How Executives Learn, and the Skills Needed to Succeed

By Michael Pich Mar 4, 2015
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We often see becoming a CEO as hitting the pinnacle of business success. To reach this “ultimate goal,” many executives are searching for ways to build a clear path to the C-suite and then ensure that their performance continues to improve once they reach management’s upper echelons.

Executive education programs are a popular approach to achieve these goals. As a result, HR and management teams are placing many potential and existing leaders into senior development programs. Additionally, a growing number of executives are taking the initiative to pursue these developmental courses on their own.

The fundamental reason for this trend is fairly simple: Employers recognize that executives need to develop new skills and tools or, at the very least, hone their existing skill sets. Most leadership candidates typically are at the top of their field or specialty, such as marketing, finance or law, and tend to be very confident in their abilities. However, once candidates are slated to move into senior executive positions with general management responsibilities, questions about their ability and readiness to lead across departments and units can arise.

The importance of providing training and development opportunities that bring executives up to speed, therefore, should be unquestioned. However, employers must also understand that executives, who have achieved considerable success and progressed in their careers, learn very differently when compared to other students who don’t have the same level of professional achievement.

The attitudes and mindsets of executives set them apart, which means educators and trainers should avoid the tendency to stick with what might work for other students. When transitioning into general management roles, executives need to unlearn what they know, and what may be holding them back, before they can move on to learn new things.

Intuitive decision-making typically is based on experiences, but if these experiences are outdated in today’s fast-paced and interconnected business world, then new skills and newer experiences are needed. This begs the question of how do executives learn and, more importantly, how do we teach them new things?

By interacting with executives from various successful multinational corporations, the faculty at international business school INSEAD has gained insights and developed an approach that responds to executives’ learning processes. In particular, INSEAD has established that a cycle of four primary activities can improve key managerial skills—particularly soft skills—and how business leaders can learn them.

Ultimately, this process teaches executives how to exercise strong business judgment in all situations, because there is no set of correct, predetermined answers they can rely on.

The four primary activities are:

  1. Practice What’s Right, Not Just What You Know

    The best way to achieve meaningful practice is to put executives in an environment where they are forced to exercise their judgment—as they would in real life. However, in a learning context, that environment is slightly less complex than real life so that executives have time to explore and reflect on why they made specific decisions. This can be best achieved in a setting that engages executives through simulations, case studies and group discussions.

    With group discussions, the focus should be on gaining insights from the many different characters, cultures and backgrounds of the course participants. Free of emotional and work pressures, executives engaging in these types of practice sessions are given time to unlearn bad habits that years of professional demands may have led them to develop.

  2. Feedback Is in the Eye of the Beholder

    After practicing skills, executives need immediate and honest feedback. Simulations, activities and courses allow executives a rare opportunity to receive the kind of true feedback on their performance that they rarely get on the job. Every once in a while, they may get honest feedback from their board of directors, but this does not happen on an ongoing basis. Often, the only time executives receive feedback is in their annual evaluation, which can be an emotionally charged environment where most executives are hoping to be promoted or receive a bonus. Therefore, feedback offered in an evaluation setting is often not properly heard or absorbed.

    Yet, how executives receive, understand and react to feedback is very important, as it directly affects how they evaluate and provide feedback to others. In a learning environment, executives receive immediate feedback on performance from peers, program faculty, coaches and observers, and this feedback is not evaluated or filtered. The exercise can help participants realize that feedback itself is not what they thought it was, and therefore can alter their approach in offering feedback to others.

  3. Reflection from Within

    Reflection is the analysis and understanding of why a business decision was made, rather than simply looking to see if something did or did not work. Essentially, business leaders rarely have time for reflection in the real world, but taking them through a reflective process in an executive education program teaches them how to respond to feedback in a personal way. Through this process, executives may begin to ask “Why did I make that decision?” and “Why am I responding to the feedback this way?”

    While reflection is a personal exercise, leadership is too—management styles stem from executives’ understanding of themselves and others. The busy lives of senior executives don’t allow much time for reflection, which means few senior-level managers have the luxury to reflect on their business decisions or judgments—or even think about the feedback received.

  4. Coaching for Change

    Finally, coaching is a necessary component of learning a skill. Coaching is a defining element of executive education because it helps participants understand how they can teach others to engage with and improve themselves and how to proceed down the path that executives must take. Unlike mentoring, coaching is the skill of asking the right questions to ensure that one has clarity in seeking the right answers. This allows executives to understand if they are taking full advantage of feedback and any revelations that came from reflecting on their business decisions. The idea of an external person helping executives to engage with themselves may seem counterintuitive, but a coach—whether a professional coach or a peer—can help business leaders become better coaches.

Michael Pich is the Dean of Executive Education at international business school INSEAD. Based in Singapore, Pich works at INSEAD’s campuses in Asia, Europe and the Middle East to oversee the school’s worldwide executive education program.

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