Not so long ago, terms like "executive training" conjured up images of high-flying suits in loosened ties colouring in mind-maps and tossing balls to each other – or retreating into dark rooms to think the unthinkable. But today's corporate brainstorming events bear scant resemblance to the blue-sky thinking of old.
As both commercial companies and public bodies tighten their belts to weather the worsening economic tide, the focus is shifting away from thinking outside the box to making better use of what's in it. This more pragmatic outlook has led to a growing demand for high-quality executive education designed to teach managers concepts such as resilience and sustainability (in the business, as well as environmental, sense), and help them re-imagine an old one: leadership.
"One consequence of the financial crisis will be a redefinition of leadership," argues Dr Lawrence Abeln, executive director of corporate education at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School. "It's going to mean something very different for organisations that experience greater regulation, government ownership, and more suspicion from investors."
Dr Marc Smelik, head of international and corporate relations at Leeds University Business School, agrees: "People are moving away from looking at leadership in good times to leadership in crises."
Judge and Leeds are not alone in devising programmes intended to redefine leadership. Oxford's Saïd Business School is about to launch a course entitled "Reinventing Management", and a certificated diploma in organisational leadership, framed around the current economic climate. London Business School is preparing a suite of two-day executive workouts focusing on management in downturns.
For his part, Dr Smelik is developing a slew of open-access executive courses aimed at small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in collaboration with the University of Liverpool Management School's Northern Leadership Academy. Meanwhile, Leeds's existing clients, including Prudential, are demanding ever more bespoke leadership programmes – one-size-fits-all solutions to complex, sector-specific problems will no longer do.
"You can read about leadership for weeks, acquiring loads of knowledge, but how do you make it work for you?" Dr Smelik asks. What constitutes a good leadership course? According to Jane Turner, associate dean in charge of executive development at Newcastle Business School, and a former leadership specialist for Orange, the key ingredient is "thinking space".
Far from being reluctant to allow managers out of the office, in straitened times it's more vital than ever that organisations give senior staff a chance for reflection away from the hothouse, she says. "We're moving from a quick-fix culture to a realisation that staff need to be released to do proper training and transfer what they learn back to the workplace."
This view is echoed by Dr Sally Watson, Lancaster University Management School's director of executive education, who cites a recent report by the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership, in which UK business schools were criticised for adopting an over-generic approach to leadership training in the past.
In an effort to drag leaders old enough to remember earlier recessions out of a 1980s mindset, she recently hauled eight directors from a single company up to Malham, high in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and forced them to spend two days sharing ideas for improving their organisation's resilience to economic turbulence in a setting devoid of broadband access and mobile reception.
"Some arrived saying, 'I can't believe we're going to be up here doing nothing'," she recalls. "But the course led to immediate outcomes, with every second Monday now devoted to a meeting on scenario-planning, mapping solutions to problems they're facing. We're moving away from futuristic creativity on the one hand and tried-and-tested solutions on the other – you may have been around in the middle Eighties recession, but this isn't the middle Eighties."
One organisation already benefiting from customised leadership training at the coalface is NHS County Durham, a primary care trust formed through the recent merger of five smaller PCTs in the North-East. Directors and assistant directors are working their way through levels one and two "coaching" qualifications at Newcastle Business School. Corporate improvement team leader Karen Jones says the courses focus on producing "authentic leaders" – those willing to "walk the talk" by getting out of their offices and coaching frontline staff to find solutions using their own skills and experience, rather than merely obeying management diktats. They aim to foster self-reliance and leadership at all levels.
While leadership and resilience are flavours of the month, schools are also continuing to promote courses on sustainability. This is despite widespread predictions by some commentators that – along with corporate social responsibility – green practices would be an early casualty of the downturn.
Dr Donna Ladkin, director of a new open-enrolment programme focusing on eco-friendly business at Cranfield School of Management, says: "As a survival strategy in this period, sustainability makes sense. If you use less power to light and heat your offices, you'll save money."
Choosing the executive programme best suited to you was once so simple. On the one hand, there were open-enrolment courses – handy one and two-dayers on broad-ranging topics relevant to almost any organisation, like motivating staff and communications management. On the other, there were customised offerings, which came in all shapes and sizes, and were as numerous as the companies and public bodies demanding them.
But as the executive education market becomes more sophisticated the line between the two is blurring. While the majority of both remain non-accredited and lead to no formal qualifications, today's open-access courses are as likely to be tailored to the requirements of specific clients as customised ones.
"I've seen trends towards accessibility, flexibility, and personalisation – and we're building all three into our open courses," explains JoEllyn Prouty-McLaren, director of open-enrolment programmes at London Business School, the UK's top-ranked executive education provider in the Financial Times rankings. London Business School runs 30 open programmes and numerous "officially" customised options, training 8,000 individuals a year from clients as varied as De Beers and the Thai Government. Its increasingly personalised two-day open courses – with titles such as Pricing for Profit and Unlocking Your Client's Strategy – start at £2,950 a person, while five-day leadership options cost around £6,000. It also runs four-week sharpeners for senior executives priced at up to £24,000.
