Smith MBAs Go Under Fire
A blaze kills several workers at the Indonesia subsidiary of a multinational
food company already facing a developing attack from a rainforest protection
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
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.
Eventual winners Lemma, Namala and L’Amoureux defend their case before reporters and judges.
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
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
"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
About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader
in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the
University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate,
full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive
education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The
school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning
locations in North America and Asia.