Are Exec Ed Programs Worth it?

These expensive courses require a chunk of time away from home and office so some people never even consider them.  Others hear the siren song, lured by visions of Ivy League campuses, exposure to known thought drivers, subject matter immersion without distraction, and an opportunity to prove they have what it takes in an elite environment.

Earlier this year my friend/colleague Bob Gerberg, CEO of Advanced Career Technologies,* participated in Harvard’s week long, Leading Professional Service Firms executive education program.  I thought it was the perfect opportunity to learn more and interviewed him for this article.

First, why Harvard?  Many years ago, Bob had worked for Bausch and Lomb in Boston so the Harvard Business School has been on his radar for a long time – he reads HBR regularly and is on the school’s mailing list. Being in the career services field, he is also acutely aware of how important it is to keep one’s ideas and skills fresh.  Not only is Harvard known for its superior executive education, but attending a HBS course would give him the opportunity to visit Boston and see some old friends.

Going into it, he had high expectations around content given the Harvard brand, and his goal was to walk away with 2- 3 significant ideas he could put into action in his own business.

As he put it “the substance was there and then some”.  The copious reading, case studies, team activities and classroom hours illustrated a new way of thinking and defined the fundamental issues to which all service businesses need to pay attention.  Bob definitely got the ideas he wanted.  For example, recruiting is one of the four fundamentals of a services business and successful services companies have their most senior people involved in recruiting.  Prior to the course, Bob let his internal recruiters and recruiting managers make decisions on hiring in the field. Now he and members of his executive team have the final interview, which has raised the bar and enhanced selectivity. This change has “forced internal recruiters to think much better almost overnight.”

The value of the content was amplified by the interaction with his fellow students and professors.  His 6 day course was attended by130 students from 40 countries.  Professors facilitated very intense, ping pong type discussions that expanded the thinking without making anyone right or wrong.  Bob described the professors’ people skills as “unbelievable” which had surprised him.  He expected brilliant researchers who were subject matter experts, but they were also gracious and funny, skilled at driving discussions and debate while ensuring no one was embarrassed. 

So given his enthusiasm, you’re probably thinking Bob has a big HBS tattoo somewhere.  And while he might, he did stress that in choosing a course the most important thing to consider is alignment with your specific need – not length, location or institution.

He definitely had a valuable experience, but was it worth it?  Without hesitation, he assured me “I’m already thinking about the next course I’ll take.”

 *ACT combine’s technology with personal services to help professionals and executives find the right new job…in the U.S. or worldwide.


When Did We Become Such Narcissists?

The net and associated communication tools have affected us in obvious ways, as well as less obvious ones.  On the later list, would be our sense of appropriate response time.  In the olden days, i.e. when I first started working, we used DHL to courier instructions to our Hong Kong supplier.  It “only” took 3 days.  Then the fax came along and felt like a miracle; we would hear back within 24 hours.Now, people send an email, go make a cup of tea and are miffed if they haven’t had a response by the time they return.Okay, so maybe not all of you have become so ingrained with e-instant gratification, but I do see a lot of self-flagellation when job seekers, salespeople and networkers don’t get a quick response when they reach out.   It’s amazing what we make up to fill the void:

  • I guess they found someone better.
  • They must’ve heard (fill in your Dark Secret) about me.
  • Even though they asked for the proposal, maybe they didn’t mean it.

Usually a less than immediate response is more about them than you! We’re really busy people – thanks in part to net-related  info overload, expectations of immediate communication, and compressed timelines.  We’re also juggling more travel, elder care, child care, etc.  A lack of (instant) response is more likely due to:

  • Being laid low by the flu.
  • Needing input from several people in different time zones.
  • Moving cautiously in a trembling economy before committing.

So next time you find yourself going down the dark alley of self blame and parking there*, remember it isn’t all about you.  Consider,  “what could be going on for them?”

*A favorite metaphor, courtesy of my dear friend Anita.


Expanding Leadership Perceptions

by taking liberties with cluster analysis

We’ve all heard “what got you here won’t get you there”, yet we still tend to lean heavily on our trusted strengths and strategies when stretching for something new.  Sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t because what we’re aspiring to requires a different skill set. 
Consider a fantastic individual contributor who’s valued for his attention to detail.  That may be important in the current position, but is it a priority for the next?  That more advanced role probably relies on different skills such as conveying vision, meeting budgets and/or managing conflict.  Not only does the employee need to know what the decision-makers will be looking for, he also needs to know how he is perceived relative to those skill/experience requirements.  When trying to launch a transition, evolve your leadership or develop an employee, these two questions are good starting points: 

1. What are the critical skills, abilities and qualities required?
2. How am I perceived relative to those crucial factors?

