You are about to read a study of the field of executive development written by two people who have both led executive development organizations and studied the industry in detail, using broad empirical evidence drawn from interviews with clients and their organizations’ CLOs and CEOs. The study is both descriptive and prescriptive in nature: it aims to give guidance on what organizations employing executives and managers should seek and do, and what executive development providers should heed and think of doing.
Prediction is hard—especially about the future, as Yogi Berra quipped. But no study of “The Future of X” can escape making predictions about X—and that is no less true of the executive development field than it is of any other X. Accordingly, we do make predictions—even in a year that has seen most industries—including this one—disrupted by governments’ responses to a global pandemic that have rendered most of the models of interaction between suppliers and providers disrupted and restructured, with consequences that seem hard to predict. This study is based on a five-year-long research project in which both of us have observed, measured, integrated, thought, and done many things in the space of this industry. We have surveyed executives coming to executive development programs, interviewed them, spoken to the CEOs and CLOs of the organizations for which they work, spoken to the key decision makers in suppliers and aggregators of executive development programs and experiences, restructured and redesigned our own executive development programs to heed the insights we gleaned, observed and measured the outcomes of our interventions, and mapped out the skill base of executives at various organizational levels, the skill development vehicles most suppliers offer, and the outcomes of these programs for the organizations we interacted with. Most of the trends we speak about have been borne out and even amplified by the global COVID-19 episode. The future is coming more quickly than we anticipated when we started our journey. But it is not a different future from the one we contemplated when we set off on our journey five years ago.
We are writing as both observers and researchers of the field—and actors and decision makers within the field. That is—unfortunately—rare in the realm of monographs and scholarly works, which deploy research to give answers to questions asked from an observer’s perspective alone. But the first-person perspective contributes an in-the-moment feel of reality, and an understanding of the predicament of the decision maker who must act now, with limited information that is critical to making the prescriptions, predictions, and suggestions imminently useful and valuable to other doers and executives. Each one of us was the Senior Dean in charge of executive education at our respective schools (the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and the Harvard Business School at Harvard University) during the time this book was written. Our positions enabled us to both observe the phenomenon up close and tailor our understanding and our research to the first-person vantage point: knowledge is for action, understanding is for intervening, and prediction is for planning moves and responses. We have accordingly written a book that aims to speak directly to academics and students of executive development as a field on one hand and, on the other, to executives (CEOs and CLOs) of organizations that are clients of executive development suppliers, decision makers in business schools, consultancies, and coaching and other executive development organizations that want to understand for the purpose of doing—and not just for that of writing, publishing, contemplating, or talking about doing.
Our approach rests on a few foundational assumptions—roughly, the kinds of beliefs that people working in this field need to believe to be true in order to get up in the morning and look in the mirror without experiencing a personal crisis:
• First, that executive development matters to organizations: that it is a useful way for organizations to acquire new capabilities that enable them to do better at what they seek to do. That is by no means obvious. CEOs and their top management teams have at least two levers for changing their organizations: selection and development. They can simply fire and rehire, hire into brand new organizational structures, or simply acquire organizations that have always had the capabilities they seek—instead of investing in the development of their executives. Restructuration is not costless, but given the increasing precision with which the market for talent is working and the increasing granularity with which it is allowing talent managers to hire for “bundles of skills”—verified by LinkedIn or other platforms—the cost-benefit picture of this option has been improving and will continue to improve steadily. The development option is facing a steadily rising bar of efficacy and quality for its success. This is the assumption that motivates many of our suggestions and exhortations for immediate change in the industry.
• Second, that executive development is causally efficacious in helping executives acquire skills which they then successfully apply in their organizations in ways that allow the latter to build capabilities that are valuable and distinctive. This is also by no means an obviously valid assumption. In fact, as we will show, there are scenarios in which the industry can run—and perhaps has been running—on vapor ware: on executives pretending to learn, taught by providers who pretend to teach, paid for by organizations that pretend to care and to benefit, even though each party derives personal benefits that have little to do with skill acquisition and transfer and capability development. But this would not be—and is not—a survivable or robust equilibrium: the “gig would have been up”—or will be up—pretty quickly if the interactive beliefs of organizational leaders, executive learners, and executive program providers do not cohere. This is the assumption that underlies our focus on skill acquisition, skill application, and the conversion of skill into capability as the core source of value of executive development activity sets.
• Third, that the causal links between what we try to do and what we aim for in executive development are intelligible and analyzable. Writers about executive learning and teaching are apt to talk about ineffable, hard-to-describe-and-measure abilities such as intuition, judgment, wisdom, and so forth. They are, perhaps, right in suggesting these are characteristics that are difficult to identify, measure, and even precisely name. But, we will argue, they are not right in arguing that they are impossible to identify, articulate, and measure, and in most settings, “hard” is used as a euphemism for “impossible,” which is misleading. One of the roles of the type of thinking called “scientific” is to turn quality into quantity—to make distinctions and create concepts that allow humans to identify, measure, and manipulate variables that matter to their lives. And even as we write as doers and executives in the field, we are also scientists and students of human and organizational behavior, and we are seeking to apply ourselves as scientists to the identification and measurement of executive skills. We believe that without a new way to talk about skills that enables us to intervene in ways that help humans acquire net new abilities, any talk of executive development—of improving, changing, and restructuring it—is moot and irrelevant. This is the assumption on which our analysis of the executive’s skill set and the new taxonomy of executive skills and abilities that we introduce is based.
We would like to acknowledge the help of many who have made this study possible: our dedicated and highly competent Harvard Business School Division of Research team—Kerry Herman, Amram Migdal, and Christine Snively—who enabled us to reach far and deep into the wealth of data and feedback from Executive Development Program participants; our Rotman School of Management research, editorial, and production team—Jasmina Djikic, Yeni Choi, and Raluca Cojocariu—who enabled us to update our context and design the best possible graphical interface for our thoughts; and, of course, the many participants in executive development programs at Harvard and the University of Toronto, without whose astute and attuned collaboration this study would not have been possible.