The Personal, Virtual Touch

How Stanford GSB disrupts the online executive education space

By Tim Harnett

As organizations focus on keeping high-performing leaders in-house, they’ll need to develop them, not only with the skills they need for their role, but also the soft skills needed to manage their teams. The leader-employee relationship is critical to organizational success, especially as people leave managers, not companies. To this end, many organizations target leaders for development in emotional intelligence, situational leadership, communication and collaboration.1 With nearly every industry facing disruption, leaders will also need innovation skills to push their organizations forward.

Chief Learning Officer research suggests that three-quarters of organizations use instructor-led training as part of leadership development. The difficulty in relying on this modality is one of time. Managers, directors and other executives are busy and often don’t have time for in-class training. When time is at a premium, online learning becomes a more attractive option. But is it possible to replicate the high-touch nature of a classroom virtually?

Audrey Witters, managing director for online and entrepreneurship programs at Stanford Graduate Business School, says absolutely. “Skepticism about the efficacy of teaching negotiation or leadership skills online was often due to the lack of effective social learning experiences. To truly learn skills such as corporate innovation, you need to experience it, try it out, and come back and reflect with other people. You can’t accomplish that with a typical online program.”

Today’s leadership demands more than a quick online course. Enter Stanford LEAD, and its year-long online executive education programs. In three areas — skills taught, time required and networking opportunities — LEAD differentiates itself from other online programs.

Develop soft skills

Executive education programs should give students the tools and skills they need to do their jobs better and more efficiently, rather than learning for learning’s sake. Many organizational challenges can be addressed by giving leaders the soft skills they need to connect with their employees.

These days, more Americans than ever are working offsite. In 2017, nearly half of employed Americans reported spending some time working remotely, according to Gallup research.2 Leading virtual teams will become critical as this number increases, meaning leaders will need practice working with virtual teams.

Put in the time

To succeed in an online executive education program like LEAD, students need to rethink what they know about online learning. While shorter online courses might quickly introduce skills, true knowledge transfer requires a more iterative learning process. “With our format, participants can go deeper into the material,” Witters says. “They first learn the concepts, then try the concept out at their jobs. Finally, they come back and discuss how that went with their peers and faculty and afterward go try again. Time spent on the course is time students will eventually get back in increased productivity.”

“Our courses are designed around learning by doing,” adds Marineh Lalikian, director of Stanford LEAD. “Our tenured faculty teach research-based frameworks and have worked with our learning experience designers to design an online-first interactive approach — more than just a recording of a lecture. Our courses don’t simply transfer classroom learning to the computer, but instead think creatively about how classroom learning can be adapted virtually in a way that’s easily digestible and concise.

“Because the experience is virtual,” Lalikian adds, “learners are in their own work environment. They have a unique opportunity to incorporate assignments and activities that aren’t simply simulations but practical organizational applications.”

Make connections

Why choose a high-touch executive education program over a shorter option, like a MOOC or other e-learning course? Witters says the strengths lie in the connections students make. “MOOCs are excellent for accessibility, but what they lack is community curation,” Witters says. “Your leaders need a program that can deliver values from others with similar interests and challenges. Community in a program like LEAD also creates accountability in a way we haven’t seen in other online education courses.” This accountability contributes to course participation and completion — key performance indicators of success. The average completion rate for a MOOC hovers around 5 percent,3 compared to a 97 percent completion rate for Stanford LEAD.

The value executive education brings to the organization is well established. Today’s leaders need a high degree of emotional intelligence as well as business acumen to connect with their employees and contribute to organizational strategic goals. Enrolling in an online education program like Stanford LEAD ensures they’ll learn in a high-touch environment that will offer real-world examples and solutions, giving them the knowledge to succeed.

Learn more about the Stanford LEAD experience at

Executive Education programs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business propel careers and deliver lasting value to our participants and their organizations. With our diverse portfolio of open enrollment offerings and the customized learning experiences that we deliver in partnership with leading corporate clients, we transform today’s participants into tomorrow’s innovative global business leaders.

1 Chief Learning Officer (2018). CLO 2018 State of the Industry survey.
2 Gallup (2017). State of the American Workplace.
3 MIT (2017). Study of MOOCs offers insights into online learner engagement and behavior. MIT News.