SITTING AT ONE of the long terraced tables in the Wiener Auditorium, Solomon Obange HKSEE 2014, 2016 is among the 80 students attending a morning session of the Senior Executive Fellows program. Obange, a former Kenyan army officer, is now the man responsible for the security of his country’s parliament.

In 2014, Obange attended the Senior Executives in National and International Security program. His classmates in that program included a U.S. general, Japan’s air force chief, the chief of defense staff for Jamaica, and an admiral from Nigeria. Now, as he looks to tackle the issues facing parliament, including terrorism and cyber threats, he is back at Harvard Kennedy School.“I managed to develop the security policy for parliament that’s in place right now, and I’m currently working on putting together a new one,” Obange says. “So it really was important for me to come here to be able to find the best experts. I was looking for a wider perspective, a global perspective.”

The Senior Executive Fellows program brings high-ranking participants to the school three times a year for an intense four-week course. Like the 60-plus other executive education programs the school offers each year, it provides a chance for HKS faculty to sharpen their ideas and teaching through contact with the real-world challenges faced by public leaders from around the globe while injecting those ideas into the policy bloodstream via the participants.

Today, as Harvard Kennedy School marks its 80th anniversary and 40 years of delivering executive education, these programs have become deeply ingrained in the fabric of the school. And with the program set to expand to 4,000 participants by 2020, the value of that symbiotic relationship will grow.

Peter Zimmerman MPP 1977, who served as the founding dean of Executive Education from 1977 to 2005, says the idea of bringing together the best scholars and the best public servants was a premise of Harvard Kennedy School from its earliest days in the 1930s, when it was known as the Graduate School of Public Administration. And three centuries earlier, public service had essentially been written into Harvard’s charter.

But it wasn’t until 1976 that the school first thought of doing for public officials what Harvard Business School had been doing for business executives: bringing them in for short, intense courses to refresh and expand their skills. The school would provide practitioners with the theoretical underpinnings for new and better techniques of governance and leadership—a perfect expression of its mission. What the faculty quickly realized was that the benefits of executive education flowed in unexpected ways.

“We imagined that academics would develop good ideas, turn them into curriculum in degree programs, and then teach those ideas to experienced practitioners in executive education,” says Mark Moore, Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organizations and a pioneer in Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education program. “What we learned instead—particularly when we were thinking about ideas, curriculum, and pedagogy that mattered for the development of public managers and leaders—is that it was engagement with practitioners and the situations they actually faced that built the ideas and pedagogy, and that these ideas began influencing our degree programs.”

Hannah Riley Bowles, senior lecturer in public policy and faculty chair of the Executive Education program Women and Power, agrees that degree-program courses benefit from the investment the school has made in executive education. “The need to make what we do professionally relevant and useful is just demanded by the executive education participants,” she says, “and I think in a lot of ways that is raising the bar for how we teach in degree programs in terms of relevance and professional applicability.”

The teaching is very different, Bowles acknowledges. Executive education participants typically have such deep experience with the subject matter being discussed that they need a very different approach. “Some educators say that teaching younger people is about helping them learn about the world—about making the unfamiliar familiar,” Bowles says. “With more-seasoned professionals, you’re trying to make the familiar unfamiliar. You’re trying to expose them to new lenses that help them see the current challenges that they’re facing in a new light.”

The programs also provide faculty with another, often more direct avenue to see their ideas implemented. “The gestation time for an MPP student to apply an idea in the field may be long,” says Akash Deep, senior lecturer in public policy and faculty chair for the Infrastructure in a Market Economy program. “With executive education students, on Friday they’re here learning, on Monday they’re back at their important jobs implementing the ideas they learned here. We have a more immediate impact on the world through executive education than almost anything else we do.”

Bringing leading practitioners in contact with the faculty also has invaluable impact on research. “It’s a primary driver of research and case development activity,” Deep says. “It has allowed me to test my ideas in the field, connect the message back to the theory, and then try to make it all fit together.”

Participants say they find the short programs challenging and memorable. Being at Harvard is a huge part of the learning experience, as is the intensity of the programs. The uniqueness of the teaching is remarkable, even to participants who have deep experience with executive training.

Gabrielle Dolan HKSEE 2014, 2016, an Australian who teaches corporate leaders how to communicate better through narrative, remembers arriving for the first session of the Art and Practice of Leadership Development program. She was expecting some cursory introductions and an overview of the program. Instead the faculty member simply asked, “Where do we begin?” and then waited silently while the new arrivals grappled with that fundamental question. Participants initially didn’t know how to react, but then realized that he was throwing down the gauntlet, requiring them to find leadership resources within themselves. “I thought to myself, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,’” Dolan says. “It was the most different training environment I’ve ever been in.”

