WEB EXCLUSIVE: 'Skilling Up' in Exec Ed

What does it take to help business professors build the skills they need to deliver effective executive education programs? Here are a few guidelines to consider.

Whether a business school wants to enter the executive education business or grow an existing exec ed program, its administrators must make sure that faculty have the teaching skills and practical knowledge to teach executive clients. In a survey that I recently completed for UNICON, an international consortium of executive education programs based at business schools, 106 executives rated the importance of various attributes of a customized program—the respondents rated two attributes above all others:

Practical application of theory. Exec ed clients want professors who design sessions driven by problems at their companies; who link ideas, principles, concepts, and theories to the practical problems that they now face; and who give real and practical examples during class. While many exec ed clients come to business school because they want a program rooted in academic research, they still want a program that emphasizes application.

That means, for example, that a professor might devote 20 minutes of a two-hour class to explaining the theoretical model, then use the rest of the time to provide examples, facilitate group discussion, and coach students in application exercises that are focused on how the model can be applied.

Exec students want professors who are respectful and help participants learn from each other.

Respect and inclusion of participants’ ideas. My survey also showed that executives highly value having professors who respect the work that they do. They want professors who listen, who can balance their own input with that of the participants, and who can facilitate a group discussion well. This result tells professors a lot about their relationship with the managers in the classroom.

First, professors aren’t the only experts in the room. The participants have useful insights and ideas based on their own experiences—the professor must be sure they are shared. When I teach, I make this clear in my introductory remarks. For instance, I might tell a class of 40 managers, “We have 41 experts in this room. If you have something to share, jump in. The more we share, the more likely it is that everyone will go home with ideas that they can use to do their jobs better.”
Second, the participants know more about their jobs and companies than most professors do. Successful exec ed professors don’t tell people how they should do their work. Instead, they offer ideas, models, and examples and ask participants how they might be applied.

Exec ed students want practical tools, models, ideas and examples to address the challenges they face.

Given that practical application and inclusive classrooms are important to exec ed clients, faculty will need to develop skills in each area. For example, to integrate a strong practical orientation into an exec ed learning experience, professors must know how to identify theories and models with practical implications, and explain their significance in language that managers speak. They must be willing to find and present interesting examples, cases, and exercises that show participants how the model can be applied. Finally, they must be willing to learn about each company’s culture and strategic challenges to better guide and encourage class discussion.

To manage inclusive exec ed classrooms, professors must master what it takes to bring everyone into the conversation so that all useful knowledge in the classroom is shared. That means they must ask questions and design exercises that encourage participants to share ideas and learn from each other. Most important, they must be able to listen thoughtfully, respond respectfully, and let the conversation between participants flow as long as people are sharing helpful ideas.


Administrators can help professors build these executive education skills in several ways:

Guided observation. New exec ed professors should observe veteran professors in the classroom, and they should know beforehand which elements of the session they should focus on. In fact, research suggests that when observers know what to watch for, reflect on what they see, and make plans to use what they learn, their learning is maximized. Business schools can create a worksheet for this purpose or use the observation guide that I’ve developed. (This guide can be downloaded for free at www.executiveeducationexpertise.com/faculty/).

Individual coaching. Coaches are essential for helping inexperienced professors analyze the audience, set objectives, and prepare classroom activities. During course delivery, coaches can observe inexperienced professors, provide feedback, and help them make plans to improve. Coaches not only help inexperienced professors analyze the audience, set objectives, and prepare classroom activities, they can provide feedback and offer suggestions for improvement.

Skill-building workshops with action learning projects. Workshops that allow professors to experience executive education as a participant can be powerful training tools. As part of the workshop, participants could be asked to use what they learn to develop short exec ed programs in their areas of expertise.

Self-directed learning. It’s true that some professors prefer to go it alone. If so, schools can design a self-directed program so that professors can also learn on their own time through worksheets, teaching tips, and readings that cover topics such as adult learning.


If a business school wants to step into the customized exec ed market, its first step should be to survey its faculty to find out which of these approaches they are willing adopt. The first building block of a strong exec ed program is a strong faculty—without professors with the skills to teach executives, any exec ed business is likely to fail.

Elizabeth (Ellie) Weldon is a freelance executive education professor who specializes in leadership and development. She works with business schools to design and deliver executive education program, as well as helps professors build their executive education skills, through materials and guidelines she has developed for her company Executive Education with Impact (www.ExecEdwithImpact.com). Weldon’s survey of executive education clients, “Designing and Delivering Customized Programs with Impact,” is available at uniconexed.org/2014/research/UNICON_Research_Report-Customized_Programs_with_Impact-full.pdf.