Executive development

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Executive development is the whole of activities aimed at developing the skills and competencies of those that (will) have executive positions in organisations. While "executive" and "manager" and "leader" are often used interchangeably, "executive" is commonly used to signify the top 5% to 10% of the organization. Similarly, "development" and "training" and "education" are often used as synonyms, however "development" is generally seen as the more encompassing of the three in terms of activities that build skills and competencies.

While it is typical to find organizations that have dedicated corporate training & development people and processes, it is not always the case that an organization will have a dedicated executive development set of activities. In some organizations (typically large multi-nationals), there is a separate executive development team, in other organizations executive development is handled as one of many activities by the larger corporate training group, and in yet other scenarios there is no executive development activity to speak of.

In contrast to other corporate training & development activities, which have as their core purpose to build tactical skills for employees, executive development plays a different role for the organization. Indeed, some executive development is conducted for the purpose of building tactical skills (sometimes referred to as "hard skills" such as business fundamentals- finance, marketing, operations and also "soft skills" such as communication and team building), yet executive development is also used to evaluate future potential future executives as well as a mechanism for the CEO and the executive team to cascade their strategies, goals, and even elements of the culture to the rest of the management team and ultimately the organization. In the best of cases, executive development not only helps an organization execute its key strategies, it can also help provide input to the strategy creation process. In this way, executive development is much more strategic than typical corporate training & development which is used for most employees of an organization.

Philosophies and Practices[edit]

There is a wide range of practices in the field of executive development today. On one hand, there are organizations that have for many years, if not decades, had very thorough executive development functions that conduct a wide variety of high profile and highly regarded set of activities (GE's Crotonville is the classic example). On the other end of the spectrum, there are some organizations that have curtailed many of the executive development activities and spending in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008/2009. As one looks across different companies, and against the backdrop of different periods, there exists a wide variety of executive development activity.

Also, the main philosophy of executive development is quite different depending on the organization. For some, the development process has and continues to play a very strategic role in the organization- it is with and through executive development activities that organizational strategies are formed, communicated, and reinforced with senior management. In other organizations, development of executives is seen as an inherently positive activity, which, akin to insurance, is probably better to have than not. In organizations where development has not had an opportunity to prove its value, it may be seen as a waste of time and rarely something that the organization commits its leaders' precious time toward.

Reporting & Structure[edit]

Most often the executive development function reports into the head of Talent Management, the head of HR, or into the Chief Learning Officer (CLO). In rare cases, it reports into an operating executive (i.e. COO). Executive development can be very effective under any reporting structure – what is key is executive level sponsorship and access to senior line leaders who can help ensure development is aligned with and supports the company's strategy.

Most often, the head of executive development will have additional resources working alongside him/her. These may be in the form of direct reports, and/or HR business partners and shared resources in the Talent Management function. While the majority of executive development professionals are the more senior talent management professionals in the organization (based on expertise, education such as graduate degree, and tenure), in some cases and perhaps more frequently organizations are putting “outsiders” in charge of executive development who have not spent the bulk of their career in Talent Management or Human Resources (some examples include CBS Corporation and the U.S. Navy). Among the reasons for this are to bring a fresh perspective into the role and to bring strategy and operational expertise into the function. On the supplier side, there exists a rich ecosystem of development professionals; essentially any part of the executive development process can be procured from an outside firm or set of individual consultants and coaches.

Primary Activities[edit]

Executive Development activities generally fall into two broad categories: Assessment and Development as outlined below.


