Leading in Unprecedented Times: A Mandate to be Bold ― and Remain Bold

by Shane Goodwin, PhD|

On February 20, 2020, we at the Cox School of Business celebrated our 100th year of business education at Southern Methodist University. Three weeks later, we announced that our campus was closing, and all our undergraduate and graduate programs were transitioned online for the remainder of the academic term, due to the Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) pandemic. The scale and scope of the pandemic is almost inconceivable, and the roles and responsibilities of leaders have dramatically changed in the past month. Before COVID-19, we were working on our “Next Generation” Strategic Plan which focused on enhancing our scholarly research, fostering innovation, offering new and updated degree and non-degree programs, increasing profitability and gaining market share. Today, we need to be agile as we encounter unforeseen obstacles — student learning outcomes in the virtual classroom, staff and faculty shortages, and other operational challenges — that drastically alter the scope of our roles and priorities. All the while, our teams are navigating health and safety concerns, working remotely, and supporting their families through the pandemic.

For us at Cox, now more than ever, this serves a clarion call to exercise transformational leadership through this extraordinary time. We have committed ourselves to two guiding principles: act now to protect and run the business today, and plan now to retool the business for the future. We are mindful that the actions we take now, and in the weeks and months ahead, will not only ensure that we survive this crisis – but that we will thrive in the future. As Albert Einstein stated, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

It’s About People, Process and Purpose
As we continue to adapt to our virtual office environment and transition from crisis management to operating in this new reality ― the scale and scope of the institutional impact of this pandemic is just beginning to come into view. No part of Cox will be immune from disruption, and each day we are confronted with new information about our constraints but also opportunities.

Even as we anticipate hard choices ahead, we lack the clear view and stable facts needed to inform our careful and comprehensive planning that we have experienced in the past. And yet, we must adapt. We need to make certain that we are not only ready to physically return to campus but, more importantly, be strategically prepared to respond to changing dynamics that impact our business model. We have a profound responsibility not only to the Cox of today, but also to the Cox we want to be in the months and years to come.

We knew it would not be easy to make bold strategic moves and that we would be tested in areas where our leadership muscles were not fully developed and, at times, the learning curve would be steep. However, moving boldly doesn’t mean moving thoughtlessly or recklessly. Bold action and the ability to learn are highly interrelated. The real-time ability to learn during a crisis is, in fact, the one ingredient that can turbocharge your ability to scale quickly. The following strategic imperatives provided direction:

Focus on Behaviors — Not Tactics or Tasks
What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors, frameworks and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead. In routine emergencies, the typical company can rely on its command-and-control structure to manage operations well by carrying out a scripted response. But in crises characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity, leaders face problems that are unfamiliar and poorly understood. It’s imperative to have agility and find a new cadence for problem-solving. Strong leaders get ahead of changing circumstances.

Behaviors and Bold Moves by Cox Administration
Below are six critical behaviors that have guided us during this unprecedented time and the bold actions we took:

Behavior One: Lead with Empathy
Bold Actions: Immediately focused on the health and safety of our stakeholders; waived of certain application requirements for students

Leaders need to acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience during a crisis. In a landscape-scale crisis, people’s minds turn first to their own survival and other basic needs. The pandemic also triggered powerful second-order effects. Governments instituted travel bans and quarantine requirements. We had numerous students, faculty and staff overseas and our immediate attention was focused on their health and wellbeing. Once school closures occurred, it placed incredible strain on our faculty and staff. Not only were they responsible for their commitment to Cox students but many had to homeschool their own children and take care of elderly family members. Since each crisis will affect people in particular ways, we paid careful attention to how our students, faculty and staff were responding and took corresponding measures to support them.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. In response to the many challenges posed by COVID-19, we took the critical steps to accommodate current graduate school applicants and waived some standard application requirements, most notably the GMAT/GRE for all graduate programs. Now, more than at any other time in our School’s 100-year history, compassion is the order of the day. We took an early leadership position on waiving the GMAT/GRE. Other notable schools followed weeks later.

