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ATD Blog

Ask a Trainer: Designing Training for Executive Learners

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Hey Tim,

I recently started working as an instructional designer for a new company, and my role focuses on the creation of training content for executive-level audiences (think vice president and above). Since I’ve started in this new role, I’ve been given the direction/feedback that I need to tailor my training content for “how executive-level folks learn.” But, if I’m being honest, I don’t have the slightest idea what that means.

As an instructional designer, is there something I should be doing differently when designing training for executives versus everyone else?

You know what? I must agree with you: I don’t have the slightest idea what that means either! The suggestion that you need to somehow create a different type of learning experience for executive-level individuals versus everyone else suggests that, on a human level, these folks are different in some sort of meaningful way. Now, I may be wrong about this (I haven’t done the proper research), but if I were a betting man, I’d guess that the process in which an executive human being learns is not all that different than a nonexecutive human being. In other words, as human beings, the process of learning is consistent, regardless of your professional or socioeconomic status.

However, I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding here. I think this is less about some idea of executive-level folks learning a “certain way,” and more about optimizing the training content for the unique circumstances faced by executive-level audiences. Let’s try looking at this from a different perspective.

Put yourself in their shoes. Executives, at any company, are busy folks. Trust me, I’ve worked with my fair share of them over the years. Their calendars are booked months in advance, and many of them barely have the time to eat lunch on most days. Additionally, it’s likely (not always) that they are experts in their own fields.


And so, when you take those considerations into account, then yes, I would agree that you do indeed need to tailor the training experiences you create to account for these different variables. This doesn’t mean these folks fundamentally learn in some different or unique way. What it means is that their time and attention are limited, and given their likely level of expertise, the types of educational resources they need are different from an entry-level individual’s.

So, how do you tailor training experiences to account for these variables? I think the key here is to focus less on formal training and more on resources and performance support. As Catherine Lombardozzi explains in Learning Environments by Design, as learners increase in their level of mastery in a given area, the less they rely on formal training events. Instead, they find value in just-in-time resources, mentorships, and the like.

As you think about the design of your training programs, especially for your executive-level audience, it’s not about adapting it for how they learn (they don’t learn any differently than you), it’s about adapting it for constraints of their time and their level of mastery.

I’ll leave it there for now. I certainly hope that clears up some confusion.



What other tips do you have for designing training for executive learners? Share them by commenting below.

Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to [email protected] Also, visit the Ask a Trainer hub to check out all your questions and my answers.

We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

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This is a great article and thank you for sharing the perspective. For executives, their time constraints and their expertise have to factor in to how we design the training for this audience. The format that I have found that works is where it is more conversational and collaborative. I have also found creating different flexible options for completing the training is beneficial as well.
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Executives do not like to be spoon fed. Give me the Executive Summary and then let's discuss it. Challenging them with questions that get them to think and make decisions is crucial. Hands on experiences that involve them solving problems can be useful, however, keep it strategic in focus and do not take too much time. Make it relevant to their world, their customers, stakeholders and community.
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Time was the first thing that came to mind for me as many others have shared in the comments below. Appreciate the article.
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