From a rocky first start, to a rollicking second one, an innovative leadership program for Atlantic Canada’s top executives is taking a page from its own playbook: Faced with an obstacle, go over it, around it or through it. Never say die.
If persistence and dogged determination are leadership qualities, then the organizers of the University of New Brunswick’s new Executive Education Program are teaching by example even before classes officially commence. In fact, Anthony Klefas, coordinator, pulls no punches when he describes how he and his colleagues attempted to launch their first iteration of the innovative skills course for corporate bosses in Atlantic Canada roughly two years ago: They goofed.
“We thought it had everything anyone would want in a leadership program for high-ranking executives,” he says. “In some respects it did. All the themes, the competencies we set out to teach, were similar to those offered by the very successful program at Queen’s University. Plus, we had the marketing background, the sales support, and we had all the materials.”
But when the boots hit the ground, they managed to sign up only three individuals, each agreeing to pay $15,000 for an intensive seventh-month course that included classroom time, coaching and online instruction. They needed closer to 10. “We even threw in a free iPad, for everyone,” he laughs, to sweeten the deal. “Needless to say, we didn’t proceed, and the question became whether we should scrap the whole thing or start over.”
Today, Klefas and his crew are preparing to unveil their Executive Education Program, ver. 2.0, which should be up and running early in 2015. And, he says, the difference between the new and improved and the old and unworkable is like day and night.
Sitting in his cheerfully cluttered office at the College of Extended Learning, Klefas (who worked in training and development in the airline industry for 14 years before coming to UNB in 2012) explains in a Skype interview that when he and his confederates pushed the reset button, the whole idea was to “hit those executive skills that actually make an individual a better executive” and to ensure that the themes, the competencies, on which the program is now focused have to do with “interpersonal, verbal and listening skills; trustworthiness; operational excellence; professionalism; self-direction; stress tolerance; and client focus.” Then, he says, “we also have initiative, team building, collaboration, a drive to achieve, and, of course, respect for others . . . That’s not all of it, but it’s the core.”
At first glance, these appear to be logical, even obvious, topics to include in any executive management program. After all, Harvard University, for one, has made a lucrative side-line in offering instruction in just such competencies. The question, then, is: Why didn’t any of this occur to UNB when it firstlaunched its educational offer?
The best explanation, quite simply, is that the institution was a newbie in the field of highest-level executive education. Though the College of Extended Learning has been around since the mid-1960s, practical, pedagogical programs for CEOs in this corner of the Canadian Steppe have been as rare as a snowball in July. UNB was no exception to the rule.
As Klefas says, “There were many reasons why the firstround failed. But it basically came down to not knowing what constituted our target audience, which is comprised of the ‘C-level’ individual. That would be the CEOs, CFOs and COOs, and others who aspire to that rank. Without really knowing it, we were appealing to people below that level with some pretty neat stuff, to be sure. But the C-levels weren’t all that interested in themes like cyber security, Web 2.0, social media, and virtual organizations. And those who were, those outside our target group, found the cost too expensive.”
And there was another problem—one that is all too familiar to entrepreneurs and enterprisers on the East Coast. The Executive Education Program had no track record and, therefore, no reputation. Admits Klefas: “That probably was our number one predicament on the ground when it came to recruitment . . . well, that and the fact we were charging what we were for participation, which also included a requirement to attend 15 consecutive days of offsite classes.” That, he laughs, is never a good idea when you’re trying to lure a corporate dragon into your educational den.
Still, convinced their basic idea was good, Klefas and his colleagues authorized a survey of top-flight executives in the Atlantic region and simply asked them what comprised a successful leader’s core competencies. They then began to design a program that aligned smartly with the working constraints and expectations of their target audience: business leaders, executives and directors with a minimum of 10 years’ experience at a senior level in either private or public sectors. That gave them the knowledge and confidence they needed to ground the revised program in face-to-face seminars, online webinars and individualized coaching.
“Basically, we are going to tackle three areas in this program,” Klefas says. “One, of course, is core competency development. We’re going to have expert speakers on that. Then, we’re going to offer individual executive coaching. So, as participants learn, they’ll be coached on the themes or competencies. They’ll be assessed to find out exactly where they excel and where they don’t, and we’ll compare these results to the themes or competencies. We’re going to fi nd out exactly what drives them. If they are not driving properly, we’ll work to get them on the right course.”
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the program will be the business challenge project, in which participants apply what they have learned over seven months of training and coaching to real-world problems in their own organizations. “They will lead process improvements that will affect the bottom lines of their own organizations,” Klefas explains. “These will be real projects. They will be coached on these. They’ll have webinars to help them out. No one else in Canada is doing all of this.”
Being first is always important. But, as Klefas might say, getting it right is one leadership lesson you can’t learn often enough