Behavior Two: Streamline decision-making

Bold Actions: Organizational changes and redeployment of scholarships to attract highly desired students

High-performing leaders do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. Making tough decisions is the hallmark of an effective leader. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently — even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains. Good leaders realize that a wrong decision may be better than no decision at all. It’s natural to want certainty to make the right decision – but that is not possible. We need to rely on judgment. As the adage states: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience usually comes from poor judgment.” However, we must continually learn from our mistakes.

One important function is to quickly establish an architecture for decision making, so that accountability is clear, and decisions are made by appropriate people at different levels. Senior leaders must also make sure that they empower the right people to make crisis-response decisions across the network of teams. Since decision makers will probably make some mistakes, they must be able to learn quickly and make corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the organization.

We decided to make some interim changes of our most important asset: our human capital. We implemented a flexible operational and organizational structure to “rethink” strategic priorities to invest in critical capabilities and build resilience into our operational functions to address potential disruptive impacts to our business and position us to leapfrog the competition.

It was critical to align our Career Management Center (CMC) with our Admissions team to affect a simple, scalable framework for rapid decision-making. The rationale and benefits of these interim changes are as follows:

1. Alignment of our resources to leverage skills, competencies and knowledge to execute strategic initiatives;
2. Integrate and cross-pollinate Admissions and CMC to improve collaboration;
3. Provide our prospective student recruiting with “current” career insights;
4. Streamline reporting structure to improve communication; and
5. Provide alternative career “pathways” for Cox team to improve retention and to foster career opportunities.

During the pandemic, the situation is changing by the day — even by the hour. The best leaders quickly process available information, rapidly determine what matters most, and make decisions with conviction. During a crisis, cognitive overload looms; information is incomplete, interests and priorities may clash, and emotions and anxieties run high. Analysis paralysis can easily result, exacerbated by the natural tendency of matrixed organizations to build consensus. Leaders must break through the inertia to keep the organization trained on business continuity today while increasing the odds of long-term success by focusing on the few things that matter most.

Behavior Three: Embrace innovation
Bold Action: Led with technology and innovation; implemented a recalibrated priority dashboard

Effective leaders take personal ownership in a crisis, even though many challenges and factors lie outside their control. They align team focus, establish new metrics to monitor performance, and create a culture of accountability. Leaders should succinctly document their top five priorities and ensure that those above them are aligned.

At Cox, we created a daily Zoom call structure and weekly dashboard reporting of priorities, particularly with respect to our graduate admission programs to make certain we would attain our admission goals in this very challenging, unprecedented time.

The abrupt shift to virtual classrooms and operations provided an opportunity to accelerate our pace of learning about, and adoption of, technologies which Cox implemented in May 2019 with the launch of our Online MBA Program. As we increased our rate of metabolic learning throughout the year, we needed to quickly translate what we were learning at-scale. As our experimentation scaled, so did our learning. Our technological investment in digital assets not only allowed us to respond but to exceed expectations in a short time frame.
While other schools at our University had approximately two weeks to prepare to transition classes online – we (at the Cox Graduate School) had to adapt over a weekend. Our faculty and staff not only met the task, but they exceeded all expectations. Although our classes are virtual, we made certain, as a leader in cutting-edge online curriculum, to deliver our programs with equal educational rigor, impactful engagement and with the same highly regarded faculty. Additionally, our digital classroom allows us to serve our international students, who may have challenges attending our on-campus classes when our fall term begins.

Behavior Four: Engage for impact
Bold Action: Reinforced the Cox School of Business’ Purpose, Values and Culture

An organization’s Purpose, Culture and Values are put to the test in turbulent times. The coronavirus pandemic is testing the leaders of companies and organizations around the world. The second and third order effects could last longer and present greater difficulties than anyone anticipates. Leaders who establish and reinforce behaviors and values that support their organizations and communities during this crisis will be prepared for the next large-scale challenge.

It’s moments like this that we lean into our core — our character and personal values—to find our “North Star” and to focus on what really matters. At Cox, we reinforced our Purpose, Culture and Values throughout the organization. In fact, our culture committee has organized “virtual happy hours” to encourage team cohesion. Looking inward to our core — our communal culture and values — the Cox faculty and staff have responded exceptionally well with tireless commitment and unbounded agility that has helped us to thrive through these uncertain times.

