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Through Innovative Custom Programs, Georgetown McDonough Teaches Executives How to Lead Through Change

By Michael Blanding
Illustration by Mark Allen Miller

Business leaders know this: Change is a constant. It may be the only constant in an ever-changing business environment driven by new technology, markets, and shifting regulations. 

But what happens when you are the one charged with teaching others how to change? That is the question that Booz Allen Hamilton found itself grappling with 10 years ago. The company faced an increasing demand from its consulting clients for information and guidance on how to weather organizational transformations. 

“We wanted to find a way to create a cadre of experts truly versed in organizational change management,” says Scott Barr, deputy chief transformation officer at Booz Allen Hamilton. 

When they could not find an existing program that could teach that broad range of skills, the company turned to the Office of Executive Education at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business to help them create one.

“We wanted to partner with an institution that could give us a bit of cache as well as the academic rigor and access to experts in the space,” Barr says. 

Unlike most business schools with executive leadership-training programs, McDonough does not have an out-of-the-box curriculum. 

“Research consistently shows that leadership is highly dependent on context,” says Ashley Baker, associate dean of custom programs in McDonough’s Office of Executive Education. “You see books like The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan, and unless you are leading bloodthirsty warriors, the transferability of what you read is going to be pretty limited.” 

Instead, the McDonough team works with companies to design custom programs that serve their unique set of circumstances. Over the past decade, McDonough has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 companies, consulting firms, global financial institutions, and universities to help even experienced leaders tailor their skills to fit their changing needs. 

Often, the practitioners coming to Georgetown to learn are high-level leaders in their organizations who have proven themselves and risen through the ranks. However, that does not necessarily mean that their skills are suited to the challenges of the current marketplace. 

“Experience can be both an asset and a handicap,” Baker says. “What we are able to do in university-based executive education is bring the best of people’s experience to the front while also bringing the best research into the classroom and understanding how it applies to their specific environment.”

Change Agents

For Booz Allen Hamilton, that meant sitting down with Georgetown faculty and staff to create a rigorous program that would take in all aspects of change, including strategy, communications, incentives, performance evaluation, and project management. 

“One of the biggest roadblocks our clients often hit is the space between articulation of a strategy and implementation of that strategy,” Barr says. “Making it through that transition really takes a grounded understanding that allows you to identify and architect the different components that help organizations go from where they are today to their vision or aspiration for the future.”

The collaboration between Booz Allen Hamilton and McDonough resulted in the Change Management Advanced Practitioners Program, a nine-day curriculum spread out over five months. The design of the program allows senior leaders at Booz Allen Hamilton to soak in the material in a mini-MBA format. In the 10 years since the program launched, more than 900 employees have participated.

“There are assignments, homework, and graded exercises,” Baker says. The end result is to give the consultants a new set of tools they can implement in their daily functions.

“We expose them to the most important thinkers on change management and talk about how the different frameworks compare,” Baker says. “We also look at the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, so they 
can customize solutions and approaches to change for their clients.” 

The program culminates in an action-learning project, in which each of the participants develops a case study using an actual client with a transformation challenge. Using simulated data, they write an academic paper analyzing the problem and developing a solution; they then present that solution in a mock client presentation to a team of judges drawn from the course instructors and guests. 

“We could ask them to take a test, but it doesn’t test their ability to be a practitioner,” Barr says. “The theories are great, but if they can’t engage in a conversation about how to apply them, then we haven’t hit the mark. It’s the application to the real world that makes the program so unique and important to us.”

Becoming Agile

Six years ago, AARP — the largest nonprofit membership organization in the world — came to McDonough to co-design a leadership program. At the time AARP was undergoing significant change, retooling its strategy for an evolving marketplace shaped not only by demographics but also by an increasingly crowded and differentiated nonprofit landscape. 

“AARP has to be smart and savvy about how it conveys its value proposition,” says Michael O’Leary, teaching professor and faculty lead for the program. 

Increasingly, the organization has started reaching out to the generation consisting of 35- to 55-year-olds who may be taking care of their aging parents while also worrying about their children’s tuition and their own student loans. “It’s a sandwich bracket that is dealing with both child care and elder care,” O’Leary says.

AARP identified priorities for leadership development, starting with managing change. Partnering with McDonough, AARP worked with faculty and staff to develop the AgL program, a three-module course of nine days covering change management, conflict resolution, and leadership. 

“We started the Agile (AgL) program because we saw a need to develop leaders throughout the organization who are able to adapt and respond more quickly to the changing environment in which we live and work,” says Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP. “As an organization serving 38 million members and their families, we need innovative leaders who are collaborative — who can work together and with their teams to empower people to choose how they live as they age.” 

The AARP program focuses on strategy and developing a common lexicon through which leaders can communicate goals and execute new initiatives. Early in the program, participants devote an entire day to a computer-based change-management simulation, in which they can make decisions on how to execute a simulated yearlong restructuring, obtain feedback, and analyze what worked and what did not. 

