Each year, the firm sponsors a two-and-one-half-day leadership seminar focused on personal development. “I remember a new hire here who dreaded having to go to the seminar, thinking it would be another lecture with flip charts,” says Wheelwright. “She was in horror at the thought of having to spend eight hours stuck in a room. However, once it was over, she said she couldn’t wait for tomorrow.”
Wheelwright leads the annual seminar, which involves role playing and other collaborative exercises drawn from Robert Kiyosaki, founder of the Rich Dad Co., a private financial education organization. Kiyosaki is the author of the Rich Dad Poor Dad series of personal finance books, which have sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. In 1985, he acquired Erhard Seminars Training and rebranded the controversial company as a business education firm focused on leadership. He and Wheelwright have collaborated on a book and are close friends.
“Robert’s seminars are not the usual ‘rah rah’ Tony Robbins stuff, not that there is anything wrong with that,” says Wheelwright. “Instead, his seminars are more transformational than instructional, more geared to getting people to engage with others in creative expression. We use his role-playing techniques to get employees to open up and freely express their wildest business ideas. Research indicates that people who participate in such exercises retain up to 90 percent of the experience after two weeks. This compares to 50 percent when engaging in discussions and 20 percent in instructional, lecture-type classes.”
While he encourages the workforce to pursue outside professional education opportunities and the attainment of an MBA, not all academic institutions provide worthwhile programs, Wheelwright says. “Since we’re in the wealth education and accounting business, we employ several CPAs who have to take 80 hours of continuing education classes every two years, which we fund in full,” he notes. “But nobody enjoys sitting in a room taking copious notes as some ‘talking-head’ instructor lectures on some esoteric subject, with a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation of bullet points in the background.”
Wheelwright also advocates the “personal replenishment” benefits afforded by sabbaticals. The company provides a paid, one-month sabbatical to employees, which can be added to their vacation time to “really unwind,” he adds, calling sabbaticals a “crucial way to achieve better work-life balance. Employees who remain here while their colleagues are on a sabbatical are told not to bother them unless the issue is critical. We don’t want them to feel stress while they’re away. We want them to rest their minds, absorb new experiences and come back with fresh perspectives.”
Finding Stellar Seminars
Johnston at QBE North America is a proponent of seminar training—if they’re the right fit. Prior to becoming the insurer’s CEO in May 2016, he was president of the $6 billion U.S. casualty division of the large international insurer AIG, which he previously served as COO.
During his time with AIG, he took a series of leadership seminars taught by Professors Jack Weber and Carol Weber (they’re married) at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. “It was the most impactful course I’ve taken in my entire career,” he says.
Both the The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times rated the leadership seminars number one in terms of teaching quality and impact among all other university-based leadership development programs. Not only did the seminars give Johnston keen insights into people performance management, they inspired him to become a seminar instructor. “I’ve got a certificate hiding around here somewhere,” he says.
Johnston prefers seminars that take employees out of their comfort zones rather than those designed purely to increase technical competencies. “I have nothing against executive MBA programs, but they tend to dwell on business-as-usual instruction as opposed to looking outside one’s technical competency to grasp what is really going on in the world, in terms of innovative technologies, processes and new business structures,” he explains. “My philosophy of executive development is to hire technically competent people and then get them thinking about change management. I’m a passionate believer that to become an effective leader in today’s disruptive market environment, you need to develop people equipped to handle change and innovate.”
At QBE, this process begins the day a new hire attends the onboarding orientation. “The minute they come through the front door, we put them through a pretty rigorous leadership profile, in which we assess their leadership competency and cultural fit,” he explains. “This tells us where they need to improve and how we should go about it, through seminars for the most part.”
To spread institutional knowledge and stimulate the development of novel ideas, Johnston hosts a monthly morning coffee klatch with a random selection of employees from across the business, everyone from senior executives to administrative assistants. He asks the same question at every gathering—“What can we do to make the company better?”
“Since I’ve arrived here, I’d say half the things we’ve implemented literally came from the ideas that percolated at those morning sessions,” Johnston says.
Ultimately, it’s that idea-generating power that justifies devoting time and resources to executive education. Continuous learning can be a powerful tool in any CEO’s arsenal, particularly when grappling with the single biggest challenge facing leaders today—the need to reinvent their businesses on an ongoing basis.