ExecOnline: supporting inclusive and diverse leadership opportunities

When investing in inclusion and diversity, you cannot manage what you do not measure, according to ExecOnline founder and CEO Stephen Bailey

If you democratised access to leadership development and made it more diverse and inclusive, could you eventually change the make-up of the board room?

That was the question that Stephen Bailey asked almost ten years ago when he founded ExecOnline. The company partners with top global business schools to provide online leadership development programmes to solve an organisation’s business needs. The answer, it would seem, is ‘yes’.

Says Bailey: “The biggest change is that organisations are now investing much more aggressively in inclusion and diversity. Enrolments for C-suite leaders are up even more than our overall enrolments. ExecOnline now has CEOs from large organisations personally going through our offerings to set the right tone for their organisation and get their arms around how you make meaningful progress.

“If you think about where we were in 2011/2012, having access to an executive education for leadership development experience from a Stanford, Wharton or Chicago Booth – all partners of ours now – meant getting your company to invest in you going on campus and having the opportunity to learn in person.”

By taking that experience online, ExecOnline has been able to extend the course to more people, creating democratisation opportunities and, ultimately, inclusive leadership mobility within organisations.

Development equity

There was concern that women only made up 27% of people on ExecOnline programmes in the early days, much less than expected. To remedy this, ExecOnline became the first to benchmark its courses. It gave clients data on the percentage of women enrolled, by business unit, which was then compared with industry benchmarks. As a result, by 2019, female representation on the programmes had risen to 41%.

“This is an important example in that you cannot manage what you do not measure,” Bailey argues. “Something I tell my team every day. For us, that’s the first step.”

The concept of ‘development equity’ underpins what ExecOnline is offering. “And that’s not just programmes,” Bailey explains. “It can be stretch assignments, mentoring, coaching, the full range of opportunities that typically allow people to move forward in the organisation. 

“With development equity, we have three components. First, you must have the right set of data and benchmarks.

“Secondly, you need to review your selection processes for development opportunities and remove the bias. Over 70% of organisations with a ‘high-potential’ progression programme will base your nomination on entering that programme on one person’s subjective opinion. Organisations must change that process to make progress.  

“Thirdly, your programmes must be structured in the right way so that they accelerate the careers of those who gain access. You can do this by ensuring the programmes include opportunities for individuals to apply what they’re learning to stretch assignments in the organisation to increase their visibility.

“All our programmes, whether they’re inclusion offerings or not, have that feature built-in. While in our inclusion offering, we specifically focus on decision-making networks.”

Unconscious bias training not enough

The idea is that most decisions with wide-ranging implications are taken by a limited number of people and driven by unconscious bias. Bailey adds: “For their projects, we have people in our programme pick a decision, tell us what their decision-making network would be, and then, throughout their experience, we have them re-imagine their decision with a broader, more inclusive network that cuts across race, gender, age and seniority lines. It is a comprehensive approach to inclusion and diversity.”

This activity, which takes three weeks, has brought significant recognition that unconscious bias training is not enough. All those taking part in ExecOnline programmes leave with an implementation plan. The company then tracks them at three, six and 12 months to see if their project – which involved applying what they’d learned to a specific business challenge – was being implemented or not.

“We work with some of our organisations to validate that data with the person’s manager,” Bailey reveals. “We’ll send a survey to the individual who graduated from the ExecOnline programme and then we’ll also send a different survey that confirms what that person has shared about what’s happened to their project. We provide all that data back to our clients to reveal how people are implementing learnings in real ways in the organisation, the impact that it’s had on the business.”


The right networks

As a black entrepreneur, Bailey has had to work hard to find his way, not least, as he didn’t start from a business background. His debating skills, which he developed in high school, suggested a legal career. But, while studying law at Yale, Bailey met some budding entrepreneurs. He also realised that a long-term career in the law didn’t fill him with excitement.

On graduating, he spent a couple of years at a law firm, then left to join start-up company Frontier Strategy, rising from being the first employee to CEO.

He believes that what has helped him is having exposure to the right networks from his time at college and the legal world – something that is not often available to underrepresented minorities.

As an entrepreneur, Bailey had to develop new skills, which he found exciting. He says: “So much of it is a constant journey of stretching yourself and learning new things. I’ve been a CEO for most of my career, and I know a lot more than I knew on day one, but I have no doubt in another ten years, I will look back and feel like I know a lot more than I know today. 

“And that constant process of challenging yourself and challenging those around you to innovate and do what others think is impossible and blaze new trails is what excites me about being an  entrepreneur for the long-term.”

Does he feel that the current interest in inclusion and diversity will lead to meaningful change? “I’m an entrepreneur, so I have to be an optimist,” says Bailey. “I think we’ll see lasting progress, but the real question is how much? A lot will depend on organisational commitment to measurement as opposed to just programmatic investment.

“We have a corporate inclusion council where we bring together several organisations that are committed to this work and to develop equity. One of the key pieces that came out of it was putting together a sub-working group, focused completely on data and benchmarking to help set the foundation for everything else that organisations want to do.”

But, he argues, this benchmarking needs to be institutionalised. Similar to the equal pay movement, which has reduced the gender gap by 7% over the past five years, formalising goals and metrics around development will be necessary to ensure that companies take it seriously.


Succession planning

Another issue that needs attention is succession planning. While black Americans make up around 13.5% of the working population, less than 1% make it to CEO level. It’s a similar story for women.

“If you’re going to change your succession pipelines, you’ve got to start early, invest in a serious approach to development equity and have data and benchmarking around those who you are providing opportunities to,” Bailey argues. “Leaders must also assess their selection process and how they are providing those opportunities. We’ve seen visibility–employees having access to senior leaders and thus appearing on their radars for future consideration–being the biggest challenge.” 

To make themselves more visible, Bailey advises people to be more bullish about improving their skills and proactively seeking mentors and sponsors, rather than waiting for them to make the first move.

Bailey appreciates that this may now be more challenging, as the shift to remote working, due to coronavirus, may have set the cause of inclusion and diversity back. “Unconscious biases were turbo-charged in 2020. Also, you don’t have as many opportunities for exposure in the organisation because one of the hardest things about virtual work is that every interaction must be intentional. There’s no serendipity; there’s no ‘oh we ran into each other in the hallway’.  

“This is exactly the time when an organisation should be investing in inclusion and diversity offerings and helping leaders better understand the impact of these  unconscious biases in a virtual world, and then take steps to address them.”

Future-ready leaders

Companies should consider organising cross-functional collaboration sessions and, importantly, measure the outcomes. The economic impact of COVI-19 has, in part, put leadership development higher on the C-suite agenda.

“There is this concept of future-ready leaders,” Bailey says. “Organisations that are effective in this world are always looking out into the future. There’s never been a lower correlation between past business success and future business success than we have in this current environment. And so the ability to understand that you need to see around the corner, and make front-footed investments that keep you ahead of the curve is what the most progressive, and ultimately most successful, organisations are using. 

“We’ve proven that when there are commitment and necessity, we can do tough things well. Inclusion and diversity are moral and business necessities.” 

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