High-Powered Ways to Develop High-Potential Executives

High-Powered Ways to Develop High-Potential Executives

Published: May 24, 1999 in Knowledge@Wharton

executives on the fast track used to be groomed through an internal
development process that gave them a deep understanding of the existing
business and culture. With fundamental changes in the business
environment, the executive development path increasingly leads into new
territory far beyond the current experience of the corporation. As the
requirements for successful business leadership have changed, so have
the approaches to developing senior business leaders.

"The global
marketplace is complex," says Jane Hiller Farran, senior director of
corporate programs in Wharton Executive Education, who has helped
develop programs for thousands of high-level executives at corporations
around the world. "The pace of change is dramatic. Companies can’t
always internally marshal the type of development experience they want
to offer."

A New View of Leadership

The qualities
sought in today’s leaders are very different from those needed in the
past. Where the emphasis was once on strengthening traditional
management disciplines such as finance, accounting, marketing and
strategy, the focus today is much more on the personal qualities that
are just as critical to organizational success in an age of rapid

New Demands of Leadership

Among the distinctive qualities companies are seeking in modern leaders are:

  • risk-taking
  • courage
  • ability to make teams work
  • cross-cultural awareness
  • creative thinking
  • tolerance for ambiguity
  • understanding organizational and system dynamics
  • flexibility

executives often fail to see that, in this environment, unconventional
employees can be strong potential leaders even if they don’t fit the
traditional corporate mold. For example, one senior executive had been
branded as an oddball and renegade in the firm. "The company couldn’t
figure out what to do with him," Farran says. "But when the CEO came in
for part of the executive program, he realized that this individual
would be ideal to manage some of the rapidly changing businesses that
require a whole new perspective on the business."

In addition to
honing business skills in finance, marketing, technology, mergers and
acquisitions, operations management, supply chains and other areas,
executive development programs need to go deeper. They need to examine
leadership through three lenses: individual, team and organizational
dynamics. Leaders need a deep understanding of their individual
strengths and weaknesses. They also need to understand how best to
design and work in teams and other groups. Finally, they need a
systemic perspective to understand the dynamics of the entire

Deeply ingrained attitudes toward authority, for
example, have a tremendous impact on how executives behave as leaders
and subordinates. One group came up with great ideas in an executive
program, "but they turned to Jello when they had to press their case
with top executives of the firm," Farran said.

programs also can foster interdisciplinary perspectives – from outside
experts and across divisions in the firm. In the course of one program,
executives at one firm realized that a very large deal, which was
almost lost, could be salvaged through the relationships across
divisions established during the program. "It’s magic what happens when
you get these really bright, capable people together in the same room,"
Farran said. "They recognize competencies, resources and individuals in
the company they didn’t know existed."

High-Velocity Education

education is needed to prepare top executives for the new demands of
leadership? Among the approaches used in programs for senior executives

  • Experiential learning: The most
    significant lessons for high-level executives are not from book
    knowledge but from experience. "They are so used to being successful
    that they rely heavily on their own experience," Farran said. " Faculty
    cannot preach to executives. If you want to teach someone more
    tolerance for risk-taking, you can’t design a program where faculty
    have all the answers. You need to model what you are trying to
    accomplish in the program."
  • Real-Time, Real-World Links: Development
    programs should be focused on addressing real-time issues in the
    organization. Executives also need opportunities to bring the learning
    back to the broader organization.
  • An On-Going Process: Executive
    development is not a discrete event but an on-going process. There
    should be interim meetings and follow-up after a year or 18 months to
    discuss progress and address new challenges.
  • Personal Challenge: Change
    results from challenge, and programs need to shake up the participants.
    One way this is done is by having outside executives present a view of
    dramatic changes in the industry followed by presentations by the
    company’s senior executives on the firm’s current strategies. A gap
    analysis usually reveals serious challenges and key levers for the

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