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Becky Labey and Tracey Mulrooney participate in a custom leadership program for Servus Credit Union held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in April, 2013. (Ian Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
Becky Labey and Tracey Mulrooney participate in a custom leadership program for Servus Credit Union held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in April, 2013. (Ian Jackson for The Globe and Mail)

Business Education

Executive training is on the rebound, but it’s a different beast now Add to ...

When the University of Alberta’s School of Business held a leadership session last month for one of its corporate clients, the event embodied new trends in executive education.

The three-day training session was shorter than the week-long, or longer, training once offered by business schools. Instead of theoretical discussions of leadership, the program covered specific issues at Edmonton-based Servus Credit Union Ltd., which is wrapping up a recent merger with another credit union. Finally, in contrast to past practices by companies, the program involved top Servus executives in the event.

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“It’s a much different business than when I started 20 years ago,” observes Carolyn Campbell, associate dean of executive education at U of A’s school of business. “It is far more consultative.”

It is also a business that is growing, after the recession of 2008-9 when companies cut training budgets.

In a January survey, the International Consortium for Executive Education reported a rebound in activity last year by its university business school members who deliver training to company clients. This year, according to the survey, 94 per cent of respondents expect their revenue to grow again.

The business school at U of A forecasts 10 per cent growth in its activities this year, similar to estimates from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

“I see nothing but upside in the business right now,” observes Gavin Brown, executive director of executive development at Ivey.

The growth comes amid increased international competition for clients and a shifting profile of training programs, including demands for personal coaching and business simulations.

“Executive education is very competitive right now – there are a lot of players on the ice,” observes Serge Gagné, executive director of executive education at HEC Montréal. “They [business schools] have to innovate all the time and make sure programs fit with the needs of the participants.”

One new development is the active involvement of company leaders.

“Before, the CEO would show up and say, ‘Thanks for coming, it has been a great or bad year,’ and give a strategic presentation,” Mr. Brown says. “Now we see engagement from the senior leadership – the C-level on down – from the RFP [request for proposal] stage to the acquisition and delivery [of training] phase,” he adds. “There is a desire to be involved and engaged.”

A case in point is Servus Credit Union, which works with the U of A business school on a regular basis, as well as others in Canada and the United States.

At last month’s session, a senior Servus executive kicked off the program for 31 branch managers and their bosses to signal a commitment to workplace education.

Later in May, the same group will reconvene for one day to present class projects they worked on last month to the credit union’s chief executive and six other C-suite officials.

“This is the way organizations need to evolve to deliver the effective leadership development they need today and in the future,” says Dan Bruinooge, chief people and corporate services officer for Servus, who welcomed participants to the three-day session last month. “Our world is changing so fast, with technology and expectations, we need to stay on top of that because the leadership skills we need may be different again tomorrow.”

The structure of program offerings is evolving, too, with one- or two-day, in-class sessions spread over a couple of months, with some online work in between.

In Halifax, where public sector cuts have slowed demand for executive training, schools are adapting programs to meet new demands from private sector employers.

“Businesses are in a shorter planning cycle, and when they make decisions for training, they say, ‘I want to do “this,” ’ which has a defined result,” observes Gerry Martin, program director for executive and professional development at St. Mary’s University. Increasingly, she says, companies want training for specific skills, such as effective communication or project management.

In response, schools are designing modular programs that provide short bursts of learning – with limited time away from the office – over several months or longer. For example, St. Mary’s offers a certificate in leadership that takes two years to complete with individual modules of two or three days of training.

“It’s problematic to be out of the office for five days,” says Ms. Martin.

For their part, companies are becoming more systematic about training.

Three years ago, Halifax-based High Liner Foods introduced a formal company-wide learning and development program, developed in collaboration between the salaried employee and the manager.

“It gives employees an opportunity to grow in the organization, and to do that we have to encourage people to learn and develop in a variety of ways,” says Joanne Brown, vice-president of human resources for High Liner.

In a move initiated by High Liner’s chief executive, senior employees must complete 40 hours of learning and development a year, Ms. Browne says. For example, she enrolled in a one-week program at Harvard Business School. “When I return from a program, I report on what was new and what I can bring back for the company,” she says.

Technology is also transforming the delivery of programs – within limits.

Last year, the executive education department at HEC Montréal introduced four hour-long webinars on such topics as how to manage virtually (when employees and managers are in different locations) and how to negotiate day-to-day in the workplace. The school added two more webinars to its roster this year.

They are not for everyone, notes HEC Montréal’s Mr. Gagné. “In management, you need to talk with people and network, and this cannot be accomplished with the Web.”

Whatever the form of program delivery, he says business clients have sharpened their demands.

“They want management and training that is short, direct and to the point,” he observes. “They want skills they can transfer easily, almost the next day, to the job.”

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