Higher Learning

A crash course on executive education programs.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the August 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Fifteen years ago, Chuck Krueger taught his first executive education seminar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. That day, he overheard something he's never forgotten.

Three of his students--two from blue-chip corporations and one an entrepreneur--were shooting the breeze before the first class meeting. The small-business owner commented that it was easy for big businesses to send their employees to expensive executive education classes like the one at hand. After all, the small-business owner said, big, profitable companies can afford such luxuries. One of the big-business attendees looked at the entrepreneur and replied, "You think we got big and profitable and successful and then started developing our people?"

Investing in continuing education is how small businesses get bigger, and attending executive education classes is no longer a luxury reserved for the wealthiest of corporations. In fact, today's entrepreneurs--leaders of some of the smallest yet most lucrative businesses around--are beginning to see the advantage of taking courses that enrich their understanding of basic busi-
ness principles and fine-tune their knowledge in specific areas, such as marketing, sales and finance. And
although the moniker "executive education" may belie the usefulness of
the courses to businesspeople other than the big-shot executive variety, these misconceptions are clearing up faster than you can say "Enroll me."

Where The Schools Are

Harvard's executive education program is generally considered the best in the country. Even the number-two-ranked Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia admits that. Why? Not only does it boast the greatest number of programs, but Boston-based Harvard also has the most intensive executive education program designed for small-business owners.

Enrollment in Harvard's 21-year-old Owner/President Management Program (OPM) is limited to major equity owners and general managers or CEOs with a minimum of 10 years' business experience. It's the only program that limits attendance by that criteria, according to Professor Norman Berg, faculty chairman of the OPM program. "That's an important distinction," says Berg. "It establishes a key commonality among the participants."

Another factor making the OPM program like no other is its length and time span. The nine-week course is split into three three-week segments, each separated by a full year. The reasons for spreading the program over three years are many. "The primary reason," says Berg, "is there's no way you could get entrepreneurs to come to a single nine-week program. Virtually none of these people could be gone--or would want to be gone [from their businesses]--for nine weeks at a time."

The time between three-week sessions also gives entrepreneurs a chance to test the techniques they learn in the course and come back to class the following year with new perspectives on the information they learned the last time. Last but no least, "you don't get as tired at the end of three weeks as you would at the end of nine weeks," says Berg. "We can maintain a much [more intense] pace for three weeks than we could for nine."

Each session covers five main topics--finance, general management, marketing, human aspects of business and management control--in increasing depth. For instance, in the first finance session, students learn the nuts and bolts, unit two covers the subject in greater depth, and unit three is oriented toward public offerings or passing the business on to the next generation. In addition, the program covers topics such as negotiation, the Internet, and business and government in the international economy.

Perhaps the most useful part of the program, however, is the networking that takes place and the friendships forged between participants. "The friendships seem to be reinforced between sessions," says Berg. "It's almost like a homecoming when students return for units two and three." It's a supportive environment, and the bonds formed in the OPM program last a lifetime, he says. Students reside on campus for the three weeks, participating in extracurricular activities during off hours, which helps make the program an intimate intellectual and psychological experience.

By the time Jacqueline Leventhal attended her first OPM session in 1993, she already had some 20 years of entrepreneurial experience as owner of an Emeryville, California, rubber stamp design and manufacturing company, Hero Arts Rubber Stamps Inc. But all those years of hands-on practice hadn't made her the best business owner she could be.

A former photographer, high school teacher and self-described "creative type," Leventhal felt confident in her capabilities as an inventor before attending OPM, but after the first session, she realized there was a lot more to running a rubber stamp business than brainstorming and drawing pictures. Since finishing the program, Leventhal has overhauled her accounting department, developed an inventory system and upgraded the company's computers. The Harvard program "gave a lot more dimension to how I see my business," she says. "Now it's like [being] in a helicopter above the business rather than being down inside it." Today, Leventhal's company is among the top three rubber stamp makers in the United States.

Investigating Your Options

The $13,750-a-year OPM program is certainly not the only option for small-business owners who want to expand their horizons. Harvard has two other entrepreneur-oriented executive education programs--a one-week Strategic Finance for Small Business course and a second one-week program especially for family-business owners. Wharton, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison are just a few of the many other well-known schools offering extensive executive education programs to corporate employees and entrepreneurs alike.

Northwestern University, in addition to a host of more general executive education courses, offers a three-day class designed for entrepreneurs called "The Art of Venturing: Entrepreneurship in Corporate and Independent Settings." Small-business owners learn business basics, strategic market planning, how to create a business development plan, negotiation strategies and financial planning, among other entrepreneurial essentials. In just three days, entrepreneurs can learn enough to make an indelible mark on their businesses.

Nancy Drinkwater did. A small-business consultant from Boston who's been in business for herself since 1970, Drinkwater didn't think it was too late to learn some new tricks, so she took the Art of Venturing course last year.

The experience enhanced her creative thinking and improved her negotiation skills. "It taught me how to develop a concise business plan and, more important, how to communicate that business plan to prospective investors and people I want to do business with," Drinkwater says. "I also got a lot of ideas about [what kind of fees] to charge clients." In addition, the course sharpened her ability to spot opportunities and solve problems.

Of course, it didn't hurt that all this took place in restful accommodations overlooking Lake Michigan. "The setting was awesome," she recalls. "It was like going to a really good hotel. The room was beautiful; the food was excellent. It was a good learning experience and a great rest, too." Would she recommend the class to other entrepreneurs? "Absolutely."

