A blaze kills several workers at the Indonesia subsidiary of a multinational food company already facing a developing attack from a rainforest protection network.
The fictitious scenario (another involved a pharmaceutical company linked to mercury contamination in India) framed part of a Feb. 22 "Leadership under Fire 2013" competition at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Eight Smith-MBA student teams, each as a trio of company executives, devised a course of action to preserve credibility with stakeholders, to its brand and with the global community. They presented and defended their plans in a press briefing scrutinized by a judging panel of communication industry pros.
Seasoned reporters from the likes of Barron's, the Washington Post and Washington Business Journal challenged the students. Those tasked with the Indonesia case were pressed to explain their accounting to the fire-victim families, employees, local partners and government officials, and in regard to the broader environmental criticism.
"Great leaders think on their feet, have presence and handle stress under fire. They're flexible, adaptable and resilient. We saw a lot of that today," said Jeff Kudisch, managing director of Smith's Office of Career Services (OCS) and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He also advises the school's Professional Communication's Club – the competition's co-organizer, along with the Smith chapter of Net Impact. The groups were supported by OCS and Smith’s Center for Social Value Creation.
Kudisch's remarks punctuated a post-competition ceremony recognizing the winning team of Semret Lemma, Adarsh Namala and Suzanne L'Amoureux (also recognized for top individual performance).
"I immediately jumped at this opportunity, and I’m grateful." said Namala. "I wanted to get out of my comfort zone – especially to exercise my public speaking skills. Communicating clearly and concisely is crucial to effective leadership in any setting.”
Ken White, Smith’s associate dean for MBA and MS programs, said the competition perfectly complements the school’s initiatives in experiential learning and effective communication. “What excites me is the fact that the event is student-driven. The students chose to put themselves in a high pressure event that will ultimately improve their communication skills."
Competition Poised to Expand: Organizers
In just its second year, Leadership under Fire was praised by Associate Dean Ken White as a “student-driven” success. Those students who conceived and executed the event say the competition grew significantly from its inaugural staging and is cresting toward a broader range of competitors from within Smith and eventually from outside business schools.
“We were able to expand this year's event with more teams, more formal cases and an additional award,” said MBA student Amanda Mendoza, one of the organizers. “I see the potential for opening the competition to outside business schools. But for now we are thrilled to offer this opportunity for personal and professional development to as many members and cohorts within the Smith community as possible, including full-time, part-time, EMBA and others.”
In addition to Mendoza, competition co-directors were her Professional Communications Club colleagues Luke Lindberg and David Stunja; plus Megan Burkhart, Emmy Lang-Kennedy, John Sheff, and Blake Carlton from Net Impact.
Crises rising to levels from those caused by natural disasters, business takeovers and stock crashes “can confront us as future executives, and facing the press will be inevitable. So for MBAs, this is an invaluable way to prepare,” said Carlton, the 2013 event’s emcee and first-year MBA, who will collaborate with Mendoza on the 2014 competition.
Mendoza said “a student-driven signature event like Leadership under Fire adds immensely to the value of our experience at Smith as we are able to refine our presentation, communication and leadership skills outside the classroom.”
The judges scrutinized delivery content from written (prepared press releases) and spoken to nonverbal. "We looked for a clear and rational action plan, plus clear subject knowledge and non-wavering consistency among the teammates in the line of reporter fire, which can get vicious," said judge Kelly Dieter (MBA '12), director of media and marketing for Worldwide Speakers Group. "The winning team displayed very strong presentation skills, kept cool in answering the hard questions and came up with a well-branded action plan they named 'Elevate.'"
Lemma said his team prepared with a multi-faceted approach. "We researched and took lessons from actual crisis management cases. But we focused greatly on the strengths and weaknesses of our hypothetical position as a company," he said.
"While careful to not over-practice, we wanted make sure we had a solid grasp of our core message and were prepared to channel it to any and all of our responses to the reporters,” said Lemma. “So if we ever hit a wall, we knew the path back to our core message.”
Leveraging the Experience
White said research conducted by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) “tells us that corporate leaders, the people who hire our students, want and expect their new hires to possess high quality communication skills.”
“Leadership under Fire provided our students the perfect experiential learning opportunity to improve their soft skills,” he said. “The students seized the opportunity in one of the best examples of experiential learning I have ever seen.”
Competition judge Julie Gowin, outreach coordinator for UMD’s Department of Communication, concurred: "A real advantage to this exercise is that it forced these students to take a risk, and for the first time really put themselves 'out there' to get feedback about their presentational skills and their ability to put together a message and present it to the public – something that's not as easy as it sounds.”
"These students came across as ambitious and very professional in their approach,” she added.
Kudisch said the students got a taste of "how great leaders distinguish themselves by their willingness to step out of their comfort zones and take risks and learn about themselves."
This signature event also captures the Smith School brand as an excellent example of innovative and experiential learning, he said. "It brought together our MBA and Executive MBA communities for some true 'learning in the moment.'"
Greg Muraski, Office of Marketing Communications