Making the Most of an Executive Course

Making the Most of an Executive Course

Preparation is key to maximizing the benefits of a business school program

As the new year gets underway, many people will be thinking about their career options and learning needs. Executive courses remain one of the brightest segments of graduate business education, catering to workers around the globe who want to upgrade their skills, network and build professional connections.

For those who are about to embark on an executive course, how can they make the most of the experience? How should they prepare, and what are some of the biggest mistakes that participants make? Once back in the workforce, how to apply the learning on the job?

Cecile Arragon is Executive Director Business Development for Executive Education at HEC Paris, a leading European business school that offers custom and open programs across a wide area of expertise and in several global locations outside France as well as online.

One misstep is that participants may try to keep running their team or company while in the course. Insead, Arragon says they need to organize their team’s work and delegate to others. “Be present and make the most of the time to step back, learn, network, and imagine the future with an open mind,” she says. “Leave your job, computer, and smartphone at the door.”

She says it is also important for participants to organize their personal lives, given that many of them will be at an age when they have families and other dependents to look after. It’s also important to ensure that your team or manager understands that you will be temporarily disconnected from the day-to-day and that you need the time and space to think and reflect on what the learning experience has to offer, says Severine Guilloux, Chief Marketing Officer at INSEAD.

Executive education: a zero-sum game

“If you’re committing to a learning experience, don’t try to juggle the day-to-day demands of work at the same time — it’s a zero-sum game,” she explains. “When you take a course, you’re making a commitment to your longer-term effectiveness and to addressing the things about your work or your role that you want to change.

“This is a unique opportunity to pause, to step back and to rethink your leadership or your strategy. How can you get a truly fresh perspective if you’re simultaneously tied up in the demands of the here and now?” she adds.

Preparation is the key to getting the very most from an executive education course, so if there is prework associated with your course, HEC’s Arragon urges you to do it. This will help you hit the ground running and maximize the time you spend away from work while learning. “If your professors have written books, read them beforehand,” she suggests.

To get the most out of these courses, it is necessary that candidates do a self-assessment when they start the program to identify which skills they have and which ones they can improve, says Marc Cortes, Director of the Master in Digital Business program at ESADE Business School in Barcelona. It is also important to share your expectations.

“Each teacher at the beginning of the specific course indicates which skills the content will focus on, so that each participant can modulate the level of intensity and learning they want to achieve,” he says. For example, the Executive Master in Digital Business is built around developing 10 skills that participants need to lead organizations that are harnessing the power of digital technology -- including innovation, ethics and cybersecurity.

Cortes adds that participants should identify, within their companies, which opportunities or projects could benefit from the knowledge gained on their executive course. “Looking for projects within your own company where you can apply it quickly will give you more confidence,” he says.  

Come with an open mind

Additionally, he urges participants to develop their ability to research and be curious about everything they are going to see in their course. In other words, come with an open mind. “Even if you already know some of the content or think it will not be useful to you, having an open mind will help you get more out of the experience,” Cortes says, adding that it is very important to rely on your classmates, too.

“They all have similar challenges to yours, but probably in different companies. Sharing and learning from them will help you to broaden your vision and see new opportunities,” he explains.

Guilloux, at INSEAD, agrees, and says: “A lot of the learning happens in the interchange of ideas, experiences and perspectives with people who are different from you, so it’s important you are prepared to speak up and share.”

Furthermore, she urges participants to really look at the curriculum and pinpoint those topics that are of specific relevance to them and their organization. “Think about how this course will inform your unique challenges or objectives,” says Guilloux.

It’s also really critical to share the learning back in the workplace. “Aim to bring back new ideas, insights and tools for discussion with your colleagues and management team, and bring them into the learning journey,” she says.


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HEC Paris



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