  • Capability Requirements – Provide input into the organization’s strategy formulation process by identifying what is required of executives from a capability perspective
  • Capability Assessment – Measure existing capabilities against required capabilities
  • Gap Analysis – Identify gap between requirements and current assessment, with an eye toward what capabilities can be “built” (development) vs. “bought” external hiring


  • Segment executive population– Create groupings of executives, by level, geography, business unit, or other affiliation (C-suite track, high potential’s, critical roles etc.)
  • Architect – Create development activities and experiences for the different segmentations
  • Deliver – Coordinate across the ecosystem of internal and external partners to deliver development experiences and manage execution of executive development initiatives, etc.
  • Measure & Refine – Conduct post activity ROI (typically Kirkpatrick Level I-IV), make course corrections, summarize and report results

Some of the adjacent Talent Management activities that executive development may have involvement with include the succession planning process (typically not CEO or CEO -1, but below), executive onboarding (ideally both external hiring and internal changes), structuring on the job developmental assignments, and working with alumni of development programs, and alumni of the organization.

Developmental Options[edit]

Executive development professionals have a wide variety of activities they can choose to deploy including in order of most commonly found:

  • OTJ (On the job) stretch assignments, line and staff roles, rotational assignments
  • Executive coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Custom workshops and activities
  • Action learning
  • Business school open enrollment courses
  • Online courses and resources

Best Practices[edit]

The following are a set of best practices most often found in organizations that have long standing development activities which are highly regarded in and outside of the organization.

  • Articulate a clear and compelling vision – Leaders have many competing priorities, and need a compelling set of reasons to support development activities. The development team needs to build a compelling case and consistent themes across its development strategy.
  • Build support across key sponsors - Executive development professionals need to have a deep set of contacts both inside of the organization and across many functions and outside with thought leaders and experts. Many organizations have found that Advisory Boards, which seek to create a formal process of soliciting the input from stakeholders as highly effective. Relationships with internal executives, who are increasingly used as “faculty” to delivery development, are important to nurture. A strong professional network is the “currency” of the development professional.
  • Ground development in business challenges – When in doubt, development that is rooted in solving current and significant business challenges will always prevail over development that is designed to round out a leader or a group of professionals.
  • Shorten the timeline – Especially in light of budget cutbacks that are all too common in organizations today, it is important that development is focused on solving current operating cycle issues and challenges. Development plans that span many quarters risk never being fully implemented.
  • Market successes – Successful development professionals, like any other professionals in the organization, are quite good at highlighting their impact for the organization and making sure to create "buzz" for their work and activities. Whether through formal ROI studies or informal anecdotal reviews that are circulated to strategic individuals, it is key to promote success.

Executive Development 2.0[edit]

Below are key factors that are impacting the field of executive development:

  • Time frame – The speed with which organizations need to revise strategies, launch new products and services, expand their global footprint, etc. continues to accelerate; more rapid means of enabling the organization and its leaders to make these changes are required from the development function.
  • Share of mind – Executives are incredibly taxed with an increasing set of responsibilities; mid-level management has been reduced and the number of stakeholders (community, environment, government, etc.) has increased, all putting incredible pressure on leaders. Development that is not of immediate value risks elimination.
  • Budget – The current economic situation has put great pressure on all expenses across the organization, executive development is no exception. Centralized development budgets are all targets, while certain activities such as executive coaching that may be paid out of a business unit budget may be more insulated from cutbacks.
  • "Bottom line" HR – As many organizations have become more results oriented and quantitative for all support functions, there is increased pressure for HR and all of its components to "raise its game" and prove in business terms its impact.

These factors are creating a new operating context for executive development professionals. In response to this new environment, The Institute of Executive Development has articulated a vision of what Executive Development 2.0 will look like:

  • The purpose of the function is to drive the organizational strategy (not solely build skills)
  • The content will be based on current business imperatives
  • The timeline is focused on the immediate 12 months, not longer
  • The format will include more on the job and action learning (vs. formal workshops and programs)
  • The audience will include stakeholders such as customers and partners
  • The budget will be measured more in terms of investment of executive's time (vs. funds)

While executive development continues to become enriched by many approaches, one approach, adult development and its subfield positive adult development is beginning to create opportunities for what has been essentially reserved for academic research to become an increasing part of executive practices.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]