Tobias Rölz joined the crisis management team at Komax, a Swiss company that makes machines for wire processing, as Covid-19 swept the world in March. Fortunately he could turn for guidance a cheat sheet from the executive MBA he completed last year.

The guide to leading in a crisis stressed that the first priority is to protect your people. Rölz (pictured top), who is in charge of global sales, services and IT, held regular video conferences to update remote employees on developments in their region and on the company’s response (it closed most of its production sites in lockdown).

The communication helped keep staff engaged. “Employees expect leaders to articulate a clear direction, to send out clear instructions,” says Rölz, an alumnus of the Kellogg-WHU EMBA, run jointly by the Illinois and German schools.

He also wrote to customers — mostly carmakers — pledging support such as emergency repair services, that helped him to retain business. Komax’s order intake fell 30 per cent in the first half of 2020, but Rölz says regular contact with customers helped stem losses. “Trust is your most powerful tool in a crisis,” says the German executive. “Your organisation can emerge stronger than it was before.”

Once fringe, crisis management is moving into core curricula, with Covid-19 the catalyst. Business schools are hastily convening EMBA courses to help working senior managers lead through the epidemic and beyond. As students clamour for guidance, these modules are being permanently embedded into EMBAs.

Wharton students have learnt about the trade-off between efficiency and resilience in global supply chains
Wharton students have learnt about the trade-off between efficiency and resilience in global supply chains © Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Many students “felt lost” when coronavirus erupted in the US in early March, says Mauro Guillén, Wharton School professor of international management. He therefore rapidly developed a course about the business impact of the pandemic. Launched in late March, it enrolled 2,400 students from across the University of Pennsylvania and will be repeated in the autumn.

The online format enabled guest lectures from executives such as Daniel Skovronsky, chief scientific officer at pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly, who spoke about the race for a Covid-19 vaccine. Prof Guillén says participants learnt lessons such as the need for a trade-off between efficiency and resilience in global supply chains. The pandemic, he adds, is an opportunity for business schools to demonstrate fresh practical relevance.

Wharton professor Mauro Guillén
Wharton professor Mauro Guillén

Wharton EMBA alumna Amber Mace took Prof Guillén’s course alongside her job as executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology, a non-profit that helps develop state policy. An important takeaway for Mace came from Howard Kunreuther, professor of operations, information and decisions, who spoke about how cognitive biases such as myopia and inertia resulted in some Americans not taking protective measures (for example, social distancing) at the onset of the pandemic. This was Mace’s eureka moment: she plans to work with behavioural scientists to frame her policy recommendations in ways that “nudge” the public into adoption.

Timothy Feddersen, professor of managerial politics at Kellogg School of Management, also stresses the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to crisis management. In his course, which Rölz took, Prof Feddersen emphasises the significance of understanding government institutions and public-private sector partnerships to respond to crises. This need has been underscored, he says, by Covid-19, which forced companies to work with governments and regulators to reopen safely after lockdown.

“Crises often transform the business and regulatory landscape, changing our understanding of state intervention,” says Prof Feddersen. He adds that few schools offered such content until the pandemic struck. But many have since scrambled to fill gaps in curricula disrupted by coronavirus.

Janis Riven, management lecturer at Montreal’s John Molson School of Business, “made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” by creating a fresh crisis leadership course for academic credit to replace a cancelled overseas study trip. In August, her EMBA students plucked fresh case studies from the headlines, poring over a company’s challenges in the pandemic and offering solutions.

Riven says students learnt the importance of employee engagement. “When that black swan swoops in and changes the whole world overnight, all you have left is your people. Businesses cannot function without them.”

Other schools are creating community projects that contribute to society. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business launched new consultancy projects over the summer to help companies and give EMBA students hands-on experience of managing in an emergency.

Julie Milord helped Akervall Technologies, a specialist manufacturer, switch from producing mouth guards for athletes to face shields for medical professionals. With classmates, she developed a market entry strategy, including recommendations to lower prices and to stress in marketing that the products were produced locally in Michigan, amid concerns over a global shortage of personal protective equipment. “I learnt the importance of making fast decisions in a crisis,” says Milord. “It is crucial to digest as much information as possible about your market, so you can react to quick changes in consumer appetite.”

Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management in Indiana helps EMBA participants with crisis communication. In an optional course taught by Kevin Sullivan, a former White House communications director who now runs a consultancy, students hold mock press conferences and analyse videos of executives’ public statements.

In the era of nonstop news and social media, Sullivan says managers risk a public backlash and reputational harm if they cannot communicate effectively. “Communication is connected to leadership effectiveness,” he says. “In business schools, communication should be emphasised more. It should be a required course.”

Companies such as German tyremaker Continental also manufactured medical equipment during the pandemic
Companies such as German tyremaker Continental also manufactured medical equipment during the pandemic © Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

His students learn a framework that includes anticipating questions from journalists and forming responses in advance; focusing on the solution rather than the problem; using experts to deliver the message; and weaving the company’s values into the statement to reaffirm purpose.

Meanwhile, EMBA students at Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK take a module that includes contingency planning. Daniel Ralph, academic director of Cambridge’s Centre for Risk Studies, teaches participants about “decision tree” maps of choices and their possible consequences. “It sounds elementary, but if you don’t have an inquiring mind, you are less well equipped to deal with change,” Prof Ralph says.

The future is uncertain, but a growing number of EMBA programmes are helping students prepare for the unknown.

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