is very closely tied to performance management,” she said. The same is true at UCLA where Alissa said, “Each staff member develops a learning plan which is tied to our performance management system.”
Our review of professional development activity within University-based Executive Education departments would suggest that there is lots of good work being done. Each of our interviewees is passionate about learning – both for their clients and their colleagues. As we reflect on the interviews, we are particularly struck by one observation: size does matter. In the larger departments – those with access to greater financial and human resources – there is undoubtedly more intentional staff development going on. Smaller departments have a much more “all hands on deck” approach to getting work done, which leaves less time for individual development.
But even small programs share a unique industry competitive advantage: exposing staff members to the University-based Executive Education environment is – in and of itself – a professional learning opportunity that is unrivaled in other industries. Every one of our interviewees made that point. It is a recruitment tool, and a retention tool. Staff members with an open mind can learn and grow by being around some of the world’s best thinkers. This might be a good day to remind your staff of that unique opportunity.