Interview with Associate Dean Susan Ashford on the Leadership Crisis Challenge

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Susan Ashford is the Associate Dean for Leadership Programming and the Executive MBA Program at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. She is also the Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations. Her research interests include leadership and managerial effectiveness, issue selling, self-management and organizational change. Professor Ashford teaches in the areas of organizational behavior, leadership, negotiation, and the management of organizational change.

We recently sat down with Professor Ashford to talk with her about the Leadership Crisis Challenge (LCC), a simulation dedicated to exposing Ross students to crisis management and leadership issues. (View: 2008 Leadership Crisis Challenge |  2009 Leadership Crisis Challenge | 2010 Leadership Crisis Challenge)
Question: Why were you inspired to create the LCC?

Susan Ashford: 
Our goal in the Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI) is to supplement the analytical knowledge students gain within an MBA program with work that also builds the core qualities and sensibilities that determine leadership success. Leadership is often about intangibles — personal qualities that characterize the people who make an extraordinary difference in organizations. These personal qualities include leaders’ courage, judgment, and integrity. While essential for effective leadership, it is difficult to reinforce and develop these qualities within a traditional classroom curriculum. They are often learned by experience on the job. The LCC was created to build these foundational leadership qualities effectively by providing a stimulating and challenging learning experience for students.

The LCC is a simulation.  It puts students directly in the action, rather than have them passively react to written case studies. Our goal was to create a simulation that contains several very real, intertwined conflicts and value tensions. Instead of simply having the students solve a case in their minds or through discussion with others, the LCC asks students to develop a point of view and then defend that point of view in a real-world setting.

The research is clear  most leadership skills are developed from direct experience. However, experience can be a very expensive teacher. There are real costs – financial and image-related – associated with missteps and early development efforts. The LCC pushes students to exercise their abilities, and to engage their courage, judgment and integrity in a relatively safe and cost-free environment.

Question: Could you talk about the design of the LCC, as well as its unique features?

Susan Ashford: The LCC pushes students to interact with each other and with various constituencies within a seemingly real-world scenario, but one that we have engineered. The case is loosely based on elements of real events, though not necessarily events that occurred all within the same company or at the same time! The simulation contains various tensions for which there is no right or wrong answer per se. The simulation is about reconciling the costs and benefits associated with the tensions of making a decision — choosing a path to follow. Students are put in the position of defending their judgment calls while being pressured by others. This keeps students on their toes and out of their comfort zones – much like what they will experience in real-life.

The structure of the simulation is as follows: students meet with a faculty member to discuss the rationale for the crisis challenge (to exercise judgment, etc.) and to be briefed on the situation. They then view a video which contains an introductory account delivered by the fictitious company’s CEO. Afterward, students are sent off in teams and are given 3.5 hours to prepare their response to the written case materials. They are told to limit their preparation to five slides.

As the teams are working, they receive additional situation-altering information. This structure is intended to keep students from getting too comfortable with their analysis and to make them them think on-the-fly. All teams turn in their slides at the end of the 3.5 hours and are assigned a presentation slot to present their ideas to the ‘board of directors’ (as represented by a group of faculty members). After this presentation, the teams receive one final plot twist in the case and are told to prepare a press release to address the continuing crisis. After all of the presentations are completed and press releases received, the most successful teams are selected to move on to the final round. In this round, students defend their press releases and managerial decisions in front of a group of journalists who ask more tough questions. These individuals can either be actual journalists, other faculty members, or senior students. Afterwards, a winning team is chosen and concluding remarks are made.

To learn best from experience, both reflection and feedback are needed. So when we run the LCC, we have second-year students engage the teams in a reflection process after the production of their press releases. The goal is to have the team reflect on lessons learned about both leadership and teamwork. We also provide feedback for the different teams throughout the process so that each group gains insights into the positives and negatives of their performance. By receiving feedback and taking the time to step back and ask, “What have I learned from this situation?,” learning from experience is enhanced.

Question: What are some of the key takeaways from the LCC?

Susan Ashford: First, I want students to recognize that trying to find a ‘silver bullet’ answer that solves a problem from every angle is usually a waste of time an d is often less effective than taking a stand and developing a persuasive rationale for that position. Crises often require a quick response. Finding a solution that pleases everyone is usually not possible within a crisis timeframe. Effective leadership often means directing an organization down a specific path and providing a strong rationale for those actions. Second, I want students to directly experience the difficulties in resolving situations such as these that are often filled with tension and apprehension regarding their stakeholders. Having experienced it once in this simulation, they should be better off when they encounter the need to manage what are often conflicting pressures in the real world. Third and finally, I would like for students to see that there is value in a team approach to responding to a crisis. Having individuals from diverse backgrounds with a variety of opinions often yields the best response to a given problem.  Learning what they can do to draw out and integrate those perspectives effectively is important

Question: Why is it important for the LCC or other leadership curriculum to be included in business curriculum?

Susan Ashford: You do not have to look far to see the importance of this kind of learning. Crises are arising on an almost daily basis in business and society. Managers respond to a lot of adversity, pressure, and fast changing conditions.  These conditions are often quite unforgiving if one is not prepared to act. Leaders need to have a sense of how to make judgments in the face of uncertainty and conflicting pressures. Leaders not only need to have an analytic capability to derive the best answer, but they need to have the courage to see it through and the persuasive ability to bring important constituents along with them. It is valuable to be well prepared so that when crisis situations arise, leaders know the emotions involved, have felt the tensions before, know the skills they need to exhibit, and are able to move quickly towards actions that address the crisis.

Question: What advice do you have for faculty members at other schools who want to develop their leadership curriculum and how they can adopt the LCC?

Susan Ashford: Feedback from our students indicates that the LCC is one the most powerful learning experiences that we provide within our leadership curriculum. The LCC is a team-building exercise — students learn something from watching themselves perform as a team under high pressure situations. It’s also a test of their presentation and persuasive abilities in an uncontrollable situation. They are only allowed to talk at the board for five minutes. After that it’s all Q&A and the board members have been coached to make it stressful and uncomfortable for the students presenting. Students like the challenge and they like the reflection and feedback. They find the simulation engaging and fun as it provides a form of competition amongst the different teams to see which will be rated the winner. Finally, the LCC prepares students for something that they perceive as important — they believe that at some point during their business careers, they will be on the hot seat during a crisis. They value the real-world chance to prepare. Of all of the components in our leadership initiative, this simulation is the most portable and can easily be adapted and implemented elsewhere. The LCC is both flexible and portable, so I really recommend it highly.

Question: To follow up on the portability of this simulation, what resources does a school or specific program need to implement the LCC?

Susan Ashford: The most important resource needed for this simulation to be run successfully is faculty time. Approximately four faculty members are needed to fill the role of the ‘board of directors’ while another four members are needed to act as ‘the press.’ At Ross we use faculty members for the board of directors and actual journalists for the press, but it does not need to be done that way. Senior students have done a very good job supplementing for faculty members in the past, which is helpful if there are resource constraints. The event is resource intensive, but it is also quite adaptable, which allows for schools or organizations to work around potential constraints.