“Our professors bring in the latest academic research to the program delivery. Based on their deep understanding of the topic, they can facilitate first principles thinking which can lead to profound insights. We don't want our faculty members to become trainers!", remarked the executive education lead in a reputed business school.
“To what extent the professors are able to bring in actionable insights for the practitioners based on academic research is debatable. The professors who have a teaching style that is similar that of trainers often get the best feedback scores from the participants. Deep expertise coupled with an accessible kind of program delivery facilitates skill building and makes the program content easier to understand and implement!”, observed the leadership development lead of a large firm.
“We need the leadership development programs to be customized to our context. We prefer to partner with consulting firms as they do a much better job on customization as compared to business schools. It is not that the business schools don’t do a diagnostic study. It is just that the professors often end up teaching whatever they originally wanted to teach irrespective of the findings from the diagnostic study!”, remarked the Chief Learning Officer of an Indian Business Group.
“Why should we try to customize the leadership development programs? We should partner with the best of the business schools and let them teach what they think is the best. We should even look at open programs as they help our people to get a much better exposure because they provide the opportunity to interact with leaders from other companies. Leadership development programs at the top management level are more about helping our leaders to expand their mental horizons and not about skill building!”, said a senior business leader.
I often hear statement likes these in the context of leadership development. They bring my attention to a question that people who are responsible for leadership development in organizations frequently grapple with - "when it comes to leadership development programs for senior leaders, is it better to partner with reputed business schools or with reputed leadership development consulting firms?" There are many perspectives here – that too along multiple dimensions. Let's look at some of them here.
In general, consulting firms can offer highly customized executive education programs tailored to the specific needs and challenges of an organization. They can develop bespoke content and case studies that directly address the context-specific learning needs. Business schools tend to have less flexibility in customizing their programs to meet the specific needs of an organization.
Incorporating insights from research
Business schools can bring in the most empirically validated research findings. While the consultants do have some understanding of the latest research findings, they are unlikely to have the deep understanding that can come from a systematic literature review or a meta-analysis. One key challenge in incorporating the latest research into executive education programs is that of keeping up with the pace of change in the business world. Some research findings may become outdated relatively quickly, especially in fields that are rapidly evolving. Of course, ensuring that the research is communicated in a way that is accessible and practical for executives is indeed challenging. Business schools must work to translate the research findings into practical insights that executives can apply in their day-to-day work.
Premier business schools typically have a strong foundation in academic research and theory, which can provide a solid base for executive education. They have faculty with deep expertise in various management disciplines. Consulting firms often bring in domain expertise derived from practice. The best results are obtained when the faculty/facilitator can 'stand at the intersection of theory and practice' though it is indeed a tightrope walk (please see 'Treating the Multiple Personality Disorder of HR professionals' for a related discussion).
Consulting firms often have extensive experience working with clients in various industries, which can enable them to provide industry-specific insights and best practices. They also have a better understanding of the paradoxes and dilemmas that senior leaders face in the context of their jobs and this enables the consulting firms to be more helpful in equipping the leaders to cope with these paradoxes and dilemmas (please see 'Problems that refuse to remain solved' for a related discussion). Professors also do some amount of consulting work. Of course, if the professor has written a case study on one of the most reputed companies in the industry that the firm operates in and leverages the same for the program for the participants from the firm, it can be perceived as highly valuable.
Consulting firms generally have a stronger focus on practical application and problem-solving. This can lead to more actionable insights and strategies that the senior leaders can implement in their organizations. Business schools, particularly premier ones, often emphasize theoretical knowledge and research-backed learning. These schools also provide case studies to practice leadership skills. Leadership training firms, alternatively, are often more focused on practical, real-world application, with a heavy emphasis on experiential learning. Consulting firms may also provide better support in facilitating transfer of learning.
Bringing in outside experts/industry leaders
Consultants often can bring in top industry leaders through their contacts. The top academic institutes can also do this to some extent. Senior business leaders tend to value the opportunity to interact with top industry leaders very much.
When the programs are delivered on the business school campus, it often puts the participants in a frame of mind that is more conducive for learning as compared to what happens when the program is organized in a hotel. Many of the participants consider the professors as ‘gurus’ and that might further enhance their openness to learning – especially in those cultures that put the teachers on a pedestal. This works even in the case of participants who are senior business leaders. Facilitators from consulting firms do get the respect they deserve from the participants for their expertise. However, the participants might still look at them more as ‘service providers’ as opposed to ‘gurus’.
Top business schools have a strong reputation and brand value. Hence the participants often attach great value to the program certificate issued by the premier business schools. A certificate from a leadership training firm may not carry the same weight, unless it is a certification based on a proprietary methodology of the consulting firm (e.g., certification on the proprietary Job Evaluation methodology). However, such certifications from consulting firms tend to be less relevant in the case of senior business leaders.
Customized executive education programs at the top business schools can be relatively more expensive. However, based on the teaching methodology used (e.g., case studies) they might be able to support larger batch sizes and thereby bring down the per participant cost. As compared to this, leadership development consulting firms tend to use a more interactive and practice-oriented methodologies that work better with relatively smaller batch sizes. Yes, it is often possible to engage the professors directly (without going through the business school). However, the institute brand/ certification won’t be available in such cases.
Best of both worlds?
There are consulting firms that have close tie-ups with premier business schools. In those cases, the consulting firms do the business development and the diagnostic study, and they bring in the professors at the program design and delivery stage. Here the key success factor is the extent to which the data and insights from the diagnostic study are incorporated by the professors in the program design and delivery. This is often a problem area.
Business schools also have ‘Professors of Practice’ who often have significant industry experience before they moved to academics. Whether they end up bringing in the ‘best of both words’ or the ‘worst of both worlds’ or ‘something in between’ in the context of a particular leadership development program is quite unpredictable!
In lieu of a conclusion
Let’s go back to the question that we started this post with- "when it comes to leadership development programs for senior leaders, is it better to partner with reputed business schools or with reputed consulting firms who focus on leadership development?
As we can see from the discussion above, both the options have their own advantages and disadvantages and hence the answer becomes highly context specific. The best choice depends on the specific goals of the organization and the factors (e.g., from the list above) are relatively more important keeping those goals in mind. This is complicated by the fact that capability building programs (including leadership development programs) serve many purposes - including those that are not directly related to capability building (please see 'The many lives of capability building programs' for the details). Yes, the return on the learning investment is most important. The point is just that this 'return' need not be only in terms of increase in capability and change in on-the-job behavior/the business impact of the change in behavior.
Also, all the premier business schools and all the leadership development consulting firms are not created equal. There are business schools that have a special focus on executive education. They tend to have teams that focus on diagnostic studies and instructional design in addition to the professors who focus on program design and delivery. There are also professors who invest time in doing a detailed diagnostic study. Similarly, there are specialized leadership development consulting firms that conduct primary research in the domain of leadership development. This brings in an additional set of considerations that are entity specific. In addition to the entity-specific aspects, there are also individual-specific aspects. Afterall, program delivery is a 'performance art'. There are also the aspects of the depth of the partnership between the organization and the learning partner and that of the 'chemistry' between the particular individuals involved. Having said this, we can still make a couple of general observations.
If customization is less important as compared to domain expertise, premier business schools often have an advantage over the consultants especially in the case of ‘standalone instructor-led programs'. In the case of highly customized and application-oriented programs, consultants often have an advantage especially in the case of ‘learning journey programs’ (that integrate multiple program components like instructor-led learning, executive coaching and action learning and require extensive program management and transfer of learning support).