Industries Education

Change is in the air

Programs adapt to the rapidly shifting requirements of business

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Randy Raggio at the University of Richmond’s
Robins School of Business. Photo by Rick DeBerry

What is changing in executive education?

A spot check of programs across the state offers a number of different answers: courses tailored to company needs, increasing use of executive education as an employee retention tool and the growing influence of societal shifts on corporate cultures.

At the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond, customization is king.

“There has been a big shift from open enrollment to more custom engagement,” says Randy Raggio, associate dean and executive director of executive education at the business school.

He estimates that during the past several years about 80 percent of the executive education programs at Robins fell into the custom category.

Raggio points to recent clients who had specific, urgent needs. In one instance, a century-old industrial organization wanted a program providing employees with the latest thinking in a variety of disciplines.

“We worked with six projects of strategic importance to the company,” Raggio says. “The whole program culminates in a presentation to the executive team.”

The projects ranged from strategic thinking to marketing to finance. In every instance, Raggio says, classes are crafted around specific projects and outcomes.

For another client, a growing health-care company, the executive education team worked more like a consulting firm, drawing in expertise from various corners of the university in addition to the business school.

“We did nearly everything from infrastructure development to helping them find a new software provider,” Raggio says.

At times, depending on the needs of the clients, the business school’s executive education teams will draw on expertise from UR’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies, its School of Law and faculty members in areas ranging from software development to marketing. “We leverage everybody,” Raggio says.

Joanne Even, business development director of executive education at the Robins School, adds that there is also a growing recognition that, besides technical skills, modern leaders must have soft skills to communicate with employees.

“It’s the social intelligence that helps,” Even says, referring to the ability to negotiate complex social relationships and environments. “People are working much more collaboratively,” Raggio adds.

Keeping millennials onboard
At the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary, Associate Dean Ken White says companies increasingly are using executive education as a retention tool.

“Keeping major talent has become an issue for organizations,” White says. Emerging leaders and executives expect companies to invest in them, White says. Retaining millennials — who have displaced baby boomers as America’s largest generation — has become a special priority.

“Most millennials are not going to a job to stay for 20 years,” White says, adding companies need to show how much they want them to stay on.

While that approach may seem old school, White says improved listening skills set executives apart in a world that is becoming increasingly distracted by a barrage of cellphone calls, texts and emails.

“Because of the continuous rise of technology … there’s a greater emphasis on communications,” White says. “The impactful communicator rises to the top.”

Changing people
James Shaeffer, founding dean of the College of Continuing Education and Professional Development at Old Dominion University, says the role of executive training has taken a new direction during his time in the field.

The “feel-good” kind of training is not what companies and organizations are looking for, Shaeffer says. “We have to show how we are changing people,” he says, noting that simply checking a box to show that someone took a program is no longer sufficient.

Many of the students Shaeffer and his ODU colleagues see are from the civilian side of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.

The courses most in demand at Fleet Forces Command deal with cybersecurity, procurement, finance and leadership, and not everyone on the class rolls typically has had the same level of training.

“You’re going to have a group of students coming to the classroom with varying degrees of expertise. You have to be flexible,” Shaeffer says.

As in much of executive education, the learning is collaborative, interactive and collegial, Shaeffer says, with everyone contributing to the conversation. 

“Those who have great knowledge teach those who don’t,” Shaeffer says.

New corporate culture
Michaela Bearden, director at the Center for Corporate Education at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, says market trends are driving many aspects of executive education. The field also is being influenced by cultural shifts in society as multiple generations and different ethnicities interact in the workplace.
“More companies want to change their own culture,” Bearden says, and one of the most important steps in that process can be executive education.

She says every company is looking for something a little different, and the most successful faculties are those that can adapt their research to companies’ needs, creating an environment for practical learning.

“Even with rapid advances in technology, people management and leadership continue to be among the most important skills,” Bearden says.

But in a marketplace that is always in flux, she adds that executives also need a high degree of emotional intelligence, flexibility and a creative streak to stay relevant.

As a generational shift occurs in the workplace, and technology drives an all-day workday, Bearden says, there is increasing attention on topics that help people “meld their personal lives into their working lives. They’re looking for more work-life balance.”

One of the advantages of being affiliated with a major research university such as VCU, Bearden says, is that teaching and training is never stagnant. Faculty members are immersed in research that provides executives with an ever-changing knowledge base.

But she suggests that the bar is rising for executive education faculty.

“Instructors,” Bearden says, “need to be strong storytellers … be capable of facilitating discussions and have real world credibility. They also have to be adaptable and excellent listeners.”

Different learning styles
Programs adapt to the rapidly shifting requirements of businessAt George Mason University in Northern Virginia, executive education leaders are looking at different kinds of learning styles that corporations and the federal government — some of the university’s biggest executive education clients — are demanding to meet their evolving needs.

Brad Dawson, executive director of Mason’s Learning Solutions, says that clients are focusing more on the composite of their employees’ learning experiences, rather than just a particular degree.

As a result, badging has become more prominent — giving employees credit for experiences and events that add to their professional portfolio and for skills learned in the process.

Participation in webinars, conferences and MOOCs (massive open online courses) — courses of study made available over the internet without charge to a very large number of people — are all ways that employees can earn badges, Dawson says.

Dawson says another shift has been that executive education is now more often a melding of disciplines rather than a single rigid program.

“We pull pieces of programs from across the university based on the requirements of that customer. We like the fact that industries and companies are interested in education in a different way,” Dawson says.

Roy Hinton, associate dean of executive education at Mason, says he recently participated in a multidisciplinary effort for a group of 30 participants that involved business faculty, as well as faculty from performing arts, technology and engineering.

“This is not your mama’s executive education anymore,” Dawson says with a laugh.

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