Interview with Professor Ann Bartel, A Faculty Director of Custom Programmes at Columbia Business School Executive Education
Being one of the Top Executive Education Programmes with the Best ROI, Columbia Business School places great importance in addressing each organisation’s specific challenges. In this episode of the feature series, we had the pleasure of meeting with the Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce and Transformation Ann Bartel, who shared with us the invaluable benefits an organisation can gain from partnering with a custom-built programme, the powerful impact it can make on the company’s talent retention rate, and how it can significantly enhance the company’s global competitiveness in these fast-changing times.
Good day, Professor Bartel. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Being a professor at Columbia Business School must make for a busy schedule. To begin, would you please tell us how you start your day to make sure it is a productive one?
The first thing I do is peruse the Wall Street Journal to see if there are any interesting headlines or stories that might be relevant to something I’m teaching that day or to something I’m conducting research on. Time permitting, I go to the gym before I go to the office.
You are an expert in the field of labour economics and human resource management. Can you tell us what excites you most in terms of the latest developments in your field, and what are some pressing issues you are focusing on at the moment?
The biggest change in human resource management that I have been seeing in recent years, especially within the last year or two, is what’s called people analytics. This is the use of data to help companies recruit and identify talent, measure performance, and retain employees. I think that’s the most interesting thing that’s going on in the field of human resource management today. The field has become much more data oriented.
In terms of my own research, while I use data throughout my work in the area of human resource management, what I’m focusing on most recently is family-friendly policies. I’ve discovered that employees are demanding these family-friendly policies and that companies are using them creatively as a way to attract and retain talent.
You are the director of Columbia Business School’s Workforce Transformation Initiative and one of the faculty directors for Columbia Business School Executive Education’s custom programmes. Can you share some of the unique advantages a custom-built programme can offer organisations?
The Workforce Transformation Initiative was made possible by a generous gift from Merrill Lynch to support research and executive education on the transformation of the workforce. This covers topics such as the impact of technology, new ways of organising work, changes in career patterns, and diversity and inclusion. This was the genesis for the Women’s Executive Development Programme we currently run with Bank of America.
Custom programmes like this one, and the one we run for the law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, give companies the opportunity to work directly with Columbia Business School faculty to develop a programme that specifically meets the company’s needs. Often, when we first meet the client, we sit down together and learn about the company, what their pressing issues are, why they think an executive education programme is right for them, and what they are looking to accomplish. We then design a tailored programme that specifically addresses the interests and concerns that the company has.
Columbia Business School Executive Education has partnered with several prestigious international organisations to build custom programmes for their executives. Can you tell us how the programmes are designed to meet the clients’ requirements and continuous demand for innovation?
Custom programmes provide faculty with an opportunity to understand the company and its specific needs, and it’s an iterative process. It starts during the very first meeting, where the company communicates their idea about the type of training and skill development they’re looking for. The Columbia faculty then sketches out a programme they think would be appropriate – in terms of the number of days – and effective – in terms of skill building – for the company. Then, there are multiple discussions with the company where ideas and suggestions are exchanged. It is through this iterative process that we create a programme that truly addresses the company’s needs.
For clients we work with year after year, we’re constantly tweaking the programme. We might delete a session, we might add a session, based on the client’s evolving needs and what’s happening in the business landscape. Typically, we look at the programme evaluations after the programme concludes, reviewing what the participants liked, what they felt was missing, and we revise the programme accordingly. So each year, while we may have the same overarching framework, improvements are made from the learnings.
What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in designing/leading the custom built programmes, and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge is for the Columbia faculty to understand what the company is looking for. We spend a lot of time with the client learning about their business and their training needs and then designing a learning plan in which their executives will develop practical skills and the tools needed to meet the immediate and long-term business objectives. Then, based on these discussions, we present the client with a proposal that explains the overall learning journey and how each session ties back to the company’s training needs. The client will then share their thoughts on the proposal, and the faculty further refines the proposal. It can be a time-intensive process, with lots of interaction between the Columbia faculty and the client.
Another challenge is that you have to be willing to make changes. It could mean changing faculty, eliminating sessions, or adding new ones. We need to be open to the feedback we receive both from the client and the participants and be willing to change.
How do you measure and ensure long-term success for an organisation? Can you share some of the best feedback you have received from past participants of a programme?
Success of the programmes is largely defined and measured by the client. We partner with them to understand how the learnings have been implemented, if the programme has met their expectations, and various qualitative measures. And then, of course, we look to the programme evaluations from the participants to quantify the experience.
We’ve received feedback from Bank of America that their programme, which focuses on women’s executive development, is giving them a competitive advantage in attracting talent. They’re able to differentiate themselves from their competitors and show potential employees what they’re doing to develop the skills and talent of their female executives. In fact, Bank of America looked at promotion rates and found that women who go through our programmes are 3.5 times more likely to be promoted than those who do not.
The business environment has grown more complex and interconnected. What industries do you believe would find value in and benefit from custom-built executive programmes?
I think any industry that’s undergoing change and that needs to innovate in order to stay competitive would benefit from a custom-built programme, and frankly, it’s hard to think of an industry that’s not undergoing change and needing to innovate. Unless it’s an industry that’s being phased out, custom-built programmes are perfect for any industry that’s looking for that competitive edge.
It goes back to what I mentioned earlier about how custom programmes enable us to look at what is going on inside that company today, what are the challenges they are facing, and what do they need their employees to be able to do? This allows us to design a programme that’s specifically targeted to the issues the company is facing, which isn’t limited to any one industry.
From the perspective of workforce transformation, how does the executive programme help companies and leaders achieve their goals of creating a high- performing workforce?
To me, the modern definition of workforce transformation is continuous learning on the part of employees. People need to be able to adapt to changes in the workforce. The job that you had a year ago may not be relevant to what the company needs you to do today, which demands continuous learning and continuous innovation. That is how I see the workforce currently being transformed.
Based on your experience working with senior leaders and executives from various sectors, what are some key takeaways and advice you have for aspiring leaders and seasoned managers in terms of building a successful career?
The world today is such that there are always new things coming out – new technologies, new products, new processes, new ways of measuring. I think that aspiring managers and seasoned leaders need to be able to adapt to this new type of environment. You can’t just be comfortable saying, “I’ve been doing a great job for the last five years, so I’m just going to stay where I am.” That’s not going to help you be successful in your career. Companies today are looking for people who can adapt to change and not be resistant to it. People who want to learn, people who seek out new opportunities. I think that’s the key to a successful career.
One last question, Professor Bartel: What is your definition of success?
For me, success is setting a goal and taking pride in whatever I was able to achieve, recognising that some goals may be difficult or even impossible to reach. Being able to look in the mirror and say, “I’m proud of what I was able to do. Even if I couldn’t achieve everything I set out to achieve, I’m very proud of what I was able to do.”
Thank you very much Professor Bartel. It was a great pleasure speaking with you.
About the Interviewee
Professor Bartel is the Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce Transformation at Columbia Business School and the Director of Columbia Business School’s Workforce Transformation Initiative. She is an expert in the fields of labor economics and human resource management and has published numerous articles on employee training, human capital investments, job mobility, workforce practices, work-family policies, and the impact of technological change on productivity, worker skills, and outsourcing decisions. She teaches Managerial Negotiations and Economics of Organisational Strategy. Bartel is a Fellow of the Society of Labor Economists, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the recipient of numerous research grants. She has also served as a consultant for many companies on strategic human resource management issues and has directed executive education programmes for talented women executives who are positioning themselves for career advancement.