CNBC Careers and Employment

Back to school: Senior execs turned to online courses during the pandemic and here's what they learned

Key Points
  • Executives have had to deal with closed stores, remote working and a shift to digital advertising during lockdowns.
  • Leaders are learning how to manage people in a variety of home-working setups.
  • One training provider saw a 500% increase in people of all levels taking courses on Saturdays as the pandemic hit.
A woman takes an online training course.
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc | Getty Images

Executives have gone back to school during the coronavirus pandemic, as they learned to deal with a host of new challenges including closed stores, remote working and a shift to digital advertising.

They've had to up their e-commerce nous, work out how to use social media and manage employees whose myriad living situations are broadcast on video calls, training providers told CNBC.

Circus Street, a company that focuses on online courses, saw an increase in senior executives wanting to brush up on their social media skills, according to its CEO and co-founder Richard Townsend.

"You're going to need to be able to communicate more effectively with your audience … having to keep your customer base informed, that's the responsibility of everybody across the organization. It could be the senior leader tweeting something or somebody … in a customer service department," he told CNBC by phone.

Leaders have also been keen to learn the nuts and bolts of technology, as well as topics such as business strategy. "Understanding things like big data and ad technology, those are the subjects the most senior people need to learn because they need to sign off company-wide initiatives," Townsend added. In the past, leaders might have known "enough words to get me to the door," on a particular subject, but are now keen to gain more technical knowledge.

Circus Street reported steep increases in people learning over the weekend — perhaps as the pandemic sharpened people's career focus. It saw a 500% increase in people studying on Saturdays in March across its 42,000 users at all levels versus the month before, with upticks in people learning about digital marketing strategy and user experience.

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Executives are also concerned about managing people in all kinds of work-from-home situations. Nonprofit Catalyst helps CEOs create better workplaces for women via its consultancy and training programs, and has seen spikes in interest for inclusive leadership workshops. Julie Nugent, its senior vice-president of learning and advisory services, said people were keen to learn how to create a working environment where people could be themselves.

"This is even more important now as aspects of your self are more apparent; things like appearance — hair color, styles, clothing — and even environment — work setting, family situations, living situations — are transparent on video. Also, everyone's home situation is different, so leaders have to find a way to create equity and psychological safety through video chat," Nugent told CNBC by email.

She added that staffers would also be taking note of bosses' behavior. "We know that employees are watching and listening — and the tone and actions now can be a true testament to organization's priorities and values."

People are also keen to learn how to get mentoring right during the pandemic, Nugent said. This is a trend also seen by Russ Lidstone, group CEO of consultancy The Creative Engagement Group. "There is now a massive need for more mentoring and specifically micro-mentoring," he said.

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"We hear from our clients and can see within our own teams that the unparalleled shift to working from home has led to the need for more 1-1 time particularly between managers and their direct reports." He recommended a little and often approach when it comes to mentoring employees.  

Over the past six weeks the company has helped move leadership training for a U.K. bank online, and has built a digital service to teach Irish companies how to trade with the U.K. post Brexit.

For Mark Ritson, a brand consultant and marketing professor, now is a good time for marketers to be learning more. "Most marketers are chronically unskilled in marketing and one of the prime reasons for this is that they are constantly engaged in the hamster wheel of (short-term marketing) tactics. So this is a prime opportunity to improve," he told CNBC by email.

He hopes for a return to learning essential marketing skills. "We need marketers to move away from a focus on just communications and just the shiny, relatively pointless attractions of marketing like personalization and virtual reality, and come back to core fundamentals of marketing," Ritson added.