Why do senior executives participate in professional development?

Occasionally, I am asked why senior executives in the C-suite should participate in professional development. Here are my top 3 reasons.

1. Lifelong curiosity and hunger for new things. As an example, my boss has been a dean at SMU and, before that, at the University of Georgia for over 30 years. On top of earning his PhD in economics and establishing himself as a teacher and scholar, this gives you some idea of how seasoned he is. Recently he developed new courses for undergraduates and MBAs on the history of American Capitalism. Now he is turning that into a certificate program for business leaders and interested citizens. It should not be news that a lifelong educator is constantly learning in order to teach. However, when testing the idea for a certificate program with equally seasoned SMU benefactors, friends, and community leaders, he received unanimous interest and support. That reveals the passion for continued learning and personal development among the most successful people in our area.
2. A good example for employees. Research at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business and the Human Capital Institute identifies Flexibility/Adaptability and Learning Agility as among the most valued competencies for high potentials. If C-suite leaders are modeling behavior that builds these competencies, it motivates those who are on track for such positions to do so, too.
3. Active participation in executive development. The most effective executive development programs now include much more than classroom instruction: mentoring, coaching, executive instruction, business project work, and 360 assessments to support application of new learning and behavior change. They all require top executive participation. Many years ago when I was a first line supervisor in GMAC, the Executive Vice President kicked off the week-long supervisory skills program. He visited the class on the morning of the first day, and he charged us to pay attention for the next five days. That took five minutes. He immediately left to return to his office downtown. Contrast this with a recent executive education client whose CEO attended the opening Monday morning session of a five day program for his high potential leaders. He gave an update on the business, told the participants the three things that kept him awake at night, and promised to return on Friday to hear what they had learned and how it applied to his three business challenges. Which of the two participant groups paid the most attention in their program? Which organization received the largest return on its investment in executive development?

These three reasons demonstrate the importance of executive involvement in the management development experience. Popularized in the 1980’s by Jack Welch and GE’s Crotonville center, activities that focus top executives’ attention on management development are essential to connect them to the business.

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