Course evaluations consistently were 5 out of 5; yet, something wasn’t sitting well for us. We heard from participants that that only a few had applied what they learned in executive programs. Those that had applied the content in their workflow clearly were better leaders for it. In comparison, most executives we spoke to went back to work facing bulging backlogs from attending day-long sessions and were too busy over the next few weeks catching up to apply what they learned. Without application, capabilities and leadership mastery don’t materialize and don’t deliver the leaders we need now.
Even for those executives who advanced some of their capabilities, we found that the multiple programs they attended were focused on improving measures of individual leadership potential and not on solving wicked problems — the primary way in which organizations create value for customers, clients, and constituencies. Across the multiple programs that participants took, we found few connections linking content so that one program was building capability in another program. We concluded that leadership mastery was not going to come from learning about separate and unconnected competencies.
We also had one more frustration. When considering the full cost of a program, which includes program price, traveling costs to the program, and, most importantly, opportunity costs of stepping out of the organization’s workflow for one day or more, we feared the return on investment may not be justified. Only much later did research on executive development programs validate these concerns.
Together and with our organization at the time, we tackled these concerns head on. We created one of the first Master of Science in Leadership degree programs. The architecture of this program was a breakthrough in outcomes it delivered. Using an executive education format, the degree courses were designed to fit together, offering interconnected and mutually reinforcing sets of lessons.
The focus was on a leader tackling and solving wicked problems that could move the needle in organizations. We gave students up to a half a year after each course ended to apply what they learned in their workflow. Then, they would author short papers describing and reflecting on what they did, what went well, and what could have gone better, receiving additional feedback from their faculty. These papers highlighted how the growing number of courses they attended and concepts they learned snapped together, leading deeper formulations of their challenges and superior solutions to wicked problems at work. Students were transformed from managers to become the “go-to” leaders for their organizations.
Degree candidates who were applying content transformed markedly compared to certificate-enrolled participants who did not have an obligation to reduce content to practice. The question became, “Can we create a methodology that would encourage and support the acceleration of leadership mastery among all our adult learners?” Some set of innovations were needed for the next leap forward.
Our individual journeys with our organization were coming to a close, yet our passion to develop leaders remained vibrant. Then COVID-19 hit. With the world forced into the realm of virtual everything, the time was right for us to erase our white board and creatively brainstorm on a clean sheet. We formulated and reformulated the leadership development challenge based on factors and assumptions that represented the needs for 2020 and beyond. Wicked and seemingly intractable problems were growing in frequency and difficulty, not only in the government landscape but also in business. Social justice, inclusion, belonging, increasing generational gaps, divergence in the meaning and understanding of language all present amplifications of existing or new leadership challenges.
We drew on our combined 45 year of leadership development experience. We surveyed leading-edge research, reflected on our own, and explored the andragogy (pedagogy for adults) of how adults unlearn and relearn. We thought about the challenge of executives taking conceptual ideas and the adaptations needed to practically use them to tackle context-specific problems in their workstreams. We studied the nooks and crannies of virtual delivery and learning. We dove into the challenges of expert and peer coaching, micro-learning communities, and measurement of demonstrable capabilities.
All this noodling led to a discovery some might describe as a “disruptive” innovation in leadership development: EPC Learning Labs. Our approach to leader development features a web of interconnected innovations designed to build upon one another—ultimately creating a novel learning model of exceptional content, consistent support, and ever-growing micro-communities of practice:
Innovation in content design to provide a results-oriented approach to leadership development.
Innovation among program offerings so that they integrate and build upon one another.
Innovation in andragogical design to meet the learning needs of experienced leaders.
Innovation in supporting workflow application to significantly increase the impact of the educational experience.
Innovation in reducing opportunity costs of travel and time away from the workplace.
And finally, innovation in online instruction to make virtual learning engaging and interactive.
We hope that our story, our excitement about the advances represented by EPC Learning Labs, and our passion for developing leaders reconfirms and rekindles your desire to help executives become the leaders we need now to help organizations solve wicked problems, thereby creating value for customers, clients, and constituencies.
Mary Ellen Joyce
Chief Executive Officer
Executive Vice President and
Chief Social Scientist