Since the first cohort of the AgL program five years ago, the team of AARP executives and Georgetown faculty has modified it as the needs of the organization have changed. They also have launched new short courses on topics such as using data effectively or working with the so-called sandwich generation. 

One element that has not changed is the strategic learning project, in which participants work in teams to take on real-life management issues within the company. 

“These projects are a vehicle for them to apply what they are learning in the classroom in a way that is not artificial,” O’Leary says. The goal is for participants to leave the program with increased confidence in their ability to lead, along with specific tools and techniques they can apply back in the office. 

O’Leary also finds that after working together with other participants and developing a common language to describe issues, most participants stay connected after the program. “They build connections with people in the organization whom they wouldn’t ordinarily see on a day-to-day basis and leave with 20 people they can call or send an email to and say, ‘We have something intersecting, let’s work on this together,’” he says.

On the Money

For most nonprofit organizations, one of the most difficult changes to make is in fundraising for programs — and yet, doing that effectively can be one of the most crucial changes they can make, according to Curt Weeden, president of the consulting firm Business & Nonprofit Strategies Inc. Weeden developed his New Strategies Program as a way to bridge the gap between the nonprofit and corporate worlds. 

“For a long time, I have been concerned the country doesn’t understand the full value of what the nonprofit community brings to the table,” he says. “We should be doing more to help that sector.” 

A former vice president at Johnson & Johnson, Weeden founded a group called the Association of Corporate Contributions Professionals, a national trade group for the philanthropic arm of corporations. 

Working with more than 200 companies involved with the group, Weeden persistently found nonprofits struggled to develop strategies aimed at securing funding from businesses. “Bringing nonprofit CEOs and vice presidents of development together in small groups might lead to different and more effective ways of securing business support,” says Weeden. 

Out of this idea, New Strategies was born in 2011, and four years later Weeden approached Georgetown about a partnership. New Strategies is now a part of McDonough’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI), where Weeden co-leads the program with William Novelli, GSEI founder and a distinguished professor of the practice. Over 700 nonprofit organizations have taken part in New Strategies advanced management forums, making it the largest initiative of its kind in the United States.

Uniquely, all program expenses are covered by corporate funders; nonprofits pay nothing to attend a New Strategies event. Last year, funders included Aetna, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Ford, Johnson & Johnson, and more than a dozen other major companies. Businesses often are motivated to send nonprofits to Georgetown because the training enables organizations to design much broader and sustainable ways of generating revenue. 

“They become far less reliant on a single business or a small cluster of donors by building a strong base of support,” says Weeden.

The New Strategies course is taught over an intensive four days and makes use of outside experts on such issues as cause marketing and using artificial intelligence to optimize donor databases. Faculty members include Leslie Crutchfield, executive director of GSEI, and Melissa Bradley (B’91), an adjunct professor and a top expert on impact investing.

For David Adame, president and CEO of CPLC, one of the top Hispanic nonprofits in the nation, the New Strategies course opened with a shock. Of the four main “buckets” for fundraising — government, corporations, foundations, and individuals — CPLC had been doing well only in the first two. 

“What slapped me in the face was that those were the two smallest buckets from which to raise money,” says Adame, whose group is the largest community development corporation in Arizona. “Seventy percent of funds come from family foundations and individuals.” 

In response, Adame’s organization created a new position specifically for individual giving and placed renewed focus on foundations. “Our foundation money has increased 1,000 times,” he says.

Even with corporations, however, Adame’s group started to think more creatively. For example, when CPLC was looking to develop two large apartment complexes a few miles from a community health center, it bypassed the banks and instead approached health care company United Healthcare (UHC), securing a loan for $22 million at 1 percent interest. In return, the group allowed UHC to put its branding on the health clinic and set aside 100 units in the apartment complex for patients referred by UHC’s social workers. 

That helped UHC fulfill regulatory requirements under Obamacare and save money as well. One example of the latter was a Native American family from the Navajo Nation Reservation, a 300-mile drive from Phoenix. “UHC was spending $300,000 a year on this family, and 40 percent was nonmedical — it was the cost of transportation and housing,” Adame says. “Now, UHC only spends $100,000 on this family.” 

According to Weeden, part of the key to nonprofits improving their fundraising capabilities is learning how to tell their stories better and recognize the unique services they provide. 

That notion struck a chord with Adame. “We had been doing well on technical issues, but we weren’t telling the story of how we helped someone survive domestic violence,” he says. 

Since attending the course, Adame has seen a dramatic increase in funds. While previously the organization served 200,000 families a year, this past year it served 360,000 — and in five years, it hopes to serve 1.5 million. 

“I would like to see business donors begin to stand up and say, we need to value nonprofit organizations differently, and maximize the contributions they 
can make to society,” adds Weeden. “We need all of the payers acting more responsibly and effectively together.” GB

Mercy Astorga of World Vision takes part in the New Strategies program from McDonough’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative.

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Spring 2019

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