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Bring It On: Ross MBAs Pursue Crisis With A Vengeance

1/19/2009 --

Leadership Initiative tests students' abilities to cope under pressure, in the spotlight.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Crisis. It's a phenomenon the average person tends to avoid at all costs. But that's the average person. At the Ross School of Business, a cohort of decidedly above-average MBAs knowingly pursued crisis this January -- all in the interest of a challenge.

The 2009 Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI) Crisis Challenge recently pitted several section-based teams against one another in a time-sensitive, role-playing exercise that tested students' capacity to cope under pressure. Unlike a typical case competition, these students would face an audience of hostile stakeholders, including a bona fide press corps, in the interest of framing and defending a collective response to a complex and evolving corporate dilemma. And they would have just a few hours to prepare.

"They say you should do a thing a day that scares you," says Jennie Bartlett, MBA '10. "This is my quota for the week. But, hey, this is the kind of action-based learning that all of us came here for."

The action-based learning Bartlett describes unfolded like this. At 6 p.m. on a Thursday evening, students, acting as executives in an international agri-business firm, are briefed by their faux CEO regarding a crisis unfolding on the ground in Indonesia. Their company: Olick International. It's a leading producer of palm seed oil generated on a company plantation and supplemented by independent farmers in the region. The crisis: Rogue farmers, engaged in slash-and-burn practices, are destroying rainforest to increase their yield and turn a higher profit. Olick is now under attack by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which unleashes a smear campaign against products containing Olick's oil. Internally, Olick proposes to simplify its supply chain and pursue an all-plantation model to ensure best practices per sustainable farming. That news appears to have leaked, as one of Olick's facilities in Indonesia has been torched. People are dead and management suspects local farmers, who rely on Olick for their sole source of income, have committed arson. Now what?

"The best part is the fact that it is a crisis," says John Fang, MBA '10, as his team prepares to detangle the issues and frame a course of action. "Each side is extremely frustrated. We're in a stalemate, and we have to come in and try to appease the situation. That's a real-life example where there's no right, easy answer. Otherwise none of us would have a tough time doing it."

As the 10:30 p.m. deadline looms, the students dive into a crash course in oilseed production, sustainable farming, supply chain management, communications strategy, and more. They assign roles and take on the parts of VP of communications, VP of of oilseed production, VP of Asian strategy, and VP of longterm business strategy and planning. They take a stand and prepare slides for a morning meeting with the Olick board.

"I like the pressure that we have to do this in just a few hours," says Adam Van Staveren, MBA '10.

Kelene Soltesz, MBA '10, admits she sometimes freezes in crisis situations. She pursued the challenge to test herself in an intense simulation. “This is a great opportunity to feel like I am in an upper management position,” she says. "Confronting a large group like the board of directors will be really interesting."

Interesting indeed. The next day brings a tense meeting with the agitated directors (actually, members of the Ross faculty, gleefully reveling in their roles). They are relentless and unforgiving as they demand to know how this situation got so out of control on the ground. Consumers now think Olick engages in slash and burn practices. Market share is plummeting, thanks to RAN's negative ad campaign against their top customers' products. The Indonesian government is enraged that Olick, which created the palm oil industry in the region, would decimate the local economy by shutting out its independent producers. The financial loss from the arson is one thing, but the loss of Olick employees in the fire is a tragedy of another dimension.

"In this kind of situation, it's not really important to understand all the details," says Luca Testa, MBA '10. "The bottom line is to get the big picture, come up with a reasonable plan, and stick to the plan -- especially in a presentation before the board or the press. It's best to have a few points, a really general frame that you can refer to, so you can go back to that frame when answering those tough questions."

And the tough questions come fast and furious: How do they expect to repair their corporate image? How do the executives plan to deal with RAN? How did news of the all-plantation proposal -- an internal discussion -- reach the outside world? Did they not realize the economic ramifications would lead to a public relations debacle? And if they are to continue working with local farmers, what can they do to stop the slash-and-burn practices?

Still reeling from the inquisition by their directors, the teams are next evaluated by communications professionals who offer critiques and tips to prepare for the forthcoming press conference. The students-as-executives are reminded to be conscious of body language, verbal tics, and other techniques. Behind the scenes, they are judged and the four top teams are tapped to take their case to the press.

This time the players are real. A corps of professional journalists, representing print, video, radio, and online media line a long table in front of the auditorium stage. They represent the Sky News (London), the BBC, MSNBC.com, The Seattle Times, and more. They are Knight-Wallace Fellows on sabbatical from their news organizations for a period of study at the University of Michigan. And they are taking this gig quite seriously.

"To stand in front of a hostile audience and defend yourself -- that's an opportunity you don't get that often in b-school," says Annie Kneedler, MBA '09, a finalist in the 2008 competition. She served on a student committee that worked with case writers from the William Davidson Institute to outline the crisis faced by this year's contestants.

"I learned that it's harder than I thought to stay on topic," says Sameer Soleja, MBA '10, whose team ultimately won the 2009 challenge. "As business students we are used to coming up with an answer to every question and trying to give the best answer to every question. But in a press situation there are times when you have to pull back and be a little more reserved."

"The press will try to get you to say things you didn't mean to say," adds teammate Testa.

After the press conference wraps, the participating reporters continue to hammer the students -- all in the interest of constructive criticism: This team's press release had no phone number. That team made a huge mistake when they displayed RAN's negative ad campaign. Overhead in the shuffle to the exit: "If that had been a real situation, we would have eaten them alive."

Fortunately it was just a simulation, and that's the whole point. By 4 p.m. on Friday it's all over and the winning team has collected $2,000 toward 2010 tuition. But the value in participating exceeds the cash prize, says Becca Brooke, MBA '10.

"The experience I'll take away from the challenge was how to deal with a crisis immediately with very little time, very little information, and with a team you haven't worked with before," she says. "It's common to go into a business setting and have to work with VPs who may span different continents, who've never met or worked together before, to address a crisis in that moment. So I found the whole challenge to be very realistic. I think having this experience will definitely help me in the future."

—Deborah Holdship



For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu