Perpetual learning: Rethinking the traditional approach to executive education

By Alan J. KaplanAlan_Kaplan

As a Baker Scholar and fresh graduate (with High Distinction) of the MBA program at Harvard Business School, Frank Spencer took the next logical step in his professional development: He applied for admission to Central Piedmont Community College to study construction estimating.

“I could do financial analysis. I knew marketing. I knew operations. But I was going into real estate development and I didn’t know how to read construction plans,” Spencer says.

Chuckling, Spencer adds that his unorthodox educational path left him with the odd distinction of driving the only car in Charlotte, NC, with parking stickers for both Harvard and the local community college. “But it paid huge dividends,” he says.

Within a decade, Spencer became president and CEO of real estate developer Cogdell Spencer Inc. He rapidly increased the firm’s total enterprise value from $10 million to $900 million, its annual revenues from $4 million to $330 million, and its portfolio from 1.4 million square feet to 6 million square feet. That growth helped turn Cogdell Spencer into the largest healthcare design/build company in the U.S.

Throughout that development and his subsequent roles in both the nonprofit world and the finance sector, Spencer has remained “a perpetual learner.” Now the president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an ordained minister (after entering seminary at age 50), Spencer actively lives — and propagates — his belief that business leaders and other professionals need to keep learning constantly, broadly and deeply. He concedes that putting such priority into action is challenging, especially among busy executives. But some smart business practices can make it happen.

Strategic learning goals

Encouraging executives and employees to devote time to personal education is admirable. But in today’s fast-paced and fast-changing work environments, that encouragement is often overrun by daily work demands, so the desired education never happens.

Consequently, Spencer initiated a practice at the Board of Pensions of annually setting four strategic goals for the executives who report directly to him. Three of the goals are business objectives. The fourth is a personal development goal. The practice also applies to all of the Board of Pension’s 185 employees.

“Insisting on actually writing down personal development goals as part of the annual review process has become a critical discipline of the organization,” Spencer says.

According to talent professionals, such formalized education initiatives work best when companies apply standard business practices to them, including proper budgeting of funds and employee time, tracking progress throughout the year, and devising metrics to measure impact.

To be successful, such education initiatives must also include thoughtful, one-on-one planning with each executive (and employee) to determine the educational activity that would best complement the individual’s knowledge base, interests, work challenges and career objectives.

At the Board of Pensions, Spencer urged his chief operating officer to focus her personal development goal on learning more about investment theory. Rather than take a course, she studied the performance of each of the Board’s international money managers, then accompanied the Board’s chief investment officer to London to meet with each manager to discuss investment issues and theories.

“It is a challenge for any busy executive to take five days and go to a different city and not work on their daily job,” Spencer says, “but it makes that executive more valuable, gives them broader insights and makes them a more effective business leader.”

An educational ‘playlist’

For business leaders, continuous education is essential to keeping pace with emerging technologies, changing markets and business opportunities. Claiming time for that education is difficult. But the educational opportunities keep getting broader, richer and even more convenient.

As part of its effort to transform its business model and adopt more agile business processes, MasterCard overhauled its talent development programs. Recognizing the growing interest and opportunities in self-directed professional development, the company began putting less emphasis on offering periodic training programs and instead presented employees with a new and wider range of learning opportunities.

Working through a learning management system, MasterCard introduced executives and employees to massive open online courses (MOOCs), online communities of industry peers, and assorted micro-learning opportunities — such as online videos, webinars and blogs. One function of the system enables employees or subject-matter experts to create “playlists” of online courses, podcasts, articles and other educational materials from myriad sources that individuals can work through to build desired skills.

Field training

However, not every educational opportunity has to stem from new technology. Experts in executive education say experiential training remains one of the most powerful tools in developing business leadership skills. And there are assorted ways to tap into those experiences.

Most executive development programs have drifted away from individual, classroom-style activities to “more cooperative and peer-based activities that leverage discussion, group problem solving and knowledge transfer among executive leaders … [that] provide executives the opportunity to better and more thoroughly develop the skills they need to lead effectively,” says the Human Capital Institute.

CEO or executive peer groups provide similar, real-world, interactive and highly engaging opportunities to learn business leadership skills.

Old-school standards

Finally, certain ways of learning remain timeless and potent.

In an Inc. Magazine article, business management expert Tom Peters insisted business leaders need to regularly set aside time to learn through such simple acts as reading. “Read widely, not only about current events but also subjects that can broaden your horizons, such as history,” Peters says. “I am an avid reader of business books and almost always find an idea or two that I can use in my businesses.”

Alan J. Kaplan is founder and CEO of Kaplan Partners, a Philadelphia-based executive search and talent advisory firm. Contact him at

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