Wharton@Work

September 2020 | 

Upskilling in Down Times: Grow Your Leadership

Upskilling in Down Times: Grow your Leadership

New research from Gallup finds that managers feel 20 percent less prepared to do their jobs now than when the COVID-19 crisis began. Move them into more senior roles, as many companies have, and that number obviously rises. Even CEOs are not immune: one study found that nearly 60 percent of them felt they weren’t prepared when they stepped up.

Most organizations have moved away from formal training for senior leaders, believing they will develop the necessary knowledge and skills on the job. But taking on your own professional development, especially during a global pandemic, isn’t just hard; it’s also unrealistic.

For decades, Wharton’s solution has been the Executive Development Program (EDP). This comprehensive, rigorous training ground for leaders builds a holistic view of business from experts in strategy, finance, marketing, operations, and management. It is also a deeply personal experience, providing coaching, extensive feedback, and built-in time for reflection.

Now, in addition to the on-campus version, there is a live virtual option. “There were always some leaders who wanted to come to campus for two weeks for EDP, but were unable to,” says academic director and marketing professor Patti Williams. “It’s a high-commitment program in both formats, but the live virtual version provides a very similar experience with no travel required. By adding a third week, we provide the same experience in terms of faculty, content, simulation, and coaching.”

Williams says the need for EDP has never been greater. “There may be no more critical moment for professional development in our lifetimes. By choice or consequence, companies need their senior leaders to upskill now. They’re asking people to step up to new responsibilities in ways they haven’t had to before, and they can’t wait.”

“When you’re moving from leadership in one area of the business into a wider role,” Williams continues, “there are new aspects that you have to consider. A holistic view of business is more important than ever. EDP is focused on the fundamentals, helping you gain critical skills from the very best experts, with a focus on the current situation.”

A unique benefit of the online program is that it provides the opportunity to apply new knowledge, skills, and behaviors in real time. “You can learn something one day and try it out in a meeting the next,” says Williams. “You can get feedback from your coach or teammates, or gain an insight in a classroom session, and be able to implement it or fine tune it quickly.”

The feedback loop also happens within the program as participants work in small groups on a business simulation. Recently optimized for a virtual environment, the simulation requires small groups to work together as a business, applying recent lessons from the classroom to create value. It is attended by personal coaches who use their observations to help each participant pursue their professional goals.

Odelya Arnold, senior director of professional services, global business strategy, and operations at Citrix, was never coached before, and says she didn’t know what to expect. “I had self awareness on areas I wanted to focus on to continue my professional growth, and Harvey helped connect the dots into how I could make a greater impact. He was amazing, really helping me dig deep and open up. There was so much growth in such a short amount of time, and I feel like I came out on the other side a better version of myself.”

Patti Williams isn’t surprised. “It happens every time we run EDP,” says Williams. “We get feedback that the coaching is transformational. It changes professional and personal lives. Getting executive coaching right now when you are dealing with stress, uncertainty, and greater pressure to perform can make a tremendous difference. Our coaches are trained to address issues like building personal and professional resilience and emotional intelligence in difficult times. They help participants set goals in and out of the workplace and provide critical support during and after the program.”

Arnold says attending EDP was “by far one of the best professional decisions I’ve made in a very long time. The content was really current — you learn things you can apply and start benefiting from very quickly. Between the world-class professors, the lectures, the simulation, and executive coaching, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”