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Change is the only constant in today's global, technology-driven economy. To stay competitive in this dynamic environment, leaders and managers must evolve along with it. That's where executive education comes in.

Executive education offers brief, targeted training to mid-career managers. These programs are designed for experienced professionals who need to update or extend their knowledge in a specific area. Curricula and program length vary widely; in fact, many executive education programs are unique to a particular client, customized to address the individual or company's needs. The focus is on acquiring applied skills rather than earning a degree. Graduates distinguish themselves through increased capability and leadership in the workplace

The Rise of Executive Education

Executive education arose in the late 1980s to address the needs of experienced managers caught up in the brave new world of global business. Business concepts acquired 10 or even five years earlier were suddenly obsolete; continuing education offered a way for business leaders to update their knowledge and adapt to a newly volatile economy.

The '90s saw another upsurge in demand for executive education, as the phenomenal growth of start-ups laid bare the new rules for success: a nimble workforce of executives equipped to anticipate change and respond quickly. Entrepreneurial spirit became--and remains--the signal virtue of a successful corporation, and executive education the ticket to achieving it. Today executive education programs are a standard component of corporate training, a way for corporations to ensure innovative and informed leadership.

Real-World Appeal

Executive education is about developing take-away skills and strategies--solutions managers can apply daily on the job. As financial services manager Lucia Soh put it: "I can use this. This is real." Programs are so effective because they are efficient: brief, targeted to a specific need, and delivered in a way that makes sense for mid-career professionals.

Executive education typically takes place alongside work commitments. There are obvious logistical benefits to this arrangement. Executives can complete programs without taking time off work, thanks to flexible hours and online delivery. At the same time, concurrent education ensures a direct lifeline to business practice. MBAs may rely on fictional case studies, but executive programs can apply lessons to the issues currently facing students at work.

This direct approach is, according to Business Week , "exactly the kind of instruction companies want--steeped in real-world experience." The magazine's biannual poll of executive education clients cites "training rooted in real-world practice" as the top priority in selecting a program. Dennis Baltzey, head of leadership development at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, observes: "Schools that are doing it right work to understand your business. They have taken a page from the consulting field."

Executive Education Priorities
1Practical, real-world training
2Contact with business leaders
3Reputation of Provider
4Flexibility of Program


Education that Fits

That "consulting" page is most evident in the rise of custom programs. Custom programs account for just under half--43 percent and rising, in 2005--of the Top 20 schools' executive education revenue.

The traditional 'one size fits all' format of a university course tends to be less effective at driving organizational change or addressing a specific issue such as change management or corporate strategy.

Open enrollment offers its distinct advantages, such as a diverse learning environment. Executives looking to develop general management skills-- leadership, strategy, financial management, for example--will discover an invaluable resource in peers from other industries and cultures. In addition to forming a network, executives can swap perspectives and pool collective wisdom.

The ROI of Professional Development Training

Executive education has emerged as a crucial rite of passage for managers and an instrument of change for companies. Maury Kalnitz, Director of the Executive MBA Council, attributes the "tremendous growth" of executive education to the career advancement benefits: "People want to build on their strengths and realize that, if they are going to progress in their careers, they will need more skills." Professional development programs empower individuals with new strategies and techniques to apply in the workplace. Midlevel managers prepare themselves for executive responsibility, and executives refresh and refine their leadership approach.

Effective decision-making and executive strategy ultimately benefits the company as well. "Executive education programs now occupy a strategic role they never had before," notes Stephen LaCivita, former chair of the International University Consortium of Executive Education. "Top execs are driving systemwide change in their companies by using exec ed." Another industry observer refers to executive education as "every CEO's favorite strategic weapon."

Corporate investment is the real force behind the boom in executive education programs. The figures speak for themselves. BusinessWeek 's 2005 survey found that "companies sent more than 21,000 employees to courses and spent hundreds of millions of dollars at business schools and non-university-affiliated organizations." Clorox, for example, has a budget for professional development estimated at six billion. Overall, spending on U.S. corporate training and education for managers rose to $16.5 billion, up 17 percent from last year, according to Training magazine. Worldwide, that figure exceeds US$350 billion.

Executive Education Program Options

With customization the norm, no two executive education programs are alike. But most executive education programs are variations on a theme--namely, leadership and management. "Leadership" and "entrepreneurial skills" rank among the top objectives for executive education clients, according to BusinessWeek 's poll. Some programs offer an overview of these areas, but most hone in on a specific area of expertise such as strategy, marketing, or financial management.

Top Open Enrollment Programs
1General Management
4Sales & Marketing

These popular programs--leadership, general management, finance, marketing, and strategy--come in all shapes and sizes. Expect infinite variations in curriculum, format, and time to completion. Courses can be as short as a day or as long as two years, but most fall into the two- to eight-week range. Many take advantage of an online format, but some feature in-person training, either on campus or in the office (for custom programs).

In keeping with the emphasis on applied business solutions, executive education programs do not adhere to standard curricula. Even open enrollment programs are targeted to specific audiences and business skills. Programs vary by:


  • Application. Corporate strategy means something much different to an information technology manager than a human resources specialist. Accounting, information services, technology and operations, sales, marketing, and human resources approach management and leadership issues from the unique perspective of these divisions.
  • Topic. Specific topics may include developments in the business sector. Programs in global business and e-commerce, for example, help executives understand the implications of business trends. Other programs focus on internal issues such as organizational strategy, change management, or creating synergy between divisions.
  • Skill Level. Executives are not the only ones to benefit from executive education. In fact, most programs are designed to equip mid-level managers with the skills they need to take on executive responsibility. There are programs to accommodate entry-level managers, senior managers, and top executives.
  • Industry. Industry-specific options include healthcare management, hospitality and food service management, technology, and more.

Meeting the Demands of the Business Marketplace

Without the standard requirements of degree-granting programs, executive education has evolved to answer each new demand of the business marketplace as it arises. The result is a relevant education that offers professionals real-world strategies they can apply on the job. There is an executive in every manager, and a success story in every company. Professional development programs give both individuals and businesses the capacity to realize that potential.