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Last year, 40 U.S. Air Force officers were nominated to the rank of brigadier general. Peter Zimmerman MPP 1977, senior associate dean for program development, was pleased to see that 17 of those officers had participated in the Senior Executive Fellows Program at Harvard Kennedy School.

The superintendents of the three major U.S. military academies — for the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy — have also passed through Kennedy School executive education programs.

Its training of high-level military personnel is just one example of how influential and pervasive the executive education program has become since the school prepared its first program, 35 years ago. The Kennedy School now offers the most comprehensive range of such programs available anywhere in the world, providing instruction — lasting anywhere from two days to four weeks — to some 3,000 students from 140 countries on subjects as diverse as economic development, homeland security, ngo management, and regulatory and enforcement policy.

“Executive Education is one of the most distinctive things about the Kennedy School — something that really sets us apart from other public policy schools,” notes Zimmerman, who directed the program from 1977 to 2005. The premise of executive education — providing short courses to people in leadership posts who have time for only brief leaves of absence — dates back to the original premise of the Kennedy School, when it was founded in 1936 as the Graduate School of Public Administration.

“This was supposed to be a place where government executives could come on a kind of sabbatical to study with faculty and return to their positions enriched and, hopefully, better prepared for the challenges ahead,” Zimmerman says. Fast-forward to 1976, when the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School started an executive program called Senior Managers in Government, a three-week summer course primarily intended for upper-level federal employees. The Kennedy School added Senior Executives in National and International Security in 1978 and, a year later, Senior Executives in State and Local Government. Senior Executive Fellows was launched in 1980.

From that point onward, the Kennedy School has added about two new executive education programs each year. Christine Letts, senior associate dean from 2005 until this past summer, says, “We add programs based on the changing demands we see in the market. For example, we now offer several skills-based programs, like Mastering Negotiations and Leadership Decision-Making. This year we are working on new programs focused on economic growth in developing countries and the use of evidence in evaluating government programs.”

Executives as students

Designing programs for professionally accomplished students posed new challenges for the Kennedy School faculty. This was especially true in the early days of executive education, as professors scrambled to make sure they had something of substance to offer people who had already made a mark in their fields — the same fields where the school’s younger students eventually hoped to find employment. At a minimum, instructors were pushed away from abstractions and driven toward the dilemmas faced in real-world situations.

Zimmerman recalls that when a young faculty member prepared to teach in the first Senior Managers in Government program, a more senior colleague told him: “I’ve calculated that there is about a thousand years of experience in that classroom. I’m sure they’ll be interested in hearing what you learned during your 18 months in Washington.” Professors quickly realized that conversations had to shift from topics of great interest to the faculty to topics of great interest to the participants. Most of the teaching has since become discussion-based, directly engaging participants who learn from one another.

“They get a lot of inspiration from peers who want to try to do things differently,” adds Christine Letts. “That’s a critical part of the experience.”

The teaching strategy deviates from the norm by almost 180 degrees, Zimmerman explains. “In most of our education, we focus on relatively inexperienced students for whom we try to make an unfamiliar world less forbidding. For executives who live in that world, the idea is to bring in new perspectives that help them see things in a new light — to make the familiar unfamiliar, in other words.”

“Students” and “teachers” can both profit from this arrangement. Students can make sure their skills and knowledge are up to date. Faculty members gain direct access to people who can test out their ideas upon reentering the workplace. “Public leaders today don’t necessarily face a greater array of challenges than in the past,” adds Letts, “but they are more interested in dealing with those challenges in a professional manner, drawing on the latest research to guide their decisions.” The future

In July, Debra Iles took the helm as associate dean for executive education, planning to build on the strong foundation that exists. “The need for programs like this is greater today than ever before,” she says. “There’s more demand for good government because more countries are moving from authoritarian regimes to democracies. Most government leaders understand that the world has become more connected. They need to know the latest ideas and how countries are applying them.” For the past several years, most of the growth in executive education at the Kennedy School has been in international markets, even though the early programs involving U.S. federal, state, and local government are still thriving. Iles adds: “Today most of our 60-plus programs reflect an international mix of participants.” In order to expand access even further, the Kennedy School has introduced a suite of online programs targeted to nonprofit organizations worldwide. These programs use blended technologies to create online communities of learning, with intensive support from faculty members. In Marshall Ganz’s recent program, Leadership, Organizing, and Action, teams from 57 organizations worked alongside one another to solve the critical problems their organizations faced. Other new programs — such as the course for Young Global Leaders, offered in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and chaired by the new academic dean Iris Bohnet — match the strengths of existing faculty members with the needs of new leaders.

Letts hopes that her legacy will be the push to expand the Kennedy School’s presence in places like Africa and South America. “We’re now engaged in aggressive outreach to these underrepresented areas,” she says. “A lot more people would come here if they had the resources, and that’s what we’re trying to address. We have seen firsthand the potential for impact, and we want to make it real.”