Industries Education

Virginia businesses seek executive education as economy recovers

Businesses look toward a changing marketplace by investing heavily in customized courses

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

Hourigan Construction has built some of the biggest health-care and commercial projects in the Richmond area during the past two decades, but in today’s shaky economy, that doesn’t even begin to guarantee a leg up in competing for new opportunities. Potential clients now are more risk-averse about committing dollars for projects, says President Mark J. Hourigan. As a result, clients are apt to give just as much credence to the qualifications and character of frontline personnel as they are to company reputation and proposal pricing.

For this reason, the company has started investing heavily in executive education, working with University of Richmond officials to develop customized coursework for its 100 employees. Recently, 10 members of its team, including executives, project managers, engineers and job-site superintendents went through a program to improve their communications and presentation skills.

“In our industry, if you get an interview opportunity, you’d better be hitting on all cylinders,” says Hourigan. “Clients are no longer interested in just talking to me and my executive team, they want to meet and get to know the key people who will be on the ground running the project. They want to know what their skill sets are, what their personalities are like, how they’re going to run the job site, what their thoughts are on safety and so forth. There’s a lot of good competition out there, so we wanted to make sure that as a company, we’re presenting as clearly and as effectively as we can.”

That meant putting the team through an intensive two-day course that included videotaping the group running through an upcoming project presentation, including a mock Q&A session. The students then had a chance to view the presentation, consider how it looked to the potential client and get feedback on each employee’s part. And there was lots of practice time.

The presentation was in anticipation of a contract bid for a major new, as-yet-unannounced corporate headquarters building in the Richmond area. The Hourigan team, just three days out of their customized instruction, nailed the presentation and won the award.

“Going through executive education really raised our awareness of what the client would be seeing and wanted to learn from us, and it really gave our people the skills and techniques they needed to have confidence that they were, in fact, better presenters,” says Hourigan.

Ten more employees are scheduled to go through the same program, and the company plans to work with UR officials to design additional courses around leadership development, project management and specific managerial topics. “I think just having that extra knowledge or skill set provided exactly what we needed to elevate our game just a bit.”

Realizing targeted ROI
Most companies slash their spending for training and executive education during a recession, but as the economy sputters toward a recovery, a growing number of companies now see executive education as the key to helping them do more with less, overcome growth plateaus, regain their competitive edge, overcome personnel gaps caused by layoffs and cope with what is shaping up to be a very different marketplace than what they knew a few years ago.

As a result, demand for coursework — particularly customized programs targeting a company’s unique challenges and goals — is on a steep rise, executive education officials at Virginia schools report.

“What that translates into is the fact that companies are now reinstating education investments or initiatives that were pretty much on hold when the recession was in full swing,” says Frank Smith, director of management and professional development at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, noting that his executive education program has seen a significant spike in requests for customized coursework since the beginning of the year.

Michael Dugan, director of the Economic Development Center at Old Dominion University, estimates that his executive education program has grown 20 percent since 2010, while Roy Hinton, associate dean for executive programs at George Mason University’s School of Management, characterizes new demand as “especially strong, with a lot of inquiries from both the federal sector and private sector.”

Much of this demand is coming from companies that are smaller than the traditional executive education customer, and organizations of all sizes are choosing to send different types of employees. Midlevel managers and technical specialists are being enrolled in customized courses in communications, leadership development, project management, financial management and other “oldies but goodies,” says Dugan.

“All of a sudden we’re seeing organizations realize that increasing the skills and knowledge of their employees — not just their executives — would not only help the employees do their jobs better but at the same time it will help the organization cope with change and improve performance,” says Dugan. He notes that nonprofit organizations also are increasingly turning to executive education.

Kaye Vaughan, director of executive education at UR, says that companies are also leveraging executive education to help the newest generation of employees come up to speed on corporate culture and job requirements. One company, CapTech Ventures, for example has been working with UR for some time now to provide a four-part executive education series for its newly hired professional consultants.

“It’s an introductory course of what it means to work for the company, what’s expected of them and how to do their specific job effectively,” she explains. “So it’s a development program for them but it is also a recruiting tool because many of the younger workers are requiring that type of professional investment when they’re out looking for jobs.”

Preparing for a new reality

David Newkirk, CEO of executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says much of the renewed interest in professional development is an outgrowth of, first, the cost-cutting that took place in the earlier part of the decade, and now, a fundamental shift in strategy as companies adjust to a more streamlined, competitive marketplace.

“Lots and lots of companies are now going through a process of trying to become more customer-facing and getting their engineers and other key personnel closer to the customer so they can innovate,” Newkirk explains. “That requires a whole new set of skills like communications, understanding customers, managing cross-functional teams, managing the innovation process.”

He notes that companies frequently are eschewing open-enrollment courses for a customized program that enables them to reskill their employees and align them with a new strategy.

Customized education also enables companies to make the most of their scarcest resource: time. “Courses are now very, very focused on application, not theory,” says Hinton. “It’s all about: How do I use this to improve performance and meet my goals?”

Executive education officials think this turn to practical, strategic and time-efficient training will continue for the foreseeable future.

“Because the economy is so much more uncertain, I think one of the keys that our clients are looking for is to kind of support the development of future leaders who can think more strategically and be able to be more agile and flexible,” says Jean Gasen, interim director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Corporate Management. “And they need to have the ability to manage change — because change is going to a constant for a long time, even after a recovery takes hold.” 

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