Learning your way to the top
For an organisation to succeed it’s absolutely vital that executive education programmes are available to the decision makers. This is the view of Carolyn Stringer, senior lecturer for accounting and business law at The University of Otago. “Leadership continues to evolve and, as a leader and decision maker, you need to have the skills to bring your people and the organisation on the growth journey with you.
Stringer says without appropriate learning and development, executives can quickly lose their ability to develop and implement strategy. “The higher up you get in an organisation the more your knowledge and skills will be evaluated on a regular basis. Employees scrutinise how effective you are – it’s really like being in a goldfish bowl.”
We’re doing business differently and career-long learning is no longer a dispensable choice says Peter Withers: “Who knew about the Internet and email ten years ago? Who knows about lean manufacturing and just-in-time supply chain inventory? They may be relatively new to New Zealand companies but they’re important to us because we’re so far away from the rest of the world.”
Withers is director of academic programmes, Graduate School of Enterprise at The University of Auckland Business School. “The dynamic environment in which business operates today, plus a complex economy, means unless you keep up and stay on top you’ll lose that competitive edge. Few of us would go to a doctor who had no professional training since graduation.”
He suggests two factors are influencing the greater implementation of executive education programmes. One of these is cost. “Too many companies see executive education as something of a luxury and when money is tight it’s one of the first things to go. The more deep-thinking realise it’s at this point they should be investing in their future competitiveness.”
But it’s attitude that’s the number one barrier, says Withers. “The baby-boomer generation is very much a ‘Number 8 wire’ generation; can-do sort of people. They’ve got on with it, built successful companies without any form of executive education, and tend, with some justification, to be somewhat cynical about the value of education.”
However this is starting to change and the economic downturn has seen an increase in companies beginning to focus on executive education, he says. “But business education in New Zealand is eight to ten years behind North America and Europe – so we’ve got a bit of catching up to do.”
And so it appears have a lot of those baby-boomers. Jane Needham, dean of the School of Business at Open Polytechnic, says many of their graduate students are baby-boomers in middle to senior management roles who entered the workforce at a time when qualifications were not as important. “They progressed in their careers to senior positions through merit and experience gained, but are now wanting to back up their experience with academic credentials.”
Open Polytechnic specialises in flexible learning and is one of the country’s largest educators of those already in the workplace; on average they enrol around 30,000 students a year, over 70 percent of whom are in work. Two-thirds are aged over 30; 98 percent study part time. Needham reports student numbers at the Business School have increased dramatically this year with more than 10,000 enrolled at certificate, diploma and degree level, plus those taking graduate diploma courses. “We offer generic business subjects and demand has increased pretty much across the board,” says Needham.
However trends suggest HR is a growth area partly because of the increasingly dynamic and complex issues surrounding employment law. “Human resource management is an area that is increasingly receiving strategic attention from senior management, especially as the nature of work becomes more knowledge-based and knowledge is seen as a source of competitive advantage.”


Needham also notes that with management skills generally having been identified as a major need in New Zealand – particularly at middle, supervisory and first-line levels – any business is going to benefit from more skilled staff generally and more skilled managers that know how to get the best out of their people.
Not just for big business
Executive education is frequently seen as the domain of the bigger corporates; programmes such as those for Fletchers and Fairfax Publications at The University of Auckland Business School tend to reinforce this, as do the hundreds of corporate universities in the US.
But the need for small businesses to upskill their management capability and staff generally is well recognised by research, says Needham. Getting uptake is the real challenge – not just here but internationally. “SME owners are time and resource poor and focused on what needs to be done today. We need to find better ways of up-skilling that are going to work for them.”
The opportunities for executive education are huge, but career-long learning is a challenge and it requires commitment, says Peter Withers. “One of the things we notice in this environment is that people come in expecting to be taught, to be delivered education. It’s actually quite difficult to turn that concept around and get them to understand it’s up to them to take the opportunity; we provide the conditions. It requires responsibility, commitment and engagement on their part.”
Engagement, he says, is absolutely the key. “We actively screen students we think are simply here to receive, particularly in the executive area where much of the richness is in the peer dialogue and peer comparisons that go on.” The attitudinal thing again is very important in executive education, he says. “You’ve got to come in committed, engaged and prepared to take that kind of responsibility. That’s how you get a return on investment.”
One of the biggest issues is how much time you can take out of a busy executive’s schedule. “Internationally there’s a trend for courses that last two to four weeks. Once you start to push beyond four weeks it’s tough for them in today’s world.”
However, even two or three days away from day-to-day problem solving can give a company executive time to think a little and give themselves some new tools. “And think about how they lead and how they influence the company.”
For many New Zealand companies their greatest capital asset is human capital, says Withers. “So you should really go on investing in that capital in the same way as you reinvest in plant. Human capital goes on forever and it’s highly portable. To me it makes absolute sense to keep on investing.”
Patricia Moore is an Auckland-based freelance writer.





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