To help clients prepare and position for their next role, I created a tool that (very) loosely links the above idea with cluster analysis.  This statistical technique groups similar data points into discrete categories to aid in analysis.  Don’t let the thought of stats stop you; this tool is elegant in its simplicity.   Imagine what you do and say as a stream of data points flowing into your environment and available for assessment by your boss, colleagues and customers.  Over time, these people will frequently experience related data items and this group of similar impressions forms a cluster.  For example, every time you close a deal or hit a revenue goal, you’re adding another ping of data to your “meets targets” cluster.  As this cluster develops significant mass, this trait becomes one of the things you are known for.  Clusters can represent both desirable and undesirable traits.  The collection of all your clusters presents a composite of your current leadership style. 
Cluster analysis is not a perfect metaphor and I apologize to those of you that find this confusing (or possibly offensive).  Several clients, however, have thought it useful for highlighting areas of focus and tracking progress, so I’m passing it along.  Here’s how you create your Leadership Cluster Analysis:

1.  Identify Current Clusters Jot down the various categories for which you are known.  In other words, what opinions are others forming by the repetition of what you do and say?  Here’s a simplified example:

cluster 2


2.  Incorporate New Clusters As you anticipate your desired career path, what skills, abilities and personal qualities will be advantageous?  Consider things you already do well that will carry forward as well as new, mandatory requirements for your next position.  Demonstrating strength in the core competencies of your current position casts a positive glow, which makes it easier to be noticed, but also only confirms that this role is a good fit.  It doesn’t mean you will be perceived as ready for the next step.
To be considered a viable candidate, others will need to see how you fit with the requirements of that next position.  How do you know what these are?  Read the job description, speak with the hiring manager, observe the traits of successful people in that role, and mine your own performance reviews for clues.  Now, add these to your Leadership Cluster Analysis:

cluster 3
3.  Shift Perceptions Through Focused Activities Now the fun starts as you define the desired “clusters”, start to populate them with “data” through your actions, and ultimately become associated with these characteristics as well!  (At the same time, look for ways to depopulate undesirable clusters.) This step requires strategizing to create options; it may be useful to have your boss, mentor, coach or experienced colleague help.  
Consider activities that boost your expertise in these areas and make it visible to others.  For example, attend a course/read a book on strategic planning and then present an overview to the team, or volunteer for a companywide initiative that will build new experience and greater visibility.  One client, who had never managed people, volunteered to run the organization’s major philanthropic activity involving the coordination of numerous volunteers.  This success enabled others to see her potential and support her bid for a managerial position.  Sometimes reinforcing a cluster is just a matter of tweaking how you express yourself, using language and tone to change perceptions.
As you move through your day, keep your Leadership Cluster Analysis handy.  Every time you do or say something that provides another data point, mark it down.  To get things really moving, challenge yourself to earn a certain number of data points within a certain timeframe.  You’ll be surprised at how many opportunities there are once you get the hang of it, and your Leadership Cluster Analysis will start to shift:

cluster 4

Recognize that this is not an overnight process, it takes time to catch people’s attention and build trust in the trend they see forming.  This diligence, however, yields another reward; people recognize the courage, commitment and openness required for creating such a shift and those characteristics become valued clusters in your profile as well.

*Originally published January 2009 in Jump In newsletter.  ©Insight Edge, 2009


What I Know

Every Autumn I’m drawn into conversations about change and transition. What might have been “okay” a few months ago now seems stale. I hear:

  • “Work is fine, but I’m itching for something new.”
  • “I want to tackle that next challenge/promotion.”
  • “My kids are back in school; I’m ready for my turn.”
  • “Help! I don’t know what I want next, but I want something different!”

I think years of schooling also have etched this pattern of “buckle down and focus” into our psyches. Personally, I feel pulled to assess my practice and refresh the vision of my business. Even though 4th quarter is quite hectic externally, internally I am aware of deeper currents. Taking time to explore those thoughts and desires provides a soothing balance to the busyness.

What I KnowOne tool that’s proven useful, is starting and maintaining an inventory of “What I Know”. Instead of allowing snippets of ideas to spin distractedly in the periphery, make a habit of anchoring and connecting those needs by capturing them in an evolving list. Start defining and refining the whole range of “what you know” about what you want.

In the beginning, you may have a very short list that seems too vague or overly optimistic. When I was ready to transition out of my marketing career, the only things I “knew” I wanted were: flexibility, autonomy and the opportunity to have my work grow and change as I did. Then I added things like: working with people on a meaningful, sustained level and being recognized for offering a valuable service. Eventually, I had a useful benchmark for decision-making and guidance.

It sounds simple and the good news is – it is! The better news is that this technique really works by creating a meeting place for your ideas and sharpening your attention.

*Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Jump In newsletter.