When you attend an HBS Executive Education program, you never know what opportunities the experience may present. In fact, you could even find yourself becoming part of the teaching team. Ask Deb Barnes, Senior Managing Director of Fund Investment Risk Management at OMERS, who attended Risk Management for Corporate Leaders in 2016 when she was working at QIC, an Australian-headquartered asset management firm.

The timing for the program could not have been better; Barnes was just stepping into a new role leading QIC's investment risk management team. When her boss encouraged her to attend based on his own experience in the program, Barnes dove in headfirst. She returned to work with a much broader understanding of risk management—and some very practical steps she could take in her new role. (Learn more about Barnes's experience in the program).

Fast forward to 2022, when Barnes returned for her fourth appearance in the program as a guest lecturer. This type of teaching partnership was initiated when Robert Kaplan and Michael Porter invited past participants of some healthcare-focused programs to come back to the classroom. Kaplan and cochair Dutch Leonard agreed to continue the successful partnership for the Risk Management program. Kaplan says, "We had had great success inviting past participants to share how they've implemented program learnings. It's a powerful way to demonstrate the program's relevance and applicability, and we thought that would be good for the Risk Management program too."

live online classroom

In Barnes's case, the process began with some feedback she shared with the faculty. "Deb sent us some extraordinarily well-crafted slides showing exactly how she was presenting program take-aways within her company," Leonard explained. "That was very gratifying feedback for us. We were delighted to see how someone could take the general ideas we presented in the program, tailor them for a specific risk environment, and then apply them in a very practical and impactful way. Bob invited Deb to come and talk with our participants about how they could apply their program learning."

Barnes accepted the invitation and did an amazing job. She's since become part of four more sessions, two online and two in person. In delivering lectures, Barnes has tried to channel HBS professors. "Seeing some of the best lecturers in the world present in their own authentic way, it's hard not to be inspired," she admitted. "I've tried to adopt their more conversational style to encourage participation from the group."

During her sessions, she stresses the importance of allowing some time to pass between finishing the program and settling back into business as usual. "That time of contemplation after the program can help you enable a fuller implementation of the learning," she explained. "I also try to give participants opportunities for 'easy wins' by offering some templates based on how I applied what I learned in the program."

Within her work, Barnes says she continually tries to bring the human side of risk management to the fore. "I recently visited our team in Singapore and used the opportunity to present some lessons I took away from the Columbia space shuttle mission case and the importance of psychological safety within an organization," she said. "It was extremely well-received."

Barnes credits the program with helping her take on even more responsibility over time. "It’s not possible to implement everything at once. I have taken a few years to systematically apply different aspects of what I learned at HBS," she said, adding, "During that time, I have had two meaningful promotions. That would not have been possible without the insights and frameworks I acquired in the program." Beyond specific program learning, Barnes also says the program has helped her develop relationships with risk peers around the world—one of which led to her current job at OMERS.

For the faculty, partnering with program graduates like Barnes is a great way to help current participants cross the bridge between program learning and practical application. Kaplan sums up with a quote from his HBS colleague Michael Porter: "If you don't return to work and put something from the program into practice, we and you just wasted a lot of time." Barnes clearly has not wasted any time—and is giving new participants insights that help them make the most of their time in the program.

Do you have experience to share about how you have implemented what you learned in one of our programs? Be sure to tell your professors! They'd love to hear from you.

About the Author

Wyatt Cmar is a Marketing Manager for Harvard Business School, Executive Education.