Kelly Bean is a senior associate dean and the Charles F. Knight Distinguished Director of Executive Education at WashU Olin. Based at the Brookings Institution, she is charged with unifying and expanding executive education operations in St. Louis and Washington, DC.
She has more than 20 years’ executive education experience at the University of Virginia, Emory University, UCLA and the University of South Carolina. Here is the full version of her Q&A with Olin Business, which was excerpted in the magazine.
Olin Business: Why executive education? Why has that become your niche?
Kelly Bean: I am passionate about developing leaders and doing that at a point in their career where they’re ready—they can use their experiences to really push themselves and their organizations forward. That has been a clear purpose of mine. And I think you can have great impact with people when they’re ready to learn some things about themselves and be able to apply that in a work setting.
OB: You didn’t wake up one morning and decide this is your passion. How did that come to be?
KB: I spent about 10 years in the retail business before going back to get my MBA. When it really became solidified for me, I had somebody walk into my Coach store in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Her name was Nikki and she was the niece of somebody who was working for me. Nikki was 19 years old, she had baby, had just moved from California and there was something about her that I was like, “Oh, she’s really special.” This was her first job, she took it seriously, I ended up developing her into a key holder and then making her an assistant manager.
So, I did sort of wake up one day and say, “It’s not about selling purses” or “Would you like a pair of socks with that?” It’s about growing and developing the people that worked with me. That’s what I wanted to do. I decided that’s why I wanted to go back and get my master’s in human resources.
OB: What drew you to WashU?
KB: What drew me here was an opportunity to get back to a research-focused institution that really integrates business and business strategy with leadership development. What really attracted me was kind of the next phase of that thinking, which is the complexity of the world that we live in today. The leaders of the future need to be able to also navigate through a set of questions that Brookings brings to the table: What does it mean as we think about the strategy of our organization and the team that I’m leading?
What policy is out there? Do we need to be thinking about poverty? Do we need to be thinking about education? Do we need to be thinking about healthcare? How is the complexity of the world changing the way we think about how we go to market? And so now I think there’s this kind of third piece around social awareness, politics, policy, government—the integration of those things.
I think when you look at that sweet spot—how those three things combine—it’s the next future of executive education and that’s where I want to play.
OB: It sounds a little bit like the idea of values-based, data-driven leadership.
KB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I was completely connected to that concept. I knew of WashU, I’d been here before, and I knew of Brookings, I knew of that match (between WashU and Brookings). Then coming here and feeling a culture of collaboration, of community, of excellence for the right reasons—you just feel it when you come here. You just feel it.
OB: Brookings is a relationship that is unique to us. How do you see that connection working here in St. Louis?
KB: I think the historical connection between Brookings and WashU makes this actually an easy thing to be able to do. I see it very much in alignment with what Dean Taylor wants to do with WashU from a globalization standpoint, but then also recognizing that St. Louis is a city, a region, where the globalization of business is happening right here, too.
OB: We want to more closely identify our executive education programming and curriculum with the Brookings Institution, correct?
KB: Yes, absolutely. What I described earlier with this strategy/business/leadership combination and the integration of policy—for lack of a better word—that’s the sweet spot where we want to be able to help leaders in their organizations, and how can that integration impact their own organizations.
Bringing in these angles of policy and social awareness—the intersection of policy, strategy and leadership is the sweet spot.
When you’re thinking about strategy, you have to think about what’s happening in the world. I mean, we woke up this morning and the premier of China has called on the people of China to rise up in a war against US products because of tariffs. Well, if you’re a leader in an organization, what impact is that going to have? If not today, what impact is it going to have down the road?
It brings to life the purpose of the firm, but it allows you as leaders and as managers to be able to make a different set of decisions because it’s a different conversation.
OB: What do you see as the future for executive education? What trends are you watching?
KB: I think the future of exec ed is about creating an offering that becomes stackable certificates.
The big trend is really around personalization of a learning journey. Each individual leader needs to be able to ensure their experience helps them achieve their personal and career growth. So, the beauty of the stackable certificates is it provides some guidance on what does that look like for me—in both what I’m doing today and where I want to go?
Another one is “anytime, anywhere, when I want it”—using technology to be a piece of that puzzle, which might be providing some content, but then you come together to discuss the content and the impact that’s having for you. There’s this kind of omni-learning type of environment that is beginning to happen where, depending on the individual, there’s a variety of options and choices.
I think the trend has been and will continue to be a focus on the total development of individuals, which comes down to health and wellness and mindfulness, in addition to understanding the functions of business: What is my role? What role do I need to play tomorrow? What role do I need to play today? What role did I used to play that is not something I need to play anymore? There’s this constant evolution of self.
OB: How important is it that the faculty is research based when it comes to executive education?
KB: You have a set of frameworks that says, “Here’s what some of the research shows, here is a way to think about problems. Let’s do this case,” and then you turn it into, “So, why does all of this matter?” It’s a more facilitative type of discussion and dialogue, but there’s an intellectual curiosity that both types of faculty—research- and experience-based—have. But the ones that have a little bit more of that research training can do a little sidebar for a few minutes on the scholarly work that adds a whole level of credibility.
OB: You’ve worked for some highly ranked institutions. How important are the rankings?
KB: I have been so fortunate in my career to work at incredible institutions or partner with other institutions that are ranked somewhere between 1 and 100. And every single one of those institutions has provided new thinking and an opportunity for leaders to grow. You have to be clear on your purpose and you have to be open to seeing a variety of different perspectives. The ranking is not where people make their decisions. They make their decisions based on the relationship that you have.
OB: You’ve spoken before about helping executives develop a strong sense of purpose and vision—seeing beyond the functional and technical skills and going deeper. Is that what we’re talking about here?
KB: The world is changing so much that we’re going to always need to continue to build functional and technical skills.
One of my mentors who got me into this business would say to clients: “We can build awareness. We can build understanding. And we can build competence.”
To build competence, it’s having an experience where you make a decision. It works. It doesn’t work. You need to bring others in. You innovate on what that looks like. You experience it. Sometimes it’s the failure. Sometimes it’s the success. But you don’t get that in a five-day session. You get that over time. I’d say competence versus competency. It’s not that I need these six competencies to be a good leader. We are about delivering experiences that build the competence piece. And sometimes, it’s about the awareness and the understanding. And that’s OK.
OB: If we were to sit down here a year from now, what are some of the things you’d like to be able to say that you’ve done? Or what are the things that are fine that we left alone?
KB: Well, I think the core programming in both Brookings and Olin is very good. I think we have our arms wrapped around the challenges that individuals and organizations are facing. We’re starting the right discussions. And what I’d like for us to be able to see is a more intentional way of bringing those together that really reflects on the development journey for individuals and organizations.
And I’d like for us to—and it might take longer than a year—to work with companies and corporations to bring this concept of integrating social and policy trends with values and data. We can do that. The key is to start to have conversations with organizations so as they’re thinking about what they want to do with their talent populations, we’re part of that conversation.