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Updated 4:00 PM January 25, 2008




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Stephen M. Ross students survive crisis challenge

A simulated chemical spill in India was threatening lives, and some Stephen M. Ross School of Business MBA students had to answer for it.

"Did the pressure to keep costs low force this?" asked Tom Buchmueller, the Waldo O. Hildebrand Professor of Risk Management and Insurance, portraying a journalist at a Jan. 11 morning session.
Deborah Holdship, center, editorial manager, Office of Marketing Communications at Stephen M. Ross School of Business, conducts a mock interview with MBA student David Cieminis, right, during a leadership crisis challenge. (Photo by Steve Kuzma)

A Ross School Leadership Crisis Challenge (LCC) Jan. 10-11 called for 12 four-student teams to portray corporate officers under crisis. The students had to think on their feet at simulated press conferences, trying to remain unrattled as they fielded tough questions about company ethics, actions and reactions following a major environmental catastrophe.

In a quick response crafted to squelch the notion that her company was overly profit-driven, student Julia Choi — portraying a corporate general counsel — responded, "We do sell this product at cost to the World Health Organization. We are willing to do whatever we can."

"We believe we have the right people and the right strategy in place to resolve this quickly and thoughtfully," MBA student Mihira Patel told the group of journalists. She and her fellow corporate team members, dressed in suits, stood confidently before their questioners.

"They have to communicate well in a very unpredictable setting," said Susan Ashford, associate dean for leadership development.

Out of the classroom

The LCC, described as "Fast pace/Real time/Competitive challenge/Think on your feet," is part of the ongoing Ross Leadership Initiative. Consistent with the school's overall action learning focus, the challenges move Ross students out of the classroom and into real-life situations.

"The goal of the challenge is to have them put into practice what they've learned in their core courses the first year and to learn real-time what it means to use the tools they have been taught and to lead in a tough situation," Ashford said.

Before classes began this academic year, students completed a leadership challenge exercise in August.

Then, Ashford and Ross Dean Robert Dolan welcomed MBA students to campus for "Innovation Boot Camp Day." Students were divided into six 70-member sections had had two and a half hours to plan, prepare and serve a meal to feed 80-90 people, market and present the meal to other teams and create entertainment.

Crisis leadership

For the current challenge, faculty posing as journalists and advocacy group spokespersons grilled the MBA students with aggressive, challenging questions. Some, including Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow Steve Edwards, are professional journalists, whose interviewing skills rubbed off on faculty including Andy Gershoff: "We think of a question and then stop asking; they (journalists) follow up with more questions."

Beyond presenting a positive image of company representatives concerned about an environmental mishap, the MBA students participating in the Leadership Crisis Challenge had to apply standards of business ethics, evaluate evolving facts about the spill, and generally display good judgment and crisis leadership.

The students faced questions at an early crisis stage — a time when facts about the chemical release were only beginning to trickle in. A key challenge was to project a solid, calm presence at a time of crisis.

"They had to weigh the value of 'doing good' with the need of the firm to make a profit," Ashford said. "The case had a strong ethical component and a strong social responsibility component."

"The exercise was great for practicing decision making with data ambiguity and time constraints," said MBA student David Wolpa. "In most classes we have more information than necessary and must use analysis to determine which information is relevant. During the press conference, and particularly the Q-and-A session, the audience actually had more information than we did. So adapting our position and strategy as new information became known was difficult, which made communicating our framing of the issue based on the new information even more challenging."

Learning from experience

After each 30-minute press conference, faculty and staff huddled to evaluate the student performances. "It's their ability to come up with a reasonable answer in a short time period," Gershoff said. "They're limited by the potential legal liabilities," Edwards added. "I'm very impressed with what they've done."

"This challenge put students in the role of actually doing leadership, with real costs and benefits, real time pressures, real uncertainties," Ashford said. "There are few opportunities to do this in life. Most of this kind of learning comes from experience, but experience is a costly teacher — you can fail, you can cost the organization money, you can lose face. Here they got to have experience, learn from experience, but with a fraction of those costs at stake."

The winning team members were David Cieminis, Anurag Gupta, Shally Madan and Brent Morgan.

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