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Developing Modern Global Leaders

A conversation with Kelly Bean, President and CEO of University of Virginia Darden Executive Education


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A recent survey of Chief HR Officers and Chief Learning Officers, largely from Fortune 500 companies, commissioned by Darden Executive Education, identified four big trends – technology disruption, the fast pace of growth, neuroscience research and changing consumer values – that are converging to make senior leaders rethink the design and even the identity of their organizations.

Managers are the greatest leverage point organizations have to address the challenges presented by these trends. From recruiting and on-boarding, to succession planning, to performance management, to learning and development, and to diversity and inclusion, as the Darden researchers say in their conclusion, we have to find “ways to get behind managers and help them lead the development of employees.” They too need to become today’s modern global leaders.

The importance of developing managers as leaders that can propel organizations, economies and society forward is perhaps the founding principle of Darden School of Business and central to the vision of Scott Beardsley, a co-founder of the McKinsey Academy, and since August 2015 the Dean of the School. It is also what motivates Darden Executive Education, under the guidance of Kelly Bean, to think radically about the future of leadership development and – to make executive education truly fit for the future in its pedagogy, its methods of delivery, its reach, and its impact.

Moving from Los Angeles to Charlottesville, Kelly Bean took up the post of President and CEO of Darden Executive Education in February 2017, having previously been the Associate Dean of Executive Education, at UCLA Anderson School of Management for ten years. She is inspired by Beardsley’s commitment to Executive Education and to making change happen. As an example, she cites the School’s brand new 40,000 square foot facility in Washington D.C., on the Potomac River, overlooking the Washington monument, saying, “We are now poised to provide our clients a front row seat in a global centre for policy, entrepreneurship, technologic innovation, and leadership.”

Rethinking its executive education provision may seem counterintuitive for a business school that was ranked No. 1 in the World for Faculty, Facilities and Course Design in executive education by the Financial Times in 2017 and has been consistently highly ranked over recent years. However, staying ahead means adapting to change and in a world where technological, generational, and attitudinal change is significantly affecting how we live, work and do business all executive educators must adapt and innovate to stay relevant.

The CHRO/CLO survey was one element informing innovation at Darden. “We are still formulating our thoughts on this,” says Kelly. “We've been talking to more than 150 companies around what it means to be a modern global leader, what are the skill sets that are going to be needed and this ties back to the idea of managers catalysing positive disruption.”

The CHRO/CLO survey reveals some stark evidence that supports the need for executive education that reaches deeper into companies to develop managerial capability. For example, while most organizations broadly reported the importance of the role of managers in driving business results and leading others, only 13% reported proactively taking steps to move away from ratings and process-driven performance management and making efforts to equip managers with the skills to enable the performance of others through dialogue and conversation.

The integration of leadership into management has moved not just from being really critical; it's something that has to happen in order for managers to become the next generation of modern global leaders.”

Considering the evolving focus for executive education and the key areas that need strengthening, Kelly says, “Some are ones that we've seen for a long time. Strategic thinking was the buzz word for many years, and I still think it's important. Managers throughout the organization need to think more strategically and more holistically about their business, about their competitors’ businesses, and about business in society as a whole.” The difference now and in future is that, with digitization, data analytics has become a big part of thinking strategically.

“Data and business analytics are helping us make better decisions and think more strategically about where the organization is going. The winners are going to be those who ask the right questions and move beyond the reams of available data to actionable insights that will drive their business. I think that brings a lot of leadership context to the forefront, things like understanding and judgement... there's a bigger need to really understand who you are as a leader and as a manager, and how those behaviours that you have both accelerate decision making and firm success. As well as, how those behaviours allow you to intentionally develop yourself and others around you,” says Kelly.  

Another key area that Kelly believes managers need to strengthen, if they aspire to global leadership, is around purpose and values and being able to give voice to those values. This is illustrated by Darden’s call to action: “Put your why to work.” Having a clear purpose, coupled with resilience, allows managers to really understand how their experiences and actions shape not only their own development but help push their firm forward and how it shapes the development of those that they lead or interact with, such as their clients or their peers.

These areas that need strengthening circle together to underline the vital importance of integrating leadership and management. Kelly stresses that “the integration of leadership into management has moved not just from being really critical; it's something that has to happen in order for managers to become the next generation of modern global leaders.”

Asked to what extent companies understand the need for this integration and whether she comes across firms still stuck in the old ways of thinking, Kelly says, “I think that it's happening more and more. Darden has always been viewed as being in the forefront of really bringing that integration of leadership and management together.”

“Executive education is a pillar of why Darden was founded. To provide access to leading edge practise, to influence and engage with leaders in practise. That is just so profoundly stamped on the culture of the organization,” says Kelly, “the faculty commitment to the practising manager is alive and well.” Faculty provide managers with opportunities to discover that they already hold the keys to their own development as leaders. “We don't give answers and that's very important, we create experiences for people to get to those answers… what we are really here to do is create an environment that allows people to grow. It takes them where they need to go to and that's different for each person.”


