Leading Through Change: Michigan Ross Alumni Share Strategies for Thriving in Challenging Times
It’s been quite a year. Added to the usual challenges facing business leaders, 2020 has also brought a global pandemic, renewed attention to social justice, and a contentious political environment. Every year is unique, but this one has been something special — and leading through this challenging period in our shared history has required some special insights.
A year of challenges
“One of the biggest challenges has been the constant unknowns of the pandemic — right off the bat, we had to move quickly to make a number of important, often tough, decisions about a situation that none of us had ever previously dealt with,” says Jennifer Sherman, BBA ’86/JD ’89, president and CEO of Federal Signal Corp. “The ever-changing information flow and the differences in handling the pandemic, state by state and across the globe, has proved to be very challenging.”
Gary Cates, MBA ’93, chief philanthropy officer for ProMedica, recalls, “As 2020 started to unfold, it became very evident that business as usual in philanthropy was not going to work. I knew changes were needed to remain relevant at a time when donors were going to be more focused on emergency funds and immediate relief efforts. Like any business leader, I had to stay abreast of the changing environment and work with my team, and organization, to appropriately transition our focus. In the matter of just a few short weeks, we completely changed how our team was working.”
Tamika Curry Smith, BBA ’95, president of The TCS Group Inc., recalls, “As a diversity, equity, and inclusion executive, I’ve been on the front lines since COVID-19 hit. Initially, I was helping leaders think through how to handle the impact of COVID-19, particularly given its disproportionate impact on underrepresented and marginalized communities. Then, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the conversations turned to racial, social, and economic justice and inequality.
"As a Black woman in America raising a 10-year-old Black son, it was personally difficult for me to experience the trauma of this happening once again. But I also had to show up every day as a leader in this space to help other business leaders and employees handle everything they were feeling and experiencing inside and outside of the workplace — and to help shape organizational strategies on how to drive systemic change. I am managing through it by exercising lots of self-care and leaning on faith, family, friends, and colleagues."
Solutions, strategies, and advice
Leading in times of great change challenges all of us to be at our very best. Michigan Ross Professor Lindy Greer, faculty director of the Sanger Leadership Center, says that resilience is one of the most important leadership capabilities in these moments of tremendous disruption.
“Creating resilience in yourself and your team is so important to manage change,” Greer says. “This can include consistently working to adopt a growth mindset in yourself and with your team. The Sanger Leadership Center has launched a new leadership self-coaching platform, the Sanger Journey, for people to find ways to help coach themselves in their leadership skills during these times.
“Resilience is improved through activities which support healthy emotion regulation. This includes being personally emotionally healthy through exercise, sleep, and connections with others, as well as engaging in healthy conversations about emotions with others, such as taking the time to regularly acknowledge the emotions present in your team and helping everyone to reappraise situations to see positive pathways forward,” Greer says.
Entrepreneur Emmanuel Legbeti, MBA ’09, managing partner at Acretiv Partners and founder of GoalSeek Inc., launched a child-safety product with his wife, Amanda, called Glider Skirt during the heart of the pandemic — a decision that certainly required some resilience.
“The current climate created significant challenges on all fronts, but also opened up some new opportunities,” he says. “Three of the key practical strategies that we have focused on in 2020 are to intentionally challenge ourselves to demonstrate grit, intellectual curiosity, and agility. Run the plays, then pivot based on results of your small tests. It’s OK to learn from failures.”
In addition to resilience, our faculty and alumni offer their insights into effective strategies for leadership during times of change:
Be authentic: “Leaders need to share more about who they are and how they are working through these tough times, rather than trying to appear infallible,” Curry Smith says. “Be transparent and talk about what you’re struggling with personally and professionally — and how you’re overcoming those challenges. By showing up as humans first, leaders can help their employees push through the adversity and learn resilience, while still performing.”
Have humility: “Especially right now, it's incredibly difficult to lead — both in adapting to changing contexts and working with stakeholders who have very different needs,” Greer says. “Acknowledging what one doesn't know, enlisting help from experts, and taking ownership when things go wrong is more important for leaders now than ever.”