Indeed, for stressed-out entrepreneurs, the hotel-like backdrop of most residential executive education programs is part of what makes them worthwhile. Removed from your routine setting, you have time to focus on what's really important about your business. To encourage this mind-set, all the major residential executive education programs provide comfortable lodging and dining arrangements for their guests. Harvard's Baker Hall, for instance, houses 164 rooms centered around a main lounge. Wharton's Steinberg Conference Center has 103 guest rooms, five classrooms, a dining facility, an evening lounge--even a small fitness center. Such amenities are fairly representative of the best residential executive education programs.

Global Vision

Wharton is second only to Harvard in terms of the number of executive education programs offered. Alison Peirce, director of executive programs at Wharton, says the school's executive education program earned $25 million last year.

Getting entrepreneurs to think globally is a primary objective of Wharton's executive education courses. With 50 percent to 70 percent of the school's two-to-five-week executive education classes comprised of participants from outside the United States, the learning potential for U.S. entrepreneurs increases exponentially. "We deliberately designed it that way because we think it's important for [executives] to be aware of competitive, cultural and social issues outside the United States," Peirce says. "[At Wharton,] we want to have an international learning community. If [entrepreneurs] only hear examples from their own industries and geographies, they'll think that's the world." Whether or not they ever intend to export their products or services, Peirce believes entrepreneurs need to have a broad sense of what's going on in business worldwide.

Wharton's executive education programs are broken down into three main categories: functional and strategic, leadership and general management, and senior management. The programs range in length from one to 12 weeks and cover subjects ranging from finance, accounting and negotiating to the special concerns of running a family business.

Most of those who teach the executive education courses at Wharton are full-time faculty members. According to Peirce, they must possess not only a combination of strong teaching skills but considerable insights into real-world applications as well.

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, one of the executive education program's strengths is that the faculty is an optimal mix of academics and practitioners, says Management Institute chair Chuck Krueger. "Our programs are a mix of professors, consultants and businesspeople," he says. "I can teach the theory of internal auditing, for example, but for [teaching] current auditing techniques, we need [faculty] with fresh scar tissue."

Help Yourself

It's easy to see how corporate employees benefit from executive education courses and how programs geared specifically to entrepreneurs benefit small-business owners. But even general executive education classes can greatly enrich an entrepreneur's ability to effectively run his or her business.

"Many entrepreneurs have developed their companies through a strong capability in one functional area or skill," explains Harvard's Berg. "[Executive education] is an opportunity to broaden their education in other functional areas."

Peirce agrees: "What if I was thinking of acquiring another company but didn't know anything about mergers?" she asks. "Or what if I'm marketing-oriented but never understood how to read a balance sheet? There are some very specific skills people can come for and derive bottom-line benefits immediately."

In Berg's opinion, one of the best things about attending an executive education course is "it's almost like going to another country; you're exposed to different situations. [Ideally,] you come back with a much different and fresher perspective on your own company."

No matter how an entrepreneur decides to improve his or her skills, it's always a good idea. To stay successful as a small-business owner, "you have to keep reinvesting in your own human capital--the set of assets you bring to your position," says Peirce.

Adds Krueger, "[Smart] business owners know that everything they can learn--every technique, every advantage, every nugget of information they can use--is going to help them directly."

Class Action

Entrepreneurs in search of a reality check need look no further. The Center for Creative Leadership's San Diego location offers an Entrepreneurial Leadership Program (ELP), a comprehensive assessment of management skills and a leadership training program packed into one three-day weekend.

"We do a full [business] assessment from a behavioral leadership standpoint," explains program manager Kim Leahy. "[For example, what] if you can write a great marketing plan but can't motivate your people and you've got a structure that's preventing them from performing? We teach entrepreneurs that these things are critical to their organization's success."

The $2,500 program is co-sponsored by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an educational research institution in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Inc., a nonprofit educational institution in Kansas City, Missouri. The program is based on CCL's Entrepreneurial Performance Indicators, three intensive surveys designed by Leahy and program co-founder John Eggers after a national study of 112 successful entrepreneurs.

The course begins even before you arrive. Eight weeks earlier, the center collects specific information to assess your leadership and communication skills and determine your needs. No relevant stones are left unturned as not only you but members of your management team, other employees, and even "observers" such as board members and customers take part in the surveys.

Once on campus, you learn in one-on-one and small group sessions how your business was assessed. The results can be surprising, says Robert Faerber, CEO of transportation consulting firm Faerber Enterprises Inc. in Lake Zurich, Illinois, who attended ELP last year. Learning to trace where problems come from, says Faerber, is "like watching a child grow up--you don't see the small changes that may lead to problems because sometimes they happen slowly and subtly."

Tim Webster, president of American Italian Pasta Co. in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, agrees. "The [instructors] identified probable pitfalls for my profile," he says. Was he uncomfortable discussing the less successful aspects of his company with other entrepreneurs? To the contrary. "You're part of a group process, but your feedback is very personal and confidential," says Webster, "and to be with people who are also having their eyes opened, it's very positive."

For Allen Batts, CEO of Hello Direct Inc., a telecommunications products manufacturer in San Jose, California, the course was something of a barometer. Going into the course with a 40 percent growth rate that continues today, Batts didn't want to fix what was wrong but to try to stay ahead of the curve and make sure he can continue to grow the business.

In a world where knowledge is king, it can't be stressed enough: "Know thy company." A program such as ELP could be just the vehicle that helps puts your company in the know.

For more information, write to the Center for Creative Leadership, 8910 University Center Ln., 10th Fl., San Diego, CA 92122-1085 or call (619) 453-4774. --Elaine W. T

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