July 2020 | 

Build Back Better: Meet Today’s Leadership Challenges

Build Back Better: Meeting Today’s Leadership Challenges

The world has never before seen a pandemic lead so rapidly to profound economic crises. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been leaders throughout history who have faced similarly extreme challenges. In other words, today’s crisis is unprecedented — but not unparalleled. Business leaders have dealt with depressions and recessions, industry-ravaging disruptions, political upheavals, natural and man-made disasters, and more.

Today, though, in addition to the unknowns — about the spread of the virus, the fate of individual businesses, consumer behavior, and the economic recovery — there’s quarantine and dealing with a remote workforce and virtual teams, often for the first time. At the same time, diversity, inclusion, and growing interest in social justice have come to the fore. But, says Wharton management professor Mike Useem, the focus shouldn’t be on just getting through to the other side.

“There is an opportunity at the present moment. When things are this broken, you have choices about how to put them back together,” he says. “Acknowledge that you’re not returning to the way things were. As you work your way out of the crisis, your leadership, your top teams, and even your organization are going to be different. Your goal should be to build back better.”

Useem is directing a new leadership program, led with Greg Shea, to help senior managers reach that goal. Leading through Challenging Times, offered online, addresses three key challenges leaders are facing right now: how to tend to yourself, how to tend to others, and how to take advantage of what comes next.

Shea notes the senior executives he has been in contact with over the last few months have expressed a tremendous sense of isolation. “That is a reality that everyone has been dealing with, but leaders have a particular burden. The program offers some degree of remedy for people who are in charge and dealing with a remarkable set of challenges to learn and share their experiences together.”

Although Leading through Challenging Times is delivered online, it requires a high level of engagement, especially during small group work in breakout rooms. Shea, adjunct professor of management and a senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, says participants can expect to gain new knowledge and skills and an expanded professional support group.

During the first hour of the program, participants are divided into teams that they will work in until the last day. The teams work through exercises and cases, and on a larger project: creating a presentation over the course of daily meetings that they will deliver at the end of the program.

Each piece of content in the program is designed to help participants strengthen what Useem says are the skills most needed by leaders today. “They need to be really good at thinking strategically, looking around corners and determining where they and their organizations will be months into the future. They need to communicate better, especially with virtual teams and remote workers. And they need to be ready and able to make tough decisions today and into the future.”

Learning from the past and present, preparing for the future

“Today’s senior managers can determine a way forward by learning from the past and the present,” says Shea. Leadership lessons on crisis management and resiliency can come from figures such as Ernest Shackleton, who led a crew of 27 on a failed mission to reach Antarctica. After their ship was crushed by ice, Shackleton and his team spent 634 days facing complete isolation, starvation, and extreme temperatures. “He exhibited every strength leaders today are called on to use,” says Shea, “and they all survived.”

Leading through Challenging Times explores such past successes and also examines what’s working in the present. Before the program begins, participants are asked to reflect on practices that are working for them during the crisis, and what they are struggling with. “Everyone has something they wish they had done differently,” says Shea, “but there are also good and even commendable practices that we want to capture and share with the larger group.” He adds, “Anyone who says they are doing this perfectly should not be in the program!”

Useem stresses that the timing of the program, held as businesses are working toward a post-COVID future, is ideal. “Now is when people want to know what to do and how to do it,” he says. “Spending four days with people like yourself, sharing best practices and learning lessons from research and past crises, can help you build back better. It’s an investment in your leadership, your team, and your organization.”