Have empathy: “Nobody has experienced anything quite like this, and all of the turmoil of this year is starting to wear people down,” Sherman says. “We started an initiative throughout the company: ‘Presume good intentions.’ Give people a break — no one can understand the private battles that someone else may be facing. Try to provide empathy toward each other and keep an open mind.”
Focus on the future: Cates notes, “Crisis leadership requires two types of vision — understanding what is happening in the immediate moment and taking a strategic look down the road. No one can predict when attention will turn to the task of recovery and rebuilding, so leaders must design responses that are somewhat flexible and can be adapted to a rapidly changing environment.”
Find support: “Recognize that you’re not alone,” Curry Smith says. “Everyone is dealing with something. Find others who you can count on to support you and make sure you reciprocate by being there for them as well.”
Embrace diversity: Greer says, “Diversity can offer organizations tremendous learning opportunities, innovative ideas to thrive in crises, and long-term organizational performance benefits, as well as being the right thing to do.”
Communicate, and then communicate some more: Sherman says, “We quickly found that uncertainty is the enemy of sanity — employees wanted to be in the loop, even if that means us saying, ‘We don’t know the answer right now.’”
Stay connected to your team: “Check in with them frequently — both in group settings as a team, as well as one-on-one,” Curry Smith says. “See how they’re doing personally in managing through everything. Ask them if they need any specific support from you.”
Be passionate: “When we have an urgency mindset, and we recognize the role we can play in funding solutions, we can begin helping to minimize the great social, health, and racial disparities that exist in this nation, and that have been amplified in the midst of this crisis,” Cates says.
In short, Greer says, employees need their leaders to exhibit three key qualities: “a unifying vision to bridge all the forms of diversity salient in society right now and to drive people to work together for common solutions; empathy for the difficulty of these times and the hardships so many are facing; and courage to keep leading and trying at a time when leadership has never been harder.”
Lasting lessons from Michigan Ross
Some of the insights learned in B-school have continued to resonate during this unique year.
Legbeti finds inspiration in the school’s mission of making a positive impact through business. “I think these challenging times created an opportunity to bring that to life,” he says. “It would have been natural to lash out at suppliers/vendors, coworkers, even customers who were asking to pay less than expected. And don’t get me wrong, we had very tough conversations in 2020, but always with an eye to creating a positive experience and building relationships for the long term — creating the space to engage and build together.”
Sherman says, “Ross gave me the discipline and the strategies to take on large, complex problems, and find a way to take them apart and really apply myself to solving them. 2020 had some days that felt like weeks and some weeks that felt like months. Nevertheless, we banded together, and with a combination of grit and teamwork, we are managing through.”
Curry Smith reflects that “one of my favorite quotes is, ‘There is no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.’ That certainly was the case for me at Ross, and I still take that lesson with me every day. On the other side of discomfort and challenge is growth and opportunity.”
Finally, Cates adds, “One of the lessons I recall from my time in business school at U-M was learning about corporate strategy during times of a ‘tidal wave.’ Typically, tidal waves bring about industry realignment — new leaders, new winners, and new losers. Those companies and organizations that can climb on top of the tidal wave and find a way to ride it, versus being swept under it, tend to do the best. I’ve continued to go back to those lessons and think about how not to be swept under — which has required making some bolder moves.”
Legbeti concludes, “I think 2020 has been a ‘human moment’ in a couple ways. It’s been a time that has reminded us all of the things we have absolutely no control over (like viruses we can’t see or otherwise detect), but it has also been a moment to remind us all of what is most important. While COVID knocked the wind out of us all (and still is), it created opportunities for us all to reconnect — virtually but with more intention — with our kids, spouses, families, and friends.
“As leaders and business managers, we need to extend that same ‘human moment’ to employees and colleagues. To understand that they are home, trying to balance life and work (some with kids in tow) in uncertain times, and have genuine worries about family and their financial well-being. As Michigan Ross grads, we know how to create a positive and engaging work environment even under these circumstances, so that our people thrive. As they thrive — and feel appreciated and acknowledged for rising to the occasion — so will our businesses.”
Michigan Ross offers extensive assistance and guidance for alumni looking for more insights into leadership in challenging times.