Joe Schmitt HKSEE 2016, the director of operations at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Debt Management Center, says that while Harvard’s reputation is what first drew him, he needed to make sure the program worked with his schedule, aligned with his career needs, and could be leveraged quickly back in the office.

“Within 90 days of completing the course, my job is to go back and implement the concepts and techniques I learned here at Harvard,” he says. Leadership lessons he drew allowed him to play a crucial role in the establishment of a new Veterans Affairs call center serving the department’s 20 million customers.

Executive Education montage.

Four decades in, executive education continues to evolve, says Debra Iles, senior associate dean for Executive Education. The program aims to grow to 4,000 participants a year over the next four years, from its current level of about 3,500. “The world is growing increasingly complex and global—public leaders need to be prepared to function at a high level, and we aim to bring the resources of Harvard to bear on that challenge,” she says.

Over the years, the school has added open-enrollment programs on cutting-edge topics, with the latest focused on climate change, human rights, and behavioral economics, and custom programs—such as those tailored to the needs of large cohorts of civil servants from India, China, and the Middle East.

Technology brings new opportunities as well. Today, all participants receive digital materials in advance so that they can arrive on campus prepared to learn. Plumpton Professor of Political Economy Richard Zeckhauser and Kessely Hong, lecturer in public policy, recently collaborated on an online module that introduces decision theory—material that had previously taken up time in the classroom—enabling them to dive in at a deeper level. For the nonprofit sector, Harvard Kennedy School offers a handful of executive education programs online, affording participants the opportunity to attend a highly interactive and equally rigorous Harvard program without having to travel to campus. Through social media, participant alumni stay in touch with their new networks long after a program ends.

As the school’s campus construction project nears completion, Executive Education will have a new state-of-the-art classroom with greater physical and technological capacity, including sophisticated translation capabilities. The school is also expanding study group space and event space.

“Last year, over 15,000 people inquired about our programs,” Iles says. “Even though our application process is straightforward—in executive education, we are looking for demonstrated leadership, not academic transcripts—we still could accommodate only 54 percent of the people who applied. We are pleased that our capacity is growing, because executive education is a critical part of the HKS teaching mission.  We see such impact from these programs that we want to improve access for qualified people from all over the world.”

As Zimmerman puts it, “These people are today’s leaders. They inspire us with their stories, and we want to inspire them to keep going. Public service is hard!  We want them to leave here refreshed in their commitment to make a difference for their country or their community.”

While civic leaders are sure to be confronted with new challenges over the next 40 years, HKS will remain committed to Executive Education—training the next generation of senior leaders in ways that we can barely imagine today—and learning a great deal from them in the process.

The takeaway

Serop Ohanian HKSEE 2015, 2016
Executive Director, Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation (HKCC)
Beirut, Lebanon

I OVERSEE a primary health care center in Beirut, Lebanon. The course I attended last year (Leading Successful Social Programs) completely reset how I looked at my work. When I returned to Lebanon, I gathered the HKCC leadership team and shared what I had learned about the theory of change. Together, we asked, What are we trying to achieve as a nonprofit organization, and what does the data tells us? We gathered data, analyzed the data, and then assessed its impact. Given what we found, we decided we’d be better off shifting our focus from treatment to prevention. We began to develop outreach campaigns that educated people about diseases such as diabetes—and how they could prevent them. So many people who come to our clinic who didn’t know they were at risk are now benefiting from various services that can prevent these diseases. In the past three years, our clinic has also seen a substantial influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. Lots of the children in these families need to be vaccinated against diseases that their parents were not even aware of. We are starting to develop campaigns to educate this vulnerable group.

Deborah Holt-Knight HKSEE 2012
Deputy Commissioner,
Adult Protective Services (APS),
New York City Human Resources Administration New York

ONE OF THE MAJOR MESSAGES I took away from the program Driving Government Performance is that good intentions are not enough. I learned how to look at problems and turn those problems into possibilities. I work with vulnerable populations in New York City—the elderly and the handicapped. Every day I deal with multiple challenges, and it’s not enough for me to just feel sorry for people. I can’t just throw up my hands. I have to come up with concrete solutions, because we’re talking about lives here. Some of the key concepts from the program—communicate clearly, analyze data—are still on my desk and they still stand out for me. When I participated in the program, I was executive director of operations, and I’m now deputy commissioner of APS. I’m less in a reactive mode. I now have a team, and I can absolutely roll out some of those major concepts that I learned. I can look at our challenge and our response will be different. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Kennedy School. Who would my classmates be? I met people from other branches of government and from all over the world—Belgium, Afghanistan, Singapore, South Africa—that just heightened the experience. When you hear people in government from South Africa talk about management, you realize there are more similarities than differences.