‘Experiential’ lessons in exotic locations such as the renowned Civil War battlefield are now all the rage in the executive education community
As a senior executive of the insurance company Health Care Service (HCSC), located in Dallas, Texas, Steve Thompson is used to learning from his business advisor. Yet one Tuesday morning in June, while on a hill in eastern Pennsylvania, he heard of an adviser in a new field: General John Buford, a cavalry officer from Union and fought in the Civil War.
Thompson learned of Buford’s command prowess at Gettysburg, the site of the famous 1863 battle. Military historian Cole C. Kingseed spoke of how Buford had been sent to the front to watch the enemy, instead whereupon he unhorsed his horsemen to defend a ridge, thus giving his colleagues an advantage over their adversaries for the battle which was to follow. “He had the power to execute orders,” Thompson said as executives from companies including State Farm (insurance company) and Nationwide (NFS, a finance company) nodded in approval. Then they headed to Cemetery Hill, a Union Army defensive area, to endorse or challenge the view that Confederate General Robert E.
The course, which took place over three days at Gettysburg, and whose cost to organize by the Board of Directors of the Conference amounted to more than $5,000 (approximately €3,360) per person, is part of a growing trend in manager training programs: experiential training. Even as they slash budgets that fund lavish events taking place outside of corporations, corporations pay money to organizers of programs that promise to nurture new talent in exceptional ways. Among the companies that have sent managers to the Gettysburg site are Pfizer (PFE), Sony (SNE), Honda Motor (HMC), Target (TGT), and beleaguered Freddie Mac (FRE). The 12-strong director training market is expected to all company staff. Bersin also found that a third of companies now use some kind of director training. This means that more organizations will be encouraged to create programs offering training that will be talked about.
Along with offering tours of Civil War battlefields, companies can commit to providing their staff with leadership lessons involving sailing, archaeological digs, firewalking (an ordeal that involves walking barefoot on hot coals), and even horse whispering lessons. ChangeMaker, a talent recruiting consultancy based in Upper Rissington, a village in the Gloucestershire region of England, brings groups of managers from companies such as Electronic Data System (EDS) and the Royal Bank of Scotland ( RBS, the Royal Bank of Scotland) in East Africa, where they visit several villages of the tribe extended and semi-nomadic of the Massai. The cost of this operation: approximately $4,000 (or approximately €2,680) per head, not including the price of the plane ticket. In the debriefing sessions, participants talked about how the Maasai kept their culture constant in the midst of such a large organization. ChangeMaker CEO Chris Howe argues that ‘if you put people in a hotel, and you teach them something there, they don’t find anything that can help them’.
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This statement may be correct, but the funding for this project is such that it may have a hard time selling itself to HR managers. It’s hard enough to gauge the perceived gains from traditional leadership programs, so they’re not interested in valuing a recent executive’s mastery of tribal politics. or his ability to communicate with horses. ‘For these elements to have value, they must have a strong connection to what you see there, how you feel, and what you will face when you return to the office,’ says Michael Useem, professor of management at the Wharton School, which depends on the University of Pennsylvania. During his courses given to master’s students in management and business professionals, Useem had them perform in Shakespeare’s plays, introduced them to modern dance, hiking in Patagonia, and meditation. Oh yes, and also made them visit battlefields.
Even if one can doubt the educational value of some courses, they can serve as a source of motivation to give birth to talents. Thompson of HCSC, for his part, says that while walking around the Gettysburg site, he felt “a sense of reward” for doing a good job. Whereas with a lesson or video, the advice given may not be well remembered. But for the lucky executives who receive such special training, the training can serve as a second round of summer vacation, this time at company expense.