Why Executive Education is Important Today According to Stanford Faculty | TopMBA.com

Why Executive Education is Important Today According to Stanford Faculty

By Niamh O

Updated October 22, 2020 Updated October 22, 2020

Executive education has long been regarded as a vital way to prepare graduates for c-suite level roles and mastering the challenges of leading global organizations. 

Today, there has been an even greater push to revamp Exec Ed through different initiatives as the business world continues to evolve rapidly – especially in the almost-virtual business space we’re now having to operate in.

Stanford Graduate School of Business launched its Stanford Business Leadership Series in the summer, with the second edition of the series being held this October.


TopMBA spoke with Sarah Soule (senior associate dean for academic affairs) and Ryann Price (director, Stanford Executive Program & Executive Education Marketing) at Stanford to find out why Exec Ed is so important today.

Why we need Exec Ed

Soule and Price both believe Exec Ed is incredibly important today: “Even before the pandemic, we were seeing corporate and organizational leadership increasingly in the spotlight as society looks more and more to business leaders to mitigate, moderate, and correct the impact of leaders in other fields (especially politics).

“But simultaneously business leaders have found themselves under more intense scrutiny from an increasingly activist public than perhaps ever before. Leaders need to be ready for that role and able to meet rising expectations from stakeholders of all flavors.”

Soule and Price believe the pandemic has created a number of new challenges for leaders to confront. And with regards to the prevalence of executive education – anything that can be done to ensure leaders are more effective and empathetic will have positive impact now and in the long term. 

Stanford Business Leadership Series

In the summer, Stanford GSB launched its brand-new Business Leadership Series – which was deemed a resounding success from participants.

They said: “Participants seemed to particularly appreciate the timeliness and thoughtfulness of the content - which is encouraging, as providing some actionable insight into how to tackle specific leadership challenges posed by the pandemic was one of our top priorities in devising the series.

“It was also heartening to hear so many participants talk about how practical the content was - we want participants in all of our programs to be able to use what they’ve learned to make meaningful changes for themselves and their organizations - and the flexibility of the model.”

In keeping with Stanford’s intent to provide both granular, practical tips to help participants learn and grow as leaders and plenty of food for thought on “big picture” issues, Soule and Price hope participants in the SBLS will come away thinking about leadership in new ways and equipped to apply that thinking in practical, impactful ways.

They said: “Hopefully [participants] have a greater clarity of thought and action when it comes to leading through uncertainty and disruption - both in the current crisis and in any future situations they might encounter.”

And with more than 200 registrations for the fall session (almost all of whom are new to SBLS), the new session is set to be an interesting one. 

Redesigning Exec Ed

When the pandemic hit, Stanford GSB said it was obvious that a significant shift was needed, not only in how Exec Ed was delivered through 2020, but also what Exec Ed would consist of.

Soule and Price said: “We knew that in extraordinary times it wouldn’t be enough simply to translate our existing programs online as they were.

“This wasn’t just about providing people with the conventional Exec Ed experience at a distance - the unprecedented circumstances dictated we take a more bespoke approach, creating new content and programs to tackle the new challenges arising as a result of the pandemic and the new lens through which leadership will be understood for the foreseeable future.”

Leading through a global pandemic has of course created challenges for executives – similarly, the upswell of BLM protests became pertinent and needed to be covered in ways it might not usually have been.

But the team didn’t want to exclude what is usually considered core Exec Ed material. They said: “While we want to empower people to be better leaders for right now, we also need to equip them to continue that growth over the long term.”

SBLS was an entirely new program and represents the biggest break from the usual Exec Ed delivery at Stanford. Perhaps the key to its success was that it was modular and flexible.

Some participants wanted a full qualification, others wanted individual topics, while others wanted the accessibility to different delivery models – whether live, recorded, or blended.

They said: “It felt appropriate to make such timely and important content as widely accessible as possible -  which is why we launched SBLS with no application criteria - and to make completion as straightforward as possible when participants would have many competing demands that they might not ordinarily have had, which is why the program didn’t require participants to do any prep or homework.”

The team says accessibility was a watchword for the on-demand online courses – designed explicitly for people who wouldn’t be able to make the financial or time commitment required for long Exec Ed courses. They said: “We put more emphasis here than in the other programs on retaining the social learning element of our conventional in-person and online Exec Ed courses.” 

Moving courses online and on-demand

This year, Stanford launched a number of on-demand online courses. The most popular courses being

“Leverage Diversity and Inclusion for Organizational Excellence” and “Paths to Power”.

They said: “There are definitely some recurring themes in the feedback we’ve received, from the thought-provoking nature of the content to the practical applicability of the learnings.

“It’s been especially encouraging to receive so many messages about how participants are recommending courses to colleagues and HR teams, and about how the courses have inspired them to look into further opportunities in Executive Education.”

Participants on the live online programs benefited from social interaction with a diverse group of coursemates. The interactive nature of the programs included polls, breakout rooms, faculty hours, group projects, virtual coffee chats, and even fitness and well-being exercises, giving participants vital exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives to process and respond to – an essential part of effective leadership.

The future of Exec Ed

At present, it’s hard to say there are any silver linings to the pandemic, but it has allowed Stanford GSB to reach participants who wouldn’t usually be able to take a few weeks off work to travel to California for a traditional face-to-face program.

Soule and Price said: “We expect to keep many of our online offerings post-pandemic so that we can better serve our mission of bringing faculty expertise to organizations throughout the world.

“Of course, we’ll need to decide which programs are best suited for both online learning and the audience, but we are learning so much so rapidly now about these questions.”

This article was originally published in October 2020 .

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Written by

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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