In my experience as a business consultant, I’ve seen countless organizations rely on executive education to deliver their learning and development initiatives. Here’s why that strategy can be frustratingly ineffective:

  • It’s expensive. Because it’s expensive, typically only senior leaders get to attend.
  • Information overload is the norm. Programs are delivered in multi-day sessions and information is “fire-hosed” at participants in order to justify the high cost of, and limited time in, the program.
  • There’s little or no practice built into the sessions. Even when there is some skill practice, it tends to use fabricated “role playing” rather than real work situations.
  • There’s no ongoing coaching. Programs lack the follow-on support needed to ensure they deliver the desired new behaviors/habits.
  • Little to no accountability. Since the most senior leaders often mandate, but don’t participate in, the training, they don’t walk their talk and accountability is hit or miss. There are rarely mechanisms in place to hold people accountable to create value from their training experience back at work.
  • There is little, if any, impact data that demonstrates actual behavior change at work. Smile sheets – end of program evaluations – are often considered sufficient measurement. If people “say” they like and value their experience, then the program is considered a success. This runs counter to research showing that people make more change when they are disturbed, upset, and even critical of an educator than when they “like” the session.

Organizations are wasting time and money on ineffective programs—they pay lip service to the idea of creating a learning culture, but accomplish little more than feeling good about providing people with educational opportunities. Furthermore, without reliable data on the impact of a training program, there is no clear indicator of the ROI from these investments.

In my work as a consultant, I push organizations to think beyond one-off executive education programs and strive to provide learning and development opportunities that become integrated into the culture. This happens most effectively when individual leaders decide to bring learning directly into their teams on a regular and consistent basis.

These leaders understand that learning is not an event—development experts recommend that only 10% of learning happens in a formal classroom setting, with 20% coming from peer to peer interactions, and up to 70% through hands on experience.

To be fair, many leaders want to provide learning and development opportunities to their teams, but have to push past uncooperative HR or Talent Development departments. They have to fight against a bureaucratic system for budget, authority, and time to run learning initiatives with their teams.

Mark is just such a leader, running one of the product divisions of a globally recognized retail brand. His team of high-performing managers was eager to stretch and grow their leadership, their ability to collaborate more effectively, and their ability to prioritize so that they worked on only the most important projects.

As is typical these days, the team felt overwhelmed and under-resourced with little time to devote to their own learning and development.

Additionally, although Mark has a wonderful HR Business Partner and the company has a dedicated HR/Talent function, they were overwhelmed with support requests and under-resourced to deliver.

When Mark expressed his frustrations to me, I recommended the conversation, action, insight methodology that is embedded in the Actionable Conversations platform. To truly create a learning culture in Mark’s team, while recognizing the limited resources available, we customized a series of one-hour, monthly learning conversations focused on topics that addressed his team’s current challenges. By taking learning out of the classroom or training event, and embedding it firmly as a regular routine of Mark’s team, we created the conditions for the team to apply what they were learning directly to their work everyday.

A number of features were embedded into the process to help overcome the challenges that are typical of executive education, and to ensure that our efforts had a significant and measurable impact on his team’s performance.

  • Mark leads the learning conversations, not me. Not only is this great for Mark’s own development, but it dramatically raises the level of accountability that team members have to deliver results from these sessions.
  • At the end of each monthly conversation every team member, including Mark, shares a small behavior change – something they believe will make them more effective – and they commit to do it every day for the next 30 days.
  • Each person rates themselves on their success with these commitments on a regular basis throughout the month. All of that data is captured and later used to demonstrate tangible impact.
  • Each team member selects a learning buddy on the team. They periodically check in with each other to see how they’re doing with their commitments. This peer accountability adds even more motivation to deliver on their behavior change.
  • The success of the program isn’t measured by anonymous surveys or smile sheets, but rather through real-time data collection on the tangible, visible behavior changes that directly impact the business.

By the third monthly conversation in Mark’s team, members began to comment on the ways that their individual small behavior changes were helping improve overall team performance. I could see light bulbs going off in their heads and knew that they had begun to create an effective and sustainable learning culture within their team.

While most leaders simply wait for HR to give them a learning program, Mark did what proactive leaders can be doing right now—he created his own. By working to create a learning culture within his own team, Mark was able to transcend the challenges of executive education, and improve team performance. Furthermore, he is able to share the data and insights that are collected throughout the process and make a strong case for shifting the organization’s learning strategy away from typical executive education tactics, towards programs that are integrated into the context of individual teams, resulting in better outcomes for the organization as a whole.

A final piece of advice: stop thinking of learning as something that happens once or twice a year. Instead, build learning routines directly into the way your team operates. You don’t need to wait for a big event, or for budget approval—you can simply focus on having better conversations that move your team toward their goals. The results can add up quickly.