At the Roffey Park Institute, open courses are also being "customised". Head of open enrolment Gary Miles explains: "Open programmes used to be generic, but now we tailor them to the customer, and their design can change while they're here."
Candidates on Roffey's new open course in Personal Effectiveness and Power – already attracting clients ranging from BP to Cancer Research UK – split into small working groups for problem-solving sessions focusing on their individual needs. It also offers a personalised after-sales service – in the form of one-to-one telephone coaching. Fees range from £1,800 for two-day workshops to £5,800 for four days.
A model of this rethinking of open-enrolment courses is Hull University Business School, which focuses on logistics, leadership, and "lean management" – the waste-eliminating approach to running large organisations patented by Toyota. While continuing to run bespoke programmes – including one designed to help an NHS trust minimise the risks of MRSA infection – for £995 it offers a range of three-day "open" options likely to seem highly specialised to the uninitiated. These include master-classes in warehouse management and warehouse design.
As executive education becomes more customised – in substance, if not name – so, too, is it increasingly being internationalised to meet the needs of overseas clients.
"Ten years ago, people from around the world would come to us, but we're seeing that far less today," says Dr David Butcher, director of executive education at Cranfield School of Management. "People want open-enrolment programmes, in particular, on their doorsteps: they don't want to travel, for reasons of time and cost, and because there's a growing awareness about environmental damage caused by flying. Our overseas clients also want programmes specific to their regions' cultures."
With 60 customised and 40 open-enrolment courses, Cranfield boasts one of the biggest executive portfolios of any business school. But with prices ranging from £2,000 for two-day workshops to £15,000 for three-week courses, they come at a premium – and costs for longer ones more than double where overseas candidates are expected to fund the three return flights needed to complete them at Oxford.
Dr Butcher, whose foreign clients include Shell in Asia, sees no better illustration of Cranfield's "regionalisation" than in its leadership training.
"Some would say leadership is leadership, but our programmes recognise it needs to be adapted to different regions," he explains. "In Asia, there are different views of the world to those in America and Europe. There's more emphasis on collective decision-making, but also greater deference to organisational structure."
At Judge Business School, whose major growth market is among Middle Eastern and Asian governments, overseas enrollers now outnumber Britons – and this is also the case at London, where four-fifths of attendees are international applicants.
Gay Haskins, dean of executive education at Saïd Business School, sees this trend towards internationalism in both content and location of courses as being driven by a shift in the balance of power in the global economy.
"Increasingly, there's less reliance on an American economic model, so we're looking to China and the Middle East," she says. "Delivering courses there means we need to adapt to their cultures. Even within Europe there are differences between, say, how the Italians and British do business. When we launch our new programme next month with the Abu Dhabi Civil Service, we'll focus both on this kind of cultural difference and on the basic requirements of running courses there, such as having Halal food and prayer-time."
'The programme inspired me'
Steve Robertson is no novice in the art of leadership. Despite leaving school straight after his O-levels, he's risen through the ranks of several financial institutions, and at just 46 is now head of market services at Lloyd's of London. He says his extensive managerial experience has taught him that the essence of effective leadership is an ability to build relationships based on mutual respect between staff at all levels in an organisation. It was this that attracted him to the Roffey Park Institute's open-enrolment Strategic Leadership programme.
"It was great. I was working in a syndicate with senior managers from completely different organisations, including a nursing sister and someone whose company made road-sweeping machines," he recalls. "The course lasted a week, and at the end we were each given personal action plans. It inspired me to study further, and I've since done a postgraduate diploma in management studies and an MBA."
'It's about demystifying head office'
Stephen Porter, 58, the chief executive of Manchester-based Great Places Housing Trust, might grit his teeth next week as his PA swaps roles with the housing officer overseeing the trust's work in Blackpool. He can, however, see the value in it.
The initiative, called Trading Places, came out of an executive education course taken first by Porter and other senior managers. It is now being rolled out to the rest of the staff supervising Porter's 600-strong workforce. Colleagues at all levels job-swap for a month "to demystify head office", as he puts it.
The course, Leading from the Middle, was developed by Lancaster University Management School. Small groups brainstorm solutions to feasible scenarios – a Manchester congestion charge, for instance.
Porter says the course is already improving working culture.
'The course gets managers together'
Claudine Lewis is experiencing first-hand the benefits of a more internationalised approach to executive education offers for multinational businesses. As global head of management training at Kuehne+Nagel – which develops supply chain solutions for everything from major electronics manufacturers to aid agencies – she oversees 54,000 employees, spread over 100 countries.
This job has become significantly easier since the launch of a bespoke managerial programme through Cranfield School of Management. The nine-day course comprises two modules, covering strategic development and leadership.
"These managers operate in different countries and cultures, but this gets them together in one room," explains Claudine, 41, who attends the programmes herself, and has so far commissioned four – each delivered in a distinct region, including America and Asia. "For me, this was a great way to understand what managers in other countries go through, and it gave me snapshots of their individual capabilities."