In this Ground-Breaking Online MBA Elective, Students Learn through Role-Playing Crisis Situations Faced by Real-Life Company Executives

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Over the summer, students in the Online MBA Program at the Ross School of Business were able to participate in a new leadership elective that leveraged the ongoing pandemic — the greatest crisis in recent time — to create a virtual edition of one of the most intense and popular courses offered to MBAs. 

Often called the “CEO course,” High Stakes Leadership: Building Resilience through Relationships has long been a favorite Full-Time MBA action-based learning course at Ross. Students are challenged to navigate the tricky leadership situations real company executives have found themselves in, right in front of those very execs. 

To raise the bar even higher, the 75 students enrolled in its first online edition were able to tackle crises happening in real time, while simultaneously applying their learning in their day job. 

“‘The timing with the COVID-19 was actually a silver lining for this class,” said Mike Barger, executive director of Ross Online and professor of business administration. “We could have filled hours of class discussion around how business leaders were addressing the current crisis situation versus what we should be seeing based on what we were learning in class.” 

Barger said he maintained the basic structure of his in-person offering for the online course, with a mix of independent work completed by the students on topics such as understanding enterprise stakeholders and business resilience, along with live class sessions and simulated press conferences. 

Real crises, many still unfolding 

Of the eight crises students role-played, Barger said six of them were so recent that they had not been turned into case studies yet. “They were doing what Ross does best — real-world, real-issue, action-based learning — it was so much fun and provided some exceptional lessons,” he exclaimed.

The seven C-suite executives, who are all Ross or University of Michigan alumni, invited by Barger to participate in the course were: Cathy Bessant, BBA ’82, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America; Dave Brandon, BA ’74, chairman of Domino’s; Marcy Klevon, BBA ’81, former chief transformation officer, Ford Motor Co.; Bo Young Lee, BBA ’97, chief diversity and inclusion officer of Uber; Tom Lewand, MBA ’96, former CEO of Shinola; Harvey Spevak, BBA/MACC ’87, executive chairman and managing partner of Equinox Group; and Sangita Woerner, BBA ’91, senior vice president of marketing and guest experience at Alaska Airlines.

Barger, a co-founder of JetBlue Airways, acted as the eighth CEO. “I couldn’t have been happier with the lineup,” he said. 

Among the cases role-played by students were Bank of America’s data breach in May related to the processing of Paycheck Protection Program loans and accusations that they were not properly distributing loans; Uber’s mid-2019 crisis after two C-suite members were accused of racial bias; and Alaska Airlines’ third-quarter earnings release this year, which showed the company, like all airlines, might struggle to maintain stakeholder confidence given the impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry. 

“The live sessions with our guest executives were terrific,” said Chris Li, OMBA ’22. “Each team had an opportunity to take on the crisis management role as the executive team. My team was assigned to Uber and paired with Bo Young Lee, and I was lucky to play her role during the mock press conference.” 

Li said the day prior to the press conference, Lee took the time to meet with his team and provide pointers on how she would handle this challenge. “She was so open, so candid, so thoughtful with her guidance and experience, I thought that was really special,” he said. 

When the time came, Li said the online platform did not affect the press conference’s intensity. “In all honesty, when you are in the hot seat and getting grilled by your classmates, the video chat doesn't pull any punches,” he said.

Applying learning in real time

The leadership elective was purposely designed for immediate practical application, Barger said. 

“One of the benefits of teaching an online MBA course to high-quality students, who are leaders at their organizations, is that they’re able to directly apply what they're learning in their day jobs,” he explained. “So we are designing online courses to leverage that and have students try things and then come back and talk about them.”

Through the course, Lindsay Case, OMBA ’22, said students also gained and were able to practice using tools to help their own businesses think about stakeholder engagement and crisis planning.  

“One assignment we had to do was develop a crisis typology based on our industry and market and identify what areas would be most at risk,” said Case, a geneticist in the animal protein industry. “That framework for thinking about our businesses was really effective, and is a concrete tool that we’ve learned in the Online MBA Program to help make our own organizations more resilient.” 

Likewise, fellow class member Adrian Pereira said he was able to apply crisis planning learnings from the elective in his role as an engineer in new product development. In addition, Pereira said the course helped him develop as a leader, in part because of the expert insight and personal feedback he received from Barger. 

“I joined the Ross Online MBA Program to help groom myself as a leader, and I took this elective to improve my ability to handle crisis situations,” he said. “The readings, live conferences, guest executives, and how Professor Barger personalized the course gave me deep insight into my own style of leadership and what I hold important as a leader.”