Behavior Five: Adapt with agility, experiment and be willing to fail – but fail quickly
Bold Action: Developed a new Graduate Program (Cox MBA Direct)
Strong leaders get ahead of changing circumstances and seek input and information from diverse sources. In situations of extreme uncertainty, leadership teams need to learn quickly what is and is not working and why. This requires identifying and learning about unknown elements as quickly as they appear. Throw out yesterday's playbook. The actions that previously drove results may no longer be relevant. The best leaders adjust quickly and develop new plans of attack.

Effective leaders make smart trade-offs between the urgent and the important; between survival today and success tomorrow. Instead of thinking about all possibilities, the best leaders use their priorities as a scoring mechanism to force trade-offs. It’s imperative to encourage experimentation and embrace action, but don't punish mistakes. Missteps will happen.

As a result of dislocation in the job market, select college seniors wish to pursue an MBA degree immediately. Some business schools are admitting these students into their programs. However, the ‘market’ does not consider them traditional MBA candidates upon graduation. Admitting applicants into an MBA program immediately upon graduation creates “misaligned expectations” for applicants and can “tarnish” graduate business school education. Our MBA programs require several years of work experience and we don’t allow students to matriculate into an MBA program without it.

Accordingly, our newly cross-pollinated team structure identified an elegant solution to help those students. We leveraged our existing Online MBA infrastructure and created the Cox MBA Direct Program, which allows these students to work full-time while attending our highly ranked and educationally rigorous MBA program. This enables students to begin their MBA studies upon completion of their undergraduate degree and prepare them to secure a “true MBA-level” role by attaining the required work experience.

Behavior Six: Communicate effectively: Maintain transparency and provide frequent updates
Bold Action: Provided frequent updates, increased meeting frequency while maintaining weekly meetings

Crisis communications from leaders often hit the wrong notes. Time and again, we see leaders taking an overconfident, upbeat tone in the early stages of a crisis—and raising stakeholders’ suspicions about what leaders know and how well they are handling the crisis. However, some managers are also prone to suspend announcements for long stretches while they wait for more facts to emerge and decisions to be made.

Neither approach is reassuring and often leads to more confusion and frustration. As Amy Edmondson recently wrote, “Transparency is ‘job one’ for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are doing to learn more.” Thoughtful, frequent communication shows that leaders are following the situation and adjusting their responses as they learn more.

In my communication, I tried to follow the Stockdale Paradox: be brutally honest but provide a rational basis for hope. In our stakeholder messaging, we balanced optimism with realism. We wanted to reassure our stakeholders that we were confronting the crisis — that we hoped for the best but acknowledged and prepared for the worst.

Once Again, It’s About People, Process and Purpose
Guided by our stated Purpose and Values (below), the Cox faculty and staff have responded exceptionally well with tireless commitment, inspired resilience and unbounded agility that has helped us to thrive through these uncertain times. I’m humbled daily and extremely impressed by their deliberate calm, bounded optimism and continued dedication to our Cox community. It’s not what we achieve but rather what we overcome ― that defines our culture; that will define Cox.

  • Covid-19: Protect, Recover and Retool, Bain & Company (April 2020)
  • Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges; McKinsey & Co
    (March 2020)
  • Four Behaviors That Help Leaders Manage a Crisis, Harvard Business Review (April 2020
  • What sets successful CEOs apart? Harvard Business Review (May 2017)

Dr. Shane Goodwin is the Associate Dean of Graduate Programs and Executive Education and serves as a Professor of Practice in the Department of Finance at The Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Goodwin is a Board Leadership Fellow at the National Association of Corporate Directors. Additionally, Dr. Goodwin leads The Applied Corporate Governance Institute at The Center for Global Enterprise, an organization that advises companies to understand, engage, and succeed with their investors in complex and contested shareholder matters. Dr. Goodwin serves as an expert witness on complex litigation issues regarding M&A, corporate governance, capital markets and corporate finance matters and serves on several corporate and not-for-profit boards.