Maximizing Returns on Executive Education

As an educator, I believe that knowledge for the sake of knowledge has enduring social value. As the head of executive education for Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Executive Education Profile), this philosophy has no place in my mission. Having experienced managers show up at my door just to learn about a topic—in the absence of knowing what specific issues they are there to address—may not seriously harm their businesses, but it certainly will damage mine over time.

At its best, executive education is the most direct way to make an immediate impact on the practice of management. When the Great Recession hit, the verdict of the business community was that executive education was a expense that could be cut. At the very moment when executive education could have been most valuable, enrollments plunged.

The challenge that confronts those of us in the executive education business is to work with our clients to help them understand that there should be a direct and measurable connection between executive education and business results.

I began to focus on this problem after speaking with executives who arrived on campus knowing what they wanted to explore but unable to articulate clearly the why. If learning about a topic were the metric used to gauge the success of management education programs, executive education providers would all be fabulously successful. As we have seen, that is not enough.

A Quantifiable Measure of Success

Each person attending an executive program needs a quantifiable measure of success that the executive and the sponsoring organization agree upon in advance. It should be shared with the school, with follow-up research conducted to determine the extent of the return. This is a tall order, but it can be done.

Anyone who invests in executive education should be seeking a specific solution to a clearly-defined problem. Part of my job is to demonstrate that this happens, which means developing useful performance metrics that are available for all to see.

At the Kellogg School our goal is to ensure that the 5,000 managers who annually attend our executive offerings return to their jobs energized, with specific action plans to apply what they learned. We do this in a number of ways. We start by asking participants to arrive with a clear sense of the business issues that they want the faculty and class to help them address. We assist them in planning a formal debrief describing what they learned to their boss and colleagues on their return. In our advanced executive program, participants keep daily course-applications journals and meet in small groups to share these "ideas for action" with their classmates so that they can benefit from the extensive experience of their peers. Further Kellogg programs incorporate coaching sessions, during which participants distill what they have learned and comprehend how this new knowledge may be applied. Months after the program's conclusion, the coaches and participants reconnect to discuss progress on their action plans and how to overcome barriers. We also selectively conduct follow-up interviews with participants after a few months to gain an understanding of how they applied key program learning.

In some cases, knowledge application is easy to spot: A participant returns from a program with a new idea and puts it into practice. I spoke recently with an executive whose financial services product had become commodified. He attended a program on building value in the business-to-business sector, learned a strategy for adding value to his product, and greatly improved his business. Return on investment can be a powerful metric.

Metrics Can't All Be Reduced to Money

We routinely find that while participants can describe enthusiastically how they put their new ideas into practice, significantly benefiting their organizations, the financial returns are less clear. For example, a recent follow-up interview of a practice leader for a global professional services firm showed that the participant had structured a four-hour meeting with her team using program frameworks, insights, and tools to help develop actions for strengthening client relationships.

Another form of metric can be to determine what specific course ideas were implemented and how desirable the impact turned out to be, even through putting hard numbers on the outcome may not be practical. Organizations routinely make investments that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. In the case of our practice leader, developing strong client relationships is a strategic imperative of any professional services firm. Strengthening relationships may or may not yield incremental (and measurable) sales in the short term. The ultimate impact may be to retain clients that otherwise might be lost. The impact of helping a manager become more skillful at conducting performance evaluations is hard to quantify, despite universal acceptance that this result is valuable. We are exploring ways to show this type of result to participants as a way of helping them understand what to seek through executive education.

The ROI from attending an executive program can be frustratingly difficult to demonstrate. I believe that for the good of our industry—and service to our clients—we must try at the very least to identify the actions taken and to assess the desirability of the results. It is the only sure way in which the field of executive education will demonstrate its value. And value—not just knowledge—is what we are in business to provide.

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