What’s Next in Leadership Development?

Last week I gave a short presentation to a group of HR executives and had a great discussion on the current and future states of executive education and leadership development programs.

One of the first things we discussed was the need for more information on the ROI of educational programs.  Too often, companies and their educational providers ignore the need to accurately measure the return on their educational investment and simply assume that education is a good thing.  This doesn’t work very well when trying to justify educational expenses to the organization’s leadership.

Is it possible to measure the returns to your investment in education?  At Chicago Booth, we believe that it is.   In fact, a few years ago we conducted a research to determine just what impact certain educational programs have.  Employees at a major technology firm participated in a Chicago Booth leadership program and we tracked their career progress for several years after the completion of the course.  We found that the participants in the program were more likely to receive high marks on performance evaluations, more likely to be promoted, and more likely to stay with the firm than their peers who did not participate in the program.  While this experiment focused on one particular company and a single educational program, it does indicate that at least in certain circumstances, leadership education does pay off.


What are the keys to getting this type of return on the investment?  I think that there are several. First, the organization needs to be clear the goals of any educational program – is it to provide specific skills or knowledge, retain employees, make them more effective in their jobs, etc.?  In order to measure the return, you need to have specific goals.  Second, you need to create mechanisms to measure against those goals.  This might include specific tests of knowledge, results of performance evaluations, retentions rates and the like.  Finally, you need to ensure that the employees participating in the programs take them seriously.  Our research pointed out that those participants who were rated as “most active” in the program performed better (in terms of evaluations, promotions and retention) than those who were more passive. If your employees take the programs seriously and apply what they learn, you will see a return.


Our second topic of conversation was the direction of leadership programs and new developments in making them more effective.  In our experience, there are several recent developments that have (or will have) a major impact on how executive education programs are delivered:

1) More experiential learning.  More and more schools are moving toward a model in which program participants work on actual problems and issues facing their companies.  It’s no longer enough to simply sit in class and listen to a lecture or even a case discussion.  The most effective learning takes place when students can apply what they learn in class to a real, important situation facing their company.  Business schools have been adding experiential learning components to their MBA programs for years and more and more of them are now doing the same thing in their executive education programs.

2) Globalization and a global mindset.  One of the things I hear regularly from companies is the need for their next generation of leaders to have a global mindset and understand the intricacies of operation across the globe.  From an educational standpoint, this means providing opportunities to study global issues and, perhaps more importantly, offering the chance to study and work with executives from various cultures and backgrounds.  Programs that bring together participants from around the world can be invaluable in promoting global understanding, pointing out the difficulties in working across cultures and providing guidance on how to deal with the issues that invariably arise.  For a company with global operations, it also offers the chance to begin to build connections among managers of far flung operations, strengthening the organizations overall global capability.

3) The use of technology – especially mobile.  Online classes have existed for several years now, but with explosion of mobile devices I expect that we will see significant growth in educational programs that provide “just in time” and “to the point” training.  Mobile platforms allow schools and other providers to complement classroom sessions with materials that a can be used anywhere.  These technologies also open an entire realm of educational games, role plays, simulations and the like which could potentially transform how leadership programs are designed and delivered.


4) Entrepreneurship and Innovation.  Innovation is another buzzword that I frequently hear as I meet with companies around the region.  Everyone wants their employees to be more entrepreneurial and innovative.  Companies recognize that creativity and innovation are necessary for continued competitiveness in today’s business environment.  Educational providers are listening and offering a growing number of courses and programs on entrepreneurship, innovation, change management and the like.


5) Coaching. The final new development in leadership education is the addition of coaching opportunities to participants.  At many schools personal coaching has been added as an additional feature to traditional classroom programs.  This provides participants with direct feedback on how to apply the principles learned in class and keeps them thinking about the concepts long after the session is over.  It adds a personal touch and helps enhance the key learning elements.

So, as you can see, leadership education is changing and will continue to change significantly in the future.  New technologies and approaches offer the promise of even more effective programs and even better performance.  The key is working closely with your educational provider to design and deliver innovative programs and then track the results carefully over time.  If you do, you’ll find that not only will you have helped develop more effective leaders, but you have the data to prove it.



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