Your senior management needs training as much as anyone else in your company. And maybe more.
Your executives and senior management teams guide your company. So their competence has a direct effect on your success. If you can increase that competence with training and development, your company will perform better.
It’s that simple.
But how do you know what to train your senior executives in? How can you make time for training busy senior management? And how can you make sure that you’re getting the most out of your executive training budget?
Read on to find out.
1. Align Corporate Culture Before Training
I can’t emphasize this step enough. Many companies don’t see a great return on their training and development, and the cause is usually that the company’s strategy, values, and articulated goals aren’t aligned with the trainings.
Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader lay out the problem in great detail in their HBR article “Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It.” It’s a great read that’s essential before starting your executive training program.
The authors recommend a six-step approach to training. This approach requires a lot of preparation and possibly an entire culture shift in your company. But it’s crucial if you want your investment in training to pay off.
Here are their six steps:
- The senior team clearly defines values and an inspiring strategic direction.
- After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team diagnoses barriers to strategy execution and learning. It then redesigns the organization’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships to overcome those barriers and motivate change.
- Day-to-day coaching and process consultation help people become more effective in that new design.
- The organization adds training where needed.
- Success in changing behavior is gauged using new metrics for individual and organizational performance.
- Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organizational behavior.
Redesigning an organization’s “roles, responsibilities, and relationships” is no small task. Neither is day-to-day coaching and process consultation.
But the authors make it clear that even a sizable investment in leadership training is doomed to fail without the right supports.
Is your company 100% ready for leadership training and—more importantly—change in leadership strategy and practices? If not, you need to make changes.
2. Establish Training Needs
According to a survey by Training magazine, senior executive training topics are usually either chosen by the executives themselves or by the executive leadership team. Some companies also conduct informal interviews with executives or use a formal needs analysis.
But there are some patterns in what organizations seek training for. That same survey found these five areas were most commonly addressed:
- Communication skills
- Developing and coaching others
- Team leadership
- Strategy development and alignment
- Change leadership
There are notable differences between those five items and the five most commonly sought out areas in the past. But communication and listening skills, leadership during change, and team-building are perennially important areas for executives to receive training in.
Which areas you decide to seek out training in are up to you and your executives. But it’s a safe bet that executives will always benefit from those topic areas.
(Author’s note: you may want to shake things up and ask your employees what executives should be trained in, too. You may get some interesting answers.)
Only after you’ve established your senior executive training needs should you continue the planning process.
3. Define Measurable Training Objectives
Harvard Business Publishing’s Ray Carvey emphasizes the importance of “clear, measurable, and well-articulated objectives and expectations” for leadership training.
You need to know what success will look like before you start the training program. (If you’re not sure how to set learning objectives, check out our post on that topic.)
With executives, says Carvey, it’s important to focus on business outcomes. “How are we moving the needle on the business in terms of application to leaders’ daily jobs, career development and retention? What does the business need to see as a result of this program?”
It’s not always easy to connect training and development to bottom-line results. But if you take the time to make it happen, you’ll have a great guide to what’s working and what’s not.
You’ll also be able to show your executives the importance of the lessons that they’ve learned, which is important in convincing them that it’s worth their time.
4. Make Sure Trainings Are Practical
Executives are busy. And they have a lot of competing priorities. Training often isn’t one of them.
So how do you get them to not only show up to trainings, but pay attention, too?
By keeping the trainings short. Marie Westbrook was a consultant for the Securities and Exchange Commission’s senior leadership training program.
“Sessions were initially designed for two hours, but later adjusted to 90 minutes—based on our observations of how long it took for the Blackberries to appear. In year two, we expanded the time between sessions from four weeks to six weeks.”
90 minutes every six weeks is a reasonable amount of time for executives to spend on training.
But if they’re going to spend even that much time, they need to know they’re getting something out of the trainings. They have to be very practical.
“Materials, such as articles and handouts, were kept to a minimum,” said Westbrook. “The intent of the seminar was to promote dialogue and share ideas among senior executives, rather than serve as a formal instructional activity.”
In selecting themes and guest speakers, Westbrook and her team knew that executives respond well to concrete advice that they can put to use. And your senior management will, too.
5. Include Time for Leaders to Speak to Each Other
Ideas don’t need to come only from experts or outside experienced leaders. It’s important for your leaders to speak to each other candidly.
The senior executives at your company are competent, driven people. And they can help each other solve problems. But they often don’t have the time to connect and talk about the difficulties they’re facing.
Your senior executive training schedule can solve that problem. Ask your managers to give presentations for some of the trainings. Encourage Q&A sessions. You’ll be amazed—as will your senior management—at how much time they spend dealing with the same problems.
When your executives are working together to fix the issues that they’re all dealing with, they’ll come up with effective solutions that they can immediately put into practice.
(It’s also a good idea to institute a leader mentorship program for this same reason.)
6. Include Middle Management in the Executive Training Process
This isn’t a tip you’ll usually find when you’re reading about senior executive training. But hear me out.
It’s widely agreed that the best way to cement learning is by teaching the material to others. If your senior management can teach the lessons that they’ve learned to your middle managers, you get double the benefits.
Senior management will see improved retention. And middle management gets exposure to innovative ideas. (86% of learners find working in collaboration with colleagues useful.)
Having members of senior management run training for middle managers also helps prepare your future senior leaders. In many cases, managers rise through the ranks of your company to become executives.
By planting important ideas early, you’ll get better performance out of your managers once they’ve advanced to higher ranks.
7. Get Feedback from Executives
In the Training magazine survey mentioned earlier, almost a third of companies sought outside help to determine which trainings they should offer to executives.
There’s nothing wrong with getting an outside opinion. But it’s crucial to talk to senior management about the type of trainings that they need. And to get feedback on improving the effectiveness of the trainings.
This goes beyond just establishing training needs. It extends to the format of the trainings, the follow-up activities, speakers that you bring in, and anything else involved in the training process.
Every company and executive leadership team are unique. Adapting your training program to the specific needs and preferences of your team will ensure that you get the most out of your training budget.
(Just remember not to lose sight of your training goals!)
Executive Training: A Big Investment with Big Returns
As you can see, effective executive training has many components. And because your corporate culture needs to support your training goals, you could have a great deal of work ahead of you even before you start your training program.
But senior management and your executive team are the driving force behind your company’s growth trajectory. Which means effective training can have a significant effect on your company.
These seven senior executive training tips will help you get the most out of your investment. Contrary to what I write in most of my articles about training, it’s a good idea to incorporate all of these steps from the beginning.
Because the stakes are so high, you need to do everything you can to make sure that your executive training works from the start.