Article • April 11, 2024

Best Practices in Executive Leadership Development, Part 2: Unique Challenges & Potential Solutions

By Karen Foster and George Schmidt

“To admit ignorance is to exhibit wisdom” – Ashley Montagu

Senior executive leaders are often the most experienced people within a biopharma company. With double-digit years of industry experience, they’ve often come up “through the ranks”, gaining a wealth of wisdom during the course of their professional journeys. Tenure and tacit knowledge aside, in a complex, ever-changing industry like biopharmaceuticals, learning should never stop.

In Part 1 of this series, we outlined why executive development is important and its ability to positively impact a company’s trajectory when done right. We also covered senior leaders’ most common capability gaps, including decision leadership and change management. Designing and implementing development journeys to address these common gaps is not easy. Along with known, common challenges to educating any adult, some challenges are unique to a senior executive audience. Here, we outline those challenges and explore some potential solutions.

Unique Challenges to Senior Executive Leadership Development

Time-pressed, academic-brand conscious, sophisticated; three characteristics of senior executives that create unique challenges to impactful executive leader development.

Senior executives are very busy people.

If everyone is busy these days, senior executives are busier. Time is senior leaders’ most valuable resource, and there are many different needs, duties, and stakeholders vying for that time. Getting them to carve out time to engage in development becomes a real challenge.

Senior executives demonstrate brand consciousness for academic learning.

Top executives, especially in biopharmaceutical companies, are often highly credentialed. They have one or perhaps multiple advanced degrees: a masters or PhD in their area of expertise, or perhaps an MD or MBA. They are high-utilizers of academic institutional learning. As such, they tend to be “brand conscious” when it comes to their own professional development, showing a preference for development offerings from academic institutions.

Top universities’ executive development programs can be very good. They often address burgeoning topics, bring together learners from across industries, and offer deep subject matter expertise. While valuable qualities, viewed differently these offerings tend to be generalized, rarely focusing on an industry and, less so, a specific company and its challenges or contexts. This broad approach demands more effort on an executive’s part to transfer the concepts to his or her specific company and situation and distill relevant insights to action immediately to drive new ways of working or business results.

This is not to say that broad offerings are sub-optimal. It’s the extra effort required that becomes less ideal when the learners are busy executives and not full-time students. Think back to your days as a full-time student. Most likely, you attended a professor’s lectures to glean concepts from their immense subject matter expertise and then spent additional time on your own–and perhaps with teaching assistants–to transfer the theory and concepts into tangible actions or skills you then applied. Top executives simply have less time to make the abstract meaningful.

While engaging with learners from across industries is valuable, this should be assessed against the value of a cohort of leaders from within a company experiencing and learning together. Universities have shifted to accommodate for this by offering customized learning for specific companies, and this may be a viable option. It is important to recognize that, in the end, the finished customized program often sits outside the company; making the company beholden to the university should there be interest in redeploying or expanding it.

Senior executives are skeptical of their need for development.

Many humans have suffered the slings and arrows of overconfidence bias. Cognitive research has consistently revealed that most adults tend to rate their abilities, whether those be business or non-business related, as above average. Senior executives are not immune to this calamity and theoretically they might be at greater risk. If a leader has been in the same environment for many years, it is possible that their capabilities could become a bit “ossified,” rendering them less able to adapt to—or lead—change.

In addition, senior executives—who neglect their development— may have missed significant developments that would have kept them abreast of change. While a leader may have earned an MBA 20 years ago, MBA programs of today are radically different from those even 5 years ago. The world changes. Key knowledge and capabilities change. Similarly, many senior leaders in key functions rose through the ranks in their companies more than a decade ago, largely before the cross-functional “revolution” took place in the biopharma industry. While leaders may have very deep expertise within their own functions, they can have gaps in the holistic, cross-functional understanding that is so important to strategy and operations today.

Those are just two small examples, but the key point is this: leaders who have been in senior roles for a significant period may not be aware of areas in which they could improve and develop.

High-Level Solutions

Senior executives need development opportunities that are specific to their needs and contexts and that fit within their schedules. This is why individual one-on-one executive coaching is often seen as the best approach for this learner population. And for small populations, coaching is the answer, but it also has drawbacks in its difficulty to scale and hyper-individual focus. The question is:  How can L&D combine the principles of individual coaching and then deliver them on a large scale? Answering that question correctly is the key to overcoming the challenges of creating a learning solution for senior executives.

Make it relevant.

Earlier, we drove home the idea that any learning program must be highly relevant to the learners. This means that the content should not only relate to the biopharma industry, but also to the individual learner.

The key is to communicate from the start that the program will be custom-fit to them as individuals, then actually deliver on that promise as things move forward. To do this, L&D should keep the following points in mind:

  • An up-front needs assessment at the macro level is essential. This provides a foundational understanding of the needs that any program must address, and serves as a type of “North Star” that guides subsequent development efforts.
  • Given the high visibility and general skepticism around executive leadership development programs, conducting a robust needs assessment is also critical to creating a compelling business case for the program.
  • Needs assessments are also needed at the micro—or individual—level. While the macro assessment helps define the prioritized library of learning content that must be developed, the micro-level assessments determine how various pieces of content will need to be curated for each specific learner. These micro-level assessments typically take the form of short self-assessment exercises that learners must complete early in the program.
  • As stated, the curated content must be contextualized to the learners’ specific roles, situations and development needs, as will the exercises they must complete throughout the program.

Design to accommodate their busy schedules.

Busy executives do not have time for long sessions held at scheduled intervals. Learning programs must be designed to accommodate the reality of their day-to-day schedules. From a practical standpoint, this means:

  • Self-assessments should be short, perhaps requiring a five- or ten-minute commitment.
  • Learning sessions should also be short and designed to build upon one another.  The design process should incorporate classic microlearning principles and approaches.
  • The learners should have a high-degree of choice regarding when their learning takes place.  Therefore, most content will be delivered asymmetrically.

Make it a collaborative initiative.

A large-scale executive leadership development initiative should be a “big deal” within the organization, with a well-designed communications campaign and visible buy-in from top leadership. They should lead by example and be vocal about it. 

Even though learning experiences will be customized to the needs of individual executives—and learners will have a high degree of choice regarding how and when they engage with the content—the program should still be structured as a collaborative, group initiative. This can make the experience more enjoyable and introduce a healthy bit of social pressure to engage and participate in the program. Potential techniques for doing this can include:

  • Providing regular updates on the learner group’s progress
  • Setting up the ability for learners to “review” courses, rate their experiences, and share their opinions

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

We’ve mentioned the importance of communicating with the learners the need for development, its relevance to them, and the benefits.  However, we don’t want to give the impression that such communication can be achieved with a few emails and a meeting or two. In fact, effective communications must be done in a highly coordinated fashion that uses multiple channels and that truly engages the learner population in an ongoing way. This coordinated, integrated approach to communications is a highly essential part of any change management initiative…and that’s precisely what a comprehensive leadership development program is: a change management initiative. This aspect is so important that we will dedicate Part 3 of this series to it.  Stay tuned!