A world in constant flux
The world has changed, yet again. This time, the transformation happened almost overnight. Who could have predicted that one morning in spring 2020 we would wake up to an almost exclusively virtual world?
It is never easy to predict unprecedented situations like the one we are currently going through. The distant, almost inaudible rumble of the crisis soon turned into cold reality for most of the world. Many found themselves forced to make difficult decisions, especially leaders in business and government.
It is safe to say that business was caught unawares, with the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically upending the working world and creating challenges never before faced by those in leadership positions. Offices fell silent and empty because people simply didn’t feel safe being in the same room together. Companies were forced to rethink the way they function and make changes quickly. Even those organisations that had contingency plans found it difficult to respond to the rapidly changing circumstances.
In this highly uncertain and volatile environment, business leaders are expected to stabilise and prepare their organisations to compete in an altered market. They need to make far-reaching decisions with limited visibility and in a fraction of the time required a few years ago. McKinsey & Company nicely summed up the gravity of the challenge:
“Yet, for all their expertise, they [business leaders] are grappling with many new questions for which they don’t have answers, even as their teams look to them for direction. The Covid-19 crisis is a once-in-a-century event, and no training or experience in previous downturns has prepared CEOs for it.”
And while deciding on the course of action is difficult and fraught with peril, inaction is all the more dangerous. Leaders risk falling into the trap of delaying action and downplaying the threat until the situation becomes clearer. “It takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay,” Michaela J. Kerrissey, an assistant professor of management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Amy C. Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, wrote in an article in Harvard Business Review.
Then there is the difficult balancing act of showing genuine concern for employees and making tough decisions to keep the company afloat. How do you balance being an inspirational and caring leader while continuing to drive performance? Also, how can you genuinely care for others when the strain on yourself has increased heavily during the pandemic? Remote work has spun many challenges, one of them being the risk of employees becoming invisible in a world where communication is almost exclusively digital. This makes it much more difficult to recognise and reward great performance, but also to notice if someone is struggling to perform.
And if these questions are not enough to describe the multitude of leadership challenges, let’s throw in some more. How can you keep your team engaged while working remotely? How do you build trust and transparency, which are of paramount importance during a crisis, if you can’t talk to people face-to-face? Does your company have the know-how and tools to compete in a digital world?
Embrace uncertainty, embrace the EMBA
The list of challenges is long indeed. Can senior business leaders prepare for them? Yes, they can. Enter the Executive MBA programme (EMBA), the qualification designed for experienced corporate executives and managers who want to improve their expertise and fill knowledge gaps. EMBA alumni benefit from an enhanced skills base and an expanded network. Always relevant to the current business environment, the EMBA exposes participants to real-life issues and helps them find appropriate solutions to the most pressing challenges. But what truly sets this programme apart is its focus on making decisions amid uncertainty.
Some business schools are quite imaginative when it comes to preparing business professionals to deal with uncertainty. IMD (Switzerland), for instance, partnered with the Swiss Armed Forces to give its EMBA programme a realistic crisis simulation. The training course took place in a bunker hidden inside a mountain. Over the course of two days, participants were given training on how to deal with crises, with practical exercises. They were put in charge of a major transportation hub in Switzerland, only to face difficult conditions that tested their decision-making capabilities, conditions such as accidents, natural disasters, disgruntled travellers, resolute journalists, and potential losses of revenues.
You will be hard-pressed to find an EMBA programme without at least one course focused on uncertainty. At INSEAD, the Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) offers a course called Uncertainty, Data, and Judgement that gives participants a framework for thinking about problems involving uncertainty and tools for interpreting data. An elective offered on Imperial Business School’s Executive MBA teaches Strategy in Volatile and Uncertain Environments. The UK school sums up the purpose of the elective like this:
“Instead of simply throwing a dice, leaders can learn how to turn the odds to their favour and effectively manage their bets.”
Business schools strike back
EMBA programmes are constantly being updated with new courses and electives, especially now that there are so many unknowns. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (US) has developed a course, conducted remotely, to address in real time how global business and financial uncertainty can be managed in the wake of such dramatic events. The course is called Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty and it includes lessons such as “Leading amid Unpredictable Rapidly Changing Events with Contested Facts,” “Financial Market Reactions to the Coronavirus and Disaster Risk,” “Emotional Contagion and Epidemics” and more.
The crisis is also accelerating trends in executive education that existed before the pandemic, for instance the focus on digital knowledge and skills and topics such as artificial intelligence and cyber security. Understanding the digital world has become a must since remote work became the norm. At IESE (Spain), EMBA students participate in deep-dive sessions every quarter on topics such as technological disruption, the role of artificial intelligence in global business systems, and digital supply networks. This year the school launched a three-day course that looks at how AI affects leadership.
Of course, those enrolled in EMBA programmes don’t simply rely on the courses and electives offered in the curriculum. Participants themselves, with their vast experience and unique perspectives, are a major source of knowledge and expertise. Herein lies arguably the biggest strength of the EMBA: the multitude of points of view and possible solutions that can be a match for any crisis.