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5 Mistakes to Avoid in Choosing Executive Education

Multiple studies have shown that despite all the effort invested into designing executive education, nearly 50% of participants think there could have been a better use of their time. A suboptimal choice of courses is one of the main reasons of that disappointment. We have put together a list of the most common mistakes participants make when selecting executive education.

Alex Dolinskiy
August 16, 2017

The way we shop for executive education programs is very similar to the way we shop for travel: we purchase something we cannot touch or feel in advance and we use all kinds of indicators to get an impression of what awaits us not even to choose the best but just not to get burned. In a nutshell, we try to avoid making a big mistake resulting in a waste of money and time. This way we save ourselves from a potentially huge disappointment. However, the most popular strategies of carefully avoiding mistakes end up leading us to make new ones. We learned about the following mistakes from our clients that include business owners and CEOs, CLOs of large and midsize companies as well as individual executives and executive coaches.

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1. Taking the same program your colleague or boss did

“A friend of mine came back from a great program at HBS/INSEAD/Columbia Business School and said it was amazing. I should take it too! What’s wrong with that?” A lot of things are wrong with that. First, how reliable that reference really is? Executive education is a costly enterprise and oftentimes it is hard for people to admit even to themselves that there could have been a better way to spend their time time and money. Second, did your friend have a chance to compare it with all the possible alternatives out there? Because if they didn’t, how would they know it was the best? When we choose a car, we don’t doubt that BMW makes great vehicles. The real question is whether this specific one is better than a similar one built by Mercedes Benz or Lexus. Why think differently about executive education? This digital marketing course at Columbia is definitely great. The real question we need to ask ourselves if it’s better than this digital marketing class at Wharton or dozens of other digital marketing classes all over the world. Finally and most importantly, your colleague or friend is not you, so chances are they have different learning needs. Even if something works for them, it does not have to work for somebody else.

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2. Shopping by brand

Brands are great. They are a foolproof guarantee of quality, and that’s why we love them. There is simply no way Harvard Business School or Stanford Graduate School of Business could offer anything less than perfect. Yet brands can be misleading. We often think that top schools offer the best possible course quality on every topic. However, the truth is that nobody can offer everything. Choosing from top 2, top 5, even top 10 schools inevitably limits selection. Given the vast selection of top level executive education courses offered at various leading schools globally, why impose limitations? It would be a sure way to miss the “hidden gems” - unique courses that offer a deep dive into industry- or region- specific topics, such as Supply Chain Leadership, and Global Oil and Gas Accounting courses.

Moreover, nobody can be the best in everything. FC Barcelona may be the world’s best football team, but it does not mean that every Barcelona player is the best in the world in his position at any given moment. Same logic applies to business schools and other executive education providers. Sure, every executive education course at INSEAD or IMD is great. Some of them can be world’s best. However, it does not mean that a similar class ot Columbia or Berkeley is in any way inferior. Chances are, if you are searching for something more generic, than a Digital Innovation In The Travel Industry class at IE in Spain, there is more than one program for you out there. Limiting yourself to a small number of brands increases your chances of paying more, traveling farther or waiting for your course longer than you would prefer.

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3. Choosing the most (or the least) expensive program

Program pricing rarely is directly connected to program quality. Rather, it is connected to a school’s overall pricing policy and, sometimes, this specific program marketing strategy. In most cases, all programs at the same school are priced the same for a day in classroom, For example, if the average class day price at this school is USD 2,000 then a 3-day program would cost 6,000 and a 5-day program would cost 10,000. Although programs at different schools do differ in price, most of them fall somewhere between USD 1,000 and 2,000 per day and the pricing would work for most executive-level classes at any given school from top 50 except for the priciest ones. Minor deviations within a school are still possible, yet they in no way reflect program quality. However, in some cases certain programs cost significantly more than the average school price. For example, the CEO Academy program at Wharton costs USD 20,000 for just two days which can be viewed as a marketing tool aimed at showcasing how exclusive this program really is. Although the program itself may be great, it is definitely not from the price that one should derive this information.

Choosing the least expensive programs just because they are less pricey is an even greater mistake. The most expensive part in executive education is the cost of executives’ time, or, to be precise, the opportunity cost. Giving up executives’ invaluable time is an extremely costly enterprise for their companies and for themselves. Getting anything but the most valuable knowledge and skills in exchange for such investment cannot be the right thing to do. Saving anywhere from several hundred to several thousand on an executive level program may seem like a good cost-cutting strategy but these savings might just as well prove worthless if a participant does not get the value expected from the program.

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4. Going to star professors

Taking an executive-level class because it is taught by a rockstar faculty member is a relatively new thing that becomes increasingly prominent. Clearly, it is nice to be able to get some personal experience with global management gurus. There is a good reason they become rock stars after all: they write bestsellers, teach generations of successful businesspeople and come up with concepts that significantly advance our understanding of management practices. What can possibly be wrong in learning from these outstanding people? Nothing, if your actual goal is learning about that specific concept coined by that rockstar professor directly from them (and being able to boast about it till the end of your life).

However, a superstar name is not sufficient for the classroom experience to reach top level productivity. Smart and innovative class design, learning from other participants, insightful learning materials are all important components of executives’ learning experience. Disregarding all of those just to be in the same room with a business school celebrity is clearly not the most efficient way to spend executives’ time. Moreover, chances are you’ll end up in the same room with people sharing that fan group attitude. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that, but you probably won’t learn much from other participants in case they only came to see their icon.

Having said all of the above, does not mean that one should aim to find classes with the least experienced faculty available. Most certainly not! Just don’t make the mistake of overlooking topic selection, class design, participants’ profiles etc. when making that decision.

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5. Not thinking about specific business/personal development goals

One of the most common mistakes is not listing down what exact development goal one tries to achieve. Executive education is really exciting: getting away from your workplace, meeting new outstanding people, learning and discussing new things. All of this can take attention away from the actual development goals immediately after the program but when the time passes participants may realize that they actually took part in an edutainment experience rather than an executive development program. On the contrary, if specific development goals are tied to burning needs and are put on top of the agenda, executive programs lead to an entirely new level of executive development quality.

These are not all the mistakes to avoid in choosing executive education but getting past them practically guarantees radically improving executives’ learning experience!

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