A Driver of Innovation, Stanford’s Flagship Executive Program Innovates Itself

A leading program to train executives to drive change in their organizations, Stanford’s flagship SEP itself underwent changes this year.

November 01, 2016

Students confer at a blackboard

Participants learn from each other in “Stanford Executive Program: Be a Leader Who Matters.” | Elena Zhukova

The Stanford Executive Program: Be a Leader Who Matters (SEP) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is built around a powerful, yet simple, construct: Excellence scales. An informational webinar on the six-week summer 2017 program will be offered on Wednesday, November 9, 10-11 am Pacific Time.

“A good leader understands her strategy,” explains Stanford GSB faculty member William Barnett serving his first year as director of the venerable program. “A great leader helps others to understand it.”

For 64 years, SEP has worked to provide that framework. Testimony from professors and participants alike attests that the program succeeds.

“You must unleash the talent of your team,” said Fernando Nuñez Mendoza, cofounder and CEO of FonYou Telecom, a 10-year-old telecom startup in Barcelona. “From SEP, I learned to take a step back and let my team discover together the best way to face the next challenge: how will we grow. That way everyone owns our success.”

Students chat on a break from class

At “Stanford Executive Program: Be a Leader Who Matters” the focus is on the entire person, not just the professional. | Elena Zhukova

During six weeks in July and August, seasoned executives from all over the world converged on Stanford. These men and women from 37 countries listened and learned, discussed and debated. As they grew comfortable with campus life and the Bay Area’s balmy climate, they began to change. First, it was their focus. Then, it was their attitude. Finally, it was them. When they left Stanford, the transformation was mostly complete as they prepared to take what they learned home.

Barnett, Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations, and the BP Faculty Fellow in Global Management, described the process he watched unfold as immensely gratifying. “What we want are good leaders who have done their part to change the world,” he said. “Then we help them learn how to lead others in changing the world.”

A good leader understands her strategy. A great leader helps others to understand it.
William Barnett

It is not easy to be selected for the Stanford Executive Program, which will celebrate its 65th anniversary in 2017. Small by design, only 160 people qualified to attend SEP based on their education, track record of accomplishments, and ability to innovate. With an eye to widening and diversifying the applicant pool, marketing for the 2016 SEP class stepped up. Consequently, diversity rose significantly, especially among industries and gender. Barnett said he marveled at how the vast differences among the participants melted away with each passing day—even as the entire experience became more dynamic. “Participants came from all over the world, from different cultures, traditions, backgrounds, and industries. Their one common denominator is that they are all innovators,” he noted. “On that basis we saw very different people collaborating with each other marvelously.”

Another change — and a most rewarding one — was the number of women who attended. Female executives doubled compared to the previous year.

One such executive was Yaluo Sun. The 43-year-old had done well, rising to CFO at Shunfeng Nobao Renewable Energy Group in Shanghai. But after spending 10 years immersed in numbers, she sought a challenge. SEP, she said, taught her to widen her world. Now group vice president, she planned to open an office in Europe upon returning to China. Next, she planned to become CEO.

But perhaps the most important lesson she learned at SEP was about work/life balance. Describing herself as “not married yet,” because she focused entirely on work, Sun gathered from other women in attendance that she, too, could have a life outside the office. Watching alone from the sidelines, while children and spouses celebrated with fellow SEP participants on graduation day, made her realize how much she wanted a partner, perhaps even children, by her side. “SEP opened my eyes. It opened my mind. Women can balance very well,” she said with a smile.

That may be SEP’s best-kept secret: The program focuses on the entire person—not just the professional. “We cannot be great leaders if we cannot be whole people,” Barnett said. “Our health, life balance, family, and friends are all part of what makes us high-achieving and our lives fulfilling.”

A professor teaching students

Faculty director William Barnett marveled at how the vast differences among SEP participants melted away with each passing day, even as the entire experience became more dynamic. | Elena Zhukova

SEP participants have access to Stanford’s recreational facilities including tennis courts, swimming pools, and gyms; the program offers classes in yoga and team-building exercises. Realizing how challenging it can be to take a six-week leave from work and family obligations, Stanford GSB welcomes couples and offers accommodations for families. Barnett noted that surprisingly those who took advantage of the family quarters were nearly all men, but he was pleased that the university sent a positive signal that married people are welcome.

The message was not lost on Mendoza. “Balance is the inner fight,” said the new father of twins. He found the sessions focused on taking care of himself as some of the most rewarding and satisfying parts of the program because he felt better, acted better, and had more energy. His new mantra? “You must find balance in your life.”

Mendoza said he was also surprised to realize he wants to hire more women at his company in Spain because he found the diversity so invigorating. And he plans to do his part to ensure that girls — keeping his young daughters in mind — are exposed to the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. To show that he had totally absorbed the SEP’s teachings, Mendoza recounted one of the exercises in which participants were asked to describe themselves in six words. “Engineer, executive, entrepreneur, father, Stanford, leader,” was his response.

Then he took the six-word assignment a bit further. Preparing to leave Stanford GSB on the last day of SEP, Mendoza had these parting words: “Best investment I ever made.”

As SEP prepared to wrap up 2016, Barnett said he believed the goal of his first year had been achieved. “In every industry there’s a company that really makes a difference, and at that company there’s a leader who mattered. Our vision at SEP is to help our participants become that leader.”

— By Katherine Conrad

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