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Executive education is a powerful tool for leaders

Executive education - EJ Packe
Packe stresses the need for executive education to be timely.

Management roles evolve as turnover and headcount grow. The challenges are constantly changing, so business leaders have to keep learning. Working with peers and the management team is important, but executive education also plays a crucial role.

When you’re busy running a company, it’s difficult to take time out to study. Yet the benefits can be huge. We spoke to several entrepreneurs about how they approached executive education and the steps they took to make sure they got the most value from time out of the office.

Fit executive education around your work schedule

Entrepreneurs can take short courses when they have specific learning requirements. This helps fit studying around work and ensure leaders get the most value out of a course.

The Supper Club managing director EJ Packe has taken a number of three to five-day training programmes. She stresses the need for executive education to be timely.

“When you’re running a small business as the MD, CEO or founder, executive education is seen as a bit of luxury. In some cases, it’s a nice to have rather than a need to have.

“If you spend three days out of the business, whether it’s to learn about selling, marketing or something else, you have to balance the ROI. You always need to ask yourself; ‘is this a valuable use of my time?’”

Specialised courses can help with future development

Crowdcube was at the avant-garde of equity crowdfunding. This meant working closely with what is now called the Financial Conduct Authority. Yet co-founders Luke Lang and Darren Westlake didn’t have financial backgrounds.

Executive education - Darren Westlake and Luke Lang
Lang mixed class-based learning with listening to industry speakers.

“When we became regulated, we wanted to beef up our understanding. To know what’s demanded of us. We’ve done courses on financial services and promotions. It was very much an immersion into that side of the business,” said Lang.

This included a specialised, classroom-based course that covered the facts and figures and history of financial regulation, with exams at the end. This didn’t have immediate business implications but provided the intellectual grounding needed to develop the business.

Courses for the leaders of growth-stage companies often include an element of peer learning. Crowdcube’s executive team has taken part in London Stock Exchange Group’s (LSE) capital raising programme, which aims to help businesses access funding and prepare to scale.

“That was a mixture of class-based learning and meeting lots of speakers from the industry,” explained Lang.

It helped that the businesses were at a similar stage of growth and created an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, academics and advisers. In both cases, the courses fitted the stage in the company’s development.

Use executive education to gain perspective

The ultimate test of the value of a course is the extent it’s applicable to your day-to-day role. How will it help improve business performance?

Packe pointed to a planning technique she’s implemented as an example. The Supper Club uses Objective Key Results, which help define and track company goals. A recent course helped her communicate this process.

“We spent a half day going through the strategy on a page tool with a consultant. It broke our year-long strategy into quarters. I brought that tool back into the business and it’s been really powerful,” she said.

Taking time out of the business helps business leaders gain perspective too. It’s not necessarily about the theory of what you’re studying, but the process of analysing business performance.

Packe has a background in sales, creating a strong focus in this area of the business. Taking a marketing course allowed her to step out of the business and “see the wood for the trees” – they had been missing an opportunity to develop this function.

Crowdcube’s Lang said the LSE course’s section on unit economics led them to rethink how they built the business.

“You need to be able to break down your product or service and understand what it costs to deliver. We were wrestling with the challenge of how we scale Crowdcube. It helped kickstart a review of our processes in an effort to optimise what we do,” he added.

It’s crucial to understand your preferred learning style

The type of course you choose often depends on your learning style. Some executives prefer classroom-based learning, while others fare better working with peers. It’s important to know what works for you.

The business leaders we spoke to were sceptical about the value of longer, more formal courses like MBAs. “There’s nothing like the real-life experiences of entrepreneurs doing it,” said The Supper Club’s Packe. “The world moves so fast the theory can’t keep up.”

Crowdcube allocates education budget for each of their 70 staff – including the management team – with the option to make a business case for more funding. Lang said that the impact of longer courses he’s taken in previous job roles was minimal, although he added a colleague was getting a lot of value from their MBA.

“Almost all of the MBA is relevant for Crowdcube,” explained head of equity investment Michael Wilkinson, who is taking the course. “It’s designed to be directly applicable back into businesses and it’s revolutionised my thinking, challenged my accepting nature and enabled me to better understand and tackle business problems.”

Wilkinson added that course content on everything from AI and machine learning to strategic operations has helped. An assignment tackling operational inefficiencies has been bedded into processes too and will be the foundation of what Crowdcube works on in 2019.

The time commitment was four days every six weeks to attend face-to-face lectures, and about two additional study days every two months to complete assignments out of work time. Wilkinson also works on assignments two full weekends every month.

Learn how the whole business works – not just your area

The management team of Suresite, a retail services provider, take part in the Chartered Management Institute’s (CMI) qualifications, with managers aiming to achieve level five and directors level seven.

“In CMI seven, there’s a lot of strategic planning,” said sales and marketing director Keith Bevan.

“As a new director, it opened up my eyes to how the whole business worked rather than just sales and marketing. It makes you start to think about strategy and the next three to five years, rather than just looking at the next project – it makes you take a huge step back.”

Overall, it took five to six hours of studying over seven months to complete. Bevan recommends the course, highlighting how difficult it can be to find content aimed at director-level employees.

Keep experimenting with learning techniques

It’s important to never stop learning and to make sure you’re ready for the next stage of the company’s growth.

Business leaders have the opportunity to learn internally through their management team, non-executive directors and investors. Industry peers and mentors provide perspective and subject-specific insight. Executive education makes up a useful part of this education too, particularly if it’s used to address timely challenges the business faces.

The most powerful approach to growing as a business leader is to use a blend of these techniques. Understand what problems you need to solve, where you have gaps in experience and work out the best learning solution to solve the problem.

“I don’t think you should just have one,” said Packe. “Even if you’ve built and sold businesses, you can learn more. Looking at all the different ways you can learn and coming up with a blend is the best way to go.”

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