In the way they achieve this, she believes what Darden does is special. “It's hard to put words around what happens in those classrooms because the faculty are genius at creating an environment to extract the knowledge that is already in the room. The faculty probe and enable new ways of thinking for participants, and I'm not sure the learner even really understands what is happening to them. You can see it on their faces – the intensity of their discovery experience – and our faculty are brilliant about bringing those revelations to life in a way that is directly applicable to themselves and their organization.”

For example, “When we teach finance and accounting here, the focus is around understanding the business context and challenging the participants to think critically,” says Kelly. “While they do grow their technical skills, the real benefit is in growing their ability to think in new ways and to understand how the functions combine. That integration of the technical skills into thinking more strategically is the magic – but it's hard to do.”

This magic in engagement with individual participants then offers what Kelly describes as an “incredible opportunity” to work with clients to really push this even further and look at what's happening within their organizations. There is a great opportunity to go deeper into organizations by opening up, not just what is delivered at senior levels to middle manager levels, but to cascade through the organization. “There is a shift that I've seen happening over the last couple of years, I think organizations definitely want to see some of this learning go deeper into the organization.”

While going deeper into larger organizations is really important, there is also great potential for executive education to assist smaller and mid-sized business that might not have a learning team and are just beginning to professionalise some of the Learning and Development functions that large organizations have. “Our client portfolio is so diverse – from the military leaders, to top executives at global firms, to entrepreneurs in smaller to mid-sized organizations – it doesn't matter where you come from, we're all leading people, we're all thinking about our businesses in a different way. Let's provide that access to growth and learning. In terms of building up business, the smaller to mid-size might need our help even more,” says Kelly.

In terms of how new thinking is affecting the way programs are being designed, the evolution is really in the expectation that they will be dynamic and responsive to the changing landscape. “I think what has become heightened over the last decade is our ability to listen and create experiences that connect the dots between the organizational challenges and the individual learner’s growth opportunities. With the learner and the organization at the center, we apply design thinking principles to get to the right program design – asking What is? What if? What wows? and What works?”

“There's not one learning approach that works best, it's a combination. Socratic method teaching, when done in the Darden way, is very spontaneous. We also bring a variety of different experiential methodologies to the learning journey including storytelling, immersive experiences, reflection, assessment, coaching, simulations, holistic wellness, and others.” It’s this confluence of approaches that makes the learning experience so personal, so applicable to each individual’s situation and ultimately what drives measurable impact for the learner and the organization.

On the open enrolment side, where the Darden Executive Education portfolio of programs has been very well regarded and highly ranked, Kelly and her team are focusing on providing greater opportunities for learners, to hone in on their individual development. “Some of that might be technical skills, some of it might be these more integrated skills that we're looking for. To really give the learner the responsibility for their growth while becoming trusted guides.” This is where faculty highlight cutting-edge leadership principles, such as using mindfulness practice in leadership to apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience, or using design thinking processes to address digital disruption. It’s these unexpected approaches that cause managers to develop entirely new perspectives and change the conversation in compelling ways.

Also, inspired by the loyalty of Darden’s ‘repeat’ clients and incredibly loyal alumni, Kelly sees the exciting potential to really become a life-long learning partner. Darden was an early adopter of online learning in both degree and non-degree programs and online delivery can be key to providing people access to continuous education – a theme that channels back to Dean Beardsley's desire to make education more affordable.

It is important for a business school like Darden to pay attention to the trend towards micro-learning, bearing in mind the evidence that today’s learner expects learning to be available when and where they need it. Online micro-learning delivered just in time and anywhere in the world has its place but also has limitations. While there are many diverse players in this area, where business schools have an advantage, particularly research-based institutions like Darden that are also a very strongly connected to practising managers, is that they can frame questions to prompts from micro-learning in a way that, really allows people to grow in their own personal development. “I think this is where Darden has a great opportunity,” says Kelly, “because it's just part of our D.N.A., asking questions and providing opportunities for people to connect the dots for themselves. I think that business schools have, through the intellectual curiosity that exists amongst faculty, a huge upside potential for that.”

Technology can provide great opportunities to engage with participants from around the world, and Kelly believes business schools and their clients are still very new to this and points out that “What I haven't seen with online learning yet, and we're excited about exploring at Darden, is creating that behaviour change that you get when you come to a six-month program or similar. I think we are all still, companies included, figuring out what the right mix of that is; what type of hybrid or blended learning mix offers the best promise for the future.”

“Once you get them, regardless if it's online or face-to-face, it enables transformation,” says Kelly. Which brings her to a key opportunity she sees for the school: “We want to engage with more practising managers with a growth mind set, hear what their challenges are and provide them with opportunities to discover those insights that are going to authentically develop them and thereby positively growing the people they touch.”

This is a challenge that reflects the findings of the CHRO/CLO survey that too few organizations reported proactively taking steps to develop their managers. “I don't think it's just at Darden, I think it's across the industry,” says Kelly, “We need to be able to capture a share of people’s time and focus and to remind them that learning is important… Once we capture a piece of their mind-share and say, ‘come on, let's go on this journey together to really help you understand how you put your why to work’ we can always deliver.” This challenge is around changing perception of what business schools can provide, that we are not out of touch with today’s business challenges, but are strongly connected to organizations, practising managers, and their everyday realities.  Also, “Growth takes time and commitment – it doesn't happen overnight. I think that is a challenge, but also a huge opportunity.”


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