When nuclear power operator Bruce Power began a contract with the Ontario government in 2016 to provide a third of the province's residential electricity until 2064, the company knew it was a big commitment. And big commitments require effective leadership.
"We knew we'd have to build sustainability into our business," says Cathy Sprague, Executive Vice-President of Human Resources at Bruce Power, which operates eight nuclear reactors on the shore of Lake Huron. "To prepare for the future, we needed to grow our leadership bench from inside."
The need to develop leadership skills internally was especially strong, because it can be a challenge to recruit highly specialized workers to a rural location.
Bruce Power enlisted Western University's Ivey Business School to design and deliver a custom executive education program for dozens of high-potential employees from across the company's 4,000-person workforce. Sixty-six people have completed the 12-month program so far. Another 28 are currently enrolled, and a fifth cohort is set to begin this year.
The company opted for a customized executive education program over the alternative, an open enrolment program, which allows individuals to fill specific skill gaps through pre-set public courses.
Mark Healy, Ivey's Executive Director for Executive Education, says open enrolment is great for "management development underpinned by knowledge transfer." But custom programs are tailored to meet the specific needs of a group from one organization. "On the custom side, clients are looking for meaningful, transformative, long-lasting behaviour change," he says.
The custom Bruce Power program integrates leading edge academic content into a company-specific context. The program isn't set in stone; the experiences of each cohort are used to fine-tune the program for the next group.
"Ivey has been wonderful in working with us to constantly improve the program as our business changes," says Ms. Sprague. "If we have something that is important to Bruce Power, they utilize their extensive resources to work what we think is important into our program."
"The facilitation is amazing," she adds. "The profs are really fantastic and engaging, and there's access to so much thought leadership."
With many sectors undergoing major changes, such as cost-cutting and or disruptive technologies, Martha Maznevski isn't surprised that firms are increasingly turning to custom executive education.
"Executive education really helps companies make their transitions more effective," says Prof. Maznevski, Ivey Professor of Organizational Behaviour and one of the school's Faculty Directors for Executive Education. "That's because good executive education helps increase leaders' capabilities to shape and implement change."
Curriculum is important, she says, and there are many schools offering good content. The hallmark of truly effective training, however, is the follow-through: Does the learning lead to tangible change?
Prof. Maznevski likens typical out-of-the-box executive education to a vacation of sorts. "We sit in a room and learn some new ideas and new skills," she says. "That's great. But then we go back to work and, six months later, we realize we haven't implemented any of the learning."
Ivey's Executive Education programs, in contrast, distinguish themselves by connecting the content with the realities of the clients' work, and integrating the learning experience with the company's strategic objectives. To achieve this, the three or four days of traditional instruction at Ivey's dedicated executive education facilities – what Prof. Maznevski calls "face-to-face time" – is only part of the three-month-to-a-year "executive education journey."
Bruce Power participants, for example, have worked on 24 action-learning projects, which tackle issues such as reducing waste, reducing their own energy consumption and improving transportation efficiencies. The participants present their findings to our leadership team and get tangible feedback in real time.
In addition to realizing millions of dollars in savings and efficiencies, these real-world projects meaningfully connect the students with the curriculum content. That connection increases the likelihood of integrating learning into long-term behaviour, says Prof. Maznevski, and can lead to deep insights.
"With good executive education, people are willing to go outside of their comfort zones and experiment with new skills and new behaviours," she says. "I've seen it suddenly emerge that 'We're doing the same thing in four different parts of our company, why don't we have that organized in a different way?' Or you get leaders who have plateaued, and they suddenly launch into whole new career stages within the company. They get re-energized about their careers and their commitment to the company. Those are huge."
Crucially, there is at least one additional face-to-face session two or three months after the initial instruction. Over the course of the year-long Bruce Power program, there are four three-day face-to-face modules.
"Getting feedback and follow-up is one of the most important design elements of effective learning," says Prof. Maznevski. "If everybody knows there's another face-to-face, they are more engaged. They are much more likely to work on implementing things, because they know they're going to be reporting back. They get to the second face-to-face with a much higher chance of having habits change."
In a program impact survey, 89 per cent of managers of Bruce Power participants said they had seen a positive change in participant leadership behaviours – and more than half of the participant group has been promoted.
"People are spreading their wings and saying they're ready to move on to the next role," says Ms. Sprague. "The program builds skills. It connects people to the business. It gives them personal introspections, so they can think about themselves as a leader. It gives them confidence to do things that they might not have been able to do before."
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.