'This is not a simulation'—pandemic becomes real-life learning opportunity

Contact: Stacey Markin

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—When Dr. Doug Lepisto, assistant professor of management, and Dr. Derrick McIver, associate professor of management, started teaching their spring semester courses, they were poised to mentor students through two large-scale consulting projects for Rhino Media: A Story Company and 44 North, an insurance firm specializing in employee health benefits. One hundred students participate in the consulting experience, researching solutions for specific issues that the companies are facing.

Dr. Derrick McIver, left, and Dr. Doug Lepisto work from their home offices.

There are many unknowns when 100 different perspectives are distilled into the best solution for a business. However, Lepisto and McIver could never have anticipated when these projects began in January that their students were going to need to do a 180-degree pivot due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.

“Both projects were growth strategy projects, looking at new customer segments, potential new products and cross-selling opportunities,” says Lepisto. “The projects were about to enter a phase of deep customer research, which we, along with the clients, felt would not bring the most value to the companies or their customers at this time. The Rhino project moved to looking at quick wins in the next 30 to 60 days with innovative opportunities to create value for others and generate revenue to weather the crisis. The 44 North project began examining how the company can collaborate with others in their insurance agency network around a specific product that could be helpful during the crisis.”

The consulting projects are part of the Leadership and Business Strategy program, which Lepisto and McIver co-direct. The major is deeply immersive and teaches leadership, adaptability, problem solving, collaboration, and much more. “Our approach is really the same,” says McIver. “We try to frame the problem, identify what success would be, generate hypotheses, and then start to test those hypotheses. We are just doing it now on a different problem (crisis management) and doing it collaboratively online.”

The LBS program has used Microsoft Teams for several semesters to facilitate collaboration and remote work, so the transition to using the tool full-time was seamless for both faculty and students.

Cooper Frost

Logan Mulholland

Lepisto hopes students will embrace the seriousness of this challenge for the businesses they are consulting with, as well as others. “We are trying to expose our students, as much as we can, to the reality of the situation and being reflective as we do so. We believe that adversity can be a great teacher. In this crisis, governments, nonprofits, and businesses are trying to make sense of things, discarding plans, reimagining and triaging. We need to help students lean into this crisis and learn from it. If we don’t, we leave them less resourceful to navigate the challenges life always presents us professionally and personally.”

And the students are leaning in—in a big way.

“This is not a simulation,” says Cooper Frost, a student project leader who is majoring in leadership and business strategy as well as sales and business marketing. “Real lives are depending on our creativity and effort. When the COVID-19 outbreak became widespread in the U.S., we were asked to change our focus to the new, and rapidly changing, needs of the clients. To do this, we had to see the world through the eyes of the respective company leaders—both were going to be affected in very different ways. This was an awakening experience, showing us how every business is different.”

Frost, a senior from Charlotte, Michigan, notes that his team has risen to the challenge of helping both of the businesses. “I have learned that my team can overcome unanticipated obstacles to achieve a goal. I look forward to learning by trial and error about how to work remotely in a real business environment, and so does my team. Already, I am amazed by how fast the team members pulled together to create an emergency plan for one of the clients, making even more progress in a day in our remote environment than we would have made in person.”

Learning by doing is why leadership and business strategy students sign up for the program. “We’ve gotten to see how Rhino’s business operates in a ‘normal’ environment,” says team leader Logan Mulholland, a junior majoring in leadership and business strategy as well as environmental and sustainability studies. “Now, we are getting to experience a glimpse of the stress and anxiety of running a business during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is unfortunate that we had to pause the work we have been doing all semester, we have the unique opportunity to learn something unexpected—how to lead a team in person and then switch to virtual operations, as well as the importance of crisis plans and communications.”

Team management can be challenging, even in the best of circumstances, and this unprecedented situation calls on students to address challenges in nuanced ways.

Clayton Nolley

“So far in leading my team, everyone has been responsive and engaged,” says Mulholland, of Grandville, Michigan. “But, some team members are going to miss our virtual meetings, and, with the COVID-19 situation in mind, it’s hard to know how strict or lenient to be. This course teaches you to be resilient in the face of ambiguity and change. I may face similar obstacles again in my career, and now I have relevant problem-solving and team management experience.”

Team leader Clayton Nolley, a junior from Lapeer, Michigan, who is majoring in leadership and business strategy and integrated supply management, has learned to value teamwork and communication more than ever before, and to push his problem-solving boundaries. “My biggest challenge is being forced to be creative with solutions—my first instinct might not be viable to solve these problems due to the current situation. I need to think outside of the box and shift my perspective about what realistically can happen. As a problem solver, I am more inventive and persistent, in spite of what can seem like unimaginable circumstances. Even the last several days of working this way have given me a new edge.”

Visit the LinkedIn and Instagram accounts of the Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy to follow a video documentary of students’ journey.

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