February 2024 | 

Wharton Executive Education’s Deb Giffen on Leadership Education

Deb Giffen on Leadership Education Today

After 23 years with Wharton Executive Education, Director of Custom Programs Deb Giffen retired at the end of January. Designing and directing hundreds of programs throughout her tenure, Giffen has followed shifts in imperative leadership skills and worked with organizations to address challenges like the 2008–09 financial crisis, radical changes in consumer behavior, and the emergence of AI. Here she shares her insights on leadership education through the years.

W@W: The business environment has seen momentous, transformational changes since 2001 — so much so that “disruptive” has become a cliché. How have leadership needs altered in the past two decades?

Deb Giffen: Some of them are the same, but developments like AI, which is changing everything, are requiring leaders to be a lot more flexible and adaptable. They need a learning mindset much more than before, because people who think they have the answers and it's all cut-and-dried are not going to do well in the age of AI. The programs we offer at Wharton Executive Education on strategic agility, growth mindset, and related topics are going to be tremendously important going forward. And they are even more important to high potentials who are on their way up, because they're going to have to continuously learn, change, and grow.

Influence and leading up are also critical skills for high potentials, because they're often the ones who are more open and closer to the customer than the more senior people. They tend to be more technologically savvy too. They have access to important customer and market information, and they are going to need really good influence, persuasion, and negotiation skills to bring people along with them and sell their ideas.

Of course, they also need a strong, solid financial foundation, because finance is the language of business. If they can't explain their ideas in a way that shows their financial value, they’re not going to get past the CFO. And in an age of rising uncertainty, they need to know when and how to take calculated risks. Some of that is on the company: if they punish people for taking risks, if they lay people off for making mistakes, that's not going to lead to a culture that encourages innovation and risk taking. But that's what leaders need to learn: how do you create an open culture like that? How do you allow for experimentation and learning to adapt to the changing world? What we know is that those behaviors and mindsets are skills that can be taught and acquired.

W@W: As part of the legacy you are leaving at Wharton Executive Education, you are credited with creating Nano Tools for Leaders®, which have been featured in Wharton@Work since 2011. Where did the idea come from?

Deb Giffen: I developed Nano Tools because of another sign that I've been seeing across executive education over the years: the demands of work are intensifying. As organizations become flatter and leaner, people have more responsibilities and less time to accomplish everything on their plates.  When we gave them a faculty book at the end of a session, they would appreciate the gift, but most of them never had the time to read it. I wanted to create something faster and easier for them — an actionable tool that they could read and start using in 15 minutes or less.

Nano Tools are created in partnership with Wharton faculty and cover a wide range of topics including leadership and management, innovation and strategy, marketing, negotiation, and customized learning. Each one is an immediately useful tool that can significantly impact the reader’s success in 15 minutes or less. We use them in the classroom, on social media, and in our post-program follow up. They are getting out to a larger audience, and their reach is spreading. It's really exciting to see.

W@W: You’ve said that you have a passion for executive education. What has sustained it for 23 years?

Deb Giffen: One of my primary focuses, part of my passion for being at Wharton, is to have impact. I don't want to just run an entertaining program, a nice intellectual tourist experience that allows people to meet some other cool people from their company. Networking is great, but I also want them to learn things that will make them measurably better leaders and also improve the success of their organizations. We’ve developed many tools at Wharton that can do that, and by taking a flexible partnership-oriented approach to program design we’re able to create long-term impact for our clients. Being able to make that kind of difference, for individuals and for organizations, keeps us passionate about the work we do.