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Executive Education and the Over-55s: Never Too Old to Learn

May 12, 2010 | The Economist Online

Older executives are shunning corporate training. This is a problem both for them and the firms they work for…

"LIFELONG learning" is a phrase beloved by business schools. But not, it seems, by their clients. According to a recent survey by Mannaz, a management-development firm, the number of professionals taking part in formal corporate training drops rapidly after the age of 55. Are these wise, old heads being overlooked?

It is tempting to conclude that older executives are falling victim to age discrimination, as firms focus resources on younger talent. But according to Jorgen Thorsell, Mannaz's vice-president, this is not the case. Reticence, he says, comes not from the organisations but from the employees themselves.
Mr Thorsell believes that conventional training simply no longer serves their needs. Formal programmes are often seen as a repetition of lessons already learned and become increasingly irrelevant in the light of experience and expertise. The resulting "training fatigue" is resistant to most incentives.

This doesn't mean that more seasoned executives have completely abandoned the idea of personal and career development, however. Instead Mr Thorsell says that this group prefers a do-it-yourself approach, conducting their own research and swapping war stories with their peers rather than take a place at business school.


This autodidactic approach carries two potential dangers. The first is that a wealth of knowledge and experience is lost from the classroom, which reduces the value of the training for everyone else. But non-participation may also be the beginning of a process of detachment from the organisation, its aims and aspirations, which in time will damage both parties.

Furthermore, Stephen Burnett, associate dean of executive education at the Kellogg School of Management close to Chicago, says that as executives start to stretch their careers into their seventies, education makes even more sense for this group.

One solution is to throw money at the problem. When senior managers are offered the chance to mix with their peers at a top business school, rather than a bog-standard institution, they seem to be quickly won over. IMD in Switzerland, for example, maintains that it does not see any drop in the number of older managers on its programmes, and goes on to say that it has actually witnessed organisations investing heavily in them throughout the downturn.

Few organisations could afford to put all of their veteran managers through the sort of prestigious programmes that IMD offers. But firms do need to engage those managers below the C-suite--what one management consultant describes as the "magnificent middle"--because these are the front-liners who make things happen within any business and who carry around in their heads the secrets of how the organisation works.

One way in which this can be done is to make training less about abstract theory and more about the actual workplace. This means steering clear of the case studies that business schools are so fond of and instead relating new ideas directly to what is happening on a day-to-day basis within the organisation. To accomplish this, training should be delivered in short sharp bursts so that executives can take a lesson, put it into practice, assess its effectiveness and then return to shape it further in light of this "trial by fire".

Henry Mintzberg from McGill University in Canada, a high-profile champion of the middle manager, takes this approach one step further. He believes the best way to win over this group is to get them to train themselves. His "Coaching Ourselves" organisation brings experienced executives together for 90 minutes at a time. Managers are supplied with learning guides but not teachers. The emphasis is also unashamedly Luddite. Laptops, BlackBerrys and the like are discouraged in favour of old-fashioned pen and paper. "They discuss and reflect on how the topic impacts on them," says Mr Minztberg. "[The managers] learn from each other and, most crucially, develop actions for their workplaces."

Whatever approach an organisation takes to embrace its veterans, an ageing population means that it must do something, or else face the much more serious problem of how to replace them and their valuable knowledge in the near future. Unfortunately teaching an old dog the value of lifelong learning is notoriously tricky.