June 2020 | 

Responding to the Crisis: The Right Leadership Skills

Responding to the Crisis: The Right Leadership Skills

If you’re a leader, whether of a team, a division, or a company, you know there’s an undisputable fact about the past couple of months: your job has never been harder. Steve Richardson, managing director of Alliance Automotive Group in the UK, knows it too. Because they provide parts for essential service vehicles, the subsidiary of General Parts Company has remained open throughout the crisis. But a well-timed experience in Wharton’s Executive Development Program (EDP ) last fall is giving him an edge.

“Nothing can prepare you for a global pandemic,” he says. “But the EDP faculty give you models and structures that make a difference in how you respond. The session on strategic agility is one I have been drawing on especially during this crisis. In it we learned about putting decision rights into place and how to streamline operations. Those lessons have proven invaluable.”

Richardson says he has also been able to meet the challenge of another unexpected need. Of his 4,500-person workforce, one-third is currently working from home, another group is furloughed and feeling isolated, and yet another is working in their facilities. “I’m not communicating with one group of employees now,” he says. “There are three distinct groups and I need to send a slightly different message to each based on what they are dealing with.”

The frameworks and tools he learned in EDP’s session on positive communication have helped him develop an approach to this challenge, he says. It allows him to impart the right message to each set of employees. “I am using the lessons I learned from Lynn Krage [who also designed EDP’s coaching curriculum] on the fundamental links between creating a positive climate and communication.”

Patti Williams, Wharton marketing professor and academic director of EDP, says the lessons Richardson is using to help his firm meet the demands of the pandemic are just one of the hallmarks of the two-week program. “We provide the best, most current thinking on financial decision making, operations, marketing, leadership, and strategy. Participants are literally learning at the leading edge. This allows someone who has outstanding functional skills to gain a 360 view of their business and think about their role in terms of each discipline.”

Williams says the knowledge participants take away has always been important, but it is especially valuable today. “When businesses are stressed and everyone has to come together as a team, they have to be able to speak the same language and appreciate the dynamics that each function faces. It’s more important than ever that leaders be able to have this holistic view.”

The second hallmark of EDP is executive coaching. “It asks participants to take a clear-eyed view of their strengths and weaknesses, and challenges them to develop those strengths,” says Williams. “It’s really about learning how to be your best self. It starts with a 360 [evaluation] from your workplace before you arrive, and in your first meeting with your coach on campus, you develop goals for the behaviors or skills you want to work on.”

The coaching is especially valuable because it isn’t confined to one-on-one sessions. Coaches observe participants when they are working in a business simulation, so they are able to see how strengths are brought into a team dynamic. Feedback comes in team meetings from both the coach and from fellow participants, creating a supportive environment that is conducive to making big changes. “Coaches always say they wish they could go to work with their clients,” says Williams. “The observed simulation experience is as close as you can get.”

Steve Richardson says sessions with his coach and simulation team helped him address one of his biggest leadership challenges. “The 360 showed that I needed to work on EI. Our team decided in the beginning that our real priority during the simulation was to practice the learnings [each afternoon simulation session puts lessons from the morning’s classroom session into action], work on our individual goals, and have fun while doing it. I got feedback on when I was getting it right and wrong, and then got another chance to put the feedback into practice. It has made a huge difference.”

Patti Williams isn’t surprised. “The response we get from participants after the program ends is very strong. Many have called the team experience and coaching life changing. They leave EDP more empowered, having made improvements that help them lead themselves and others more successfully — both during the current crisis and well into the future.”