February 2021 | 

Crisis Ready: Decision Making When It Counts Most

Mastering the Art and Science of Decision Making

Overnight, your access to capital is cut off. Or news reports reveal your CFO is accused of tax fraud. Or a global pandemic forces you to shut down operations. Before 2020, many leaders had never faced what Wharton management professor Mike Useem calls a “go point”: a crisis requiring decisions with profound consequences. But a lack of first-hand experience doesn’t mean you can’t be prepared.

Useem is a firm believer in, and practitioner of, immersive learning: showing leaders how they can improve decision making when it matters most by becoming engrossed in the circumstances of a go point. As COVID continues to cause disruption and devastation to organizations worldwide, it’s a skill no one can afford to be without.

That was the thinking behind the first Wharton Ready Livecast in April of 2020. Led by Useem, “We Are All Leaders Now: Seizing the Leadership Moment” dove into the real-time crisis response of leaders like Marriot CEO Arne Sorenson. Useem went behind the scenes to examine the process behind difficult decisions, highlighting the need to move from intuitive to deliberative decision making. Participants were invited to submit ideas for Sorenson, and then learned what really happened.

Leaving an Indelible Impact

Useem is using the same method in a new MBA course and related Executive Education program, Leading through Challenging Times. “When you create those moments,” he says, “looking at the options, the decision process, and why a particular choice was made, it strengthens the participant's decision making. That’s the crux of why I do this. I want people to become completely riveted by the moment and to create a lasting memory.”

Those moments include Bill McNabb leading Vanguard through the 2008–09 financial crisis and minister of mines Laurence Golborne working to save 33 miners trapped below the Chilean desert. Useem says his challenge in the classroom is to help transfer the process, including decisions that went well and those that didn’t, to future situations. “I want participants to learn from it in a way that they can apply to completely different moments later in their professional careers. They can think, ‘Laurence Golborne didn't get weak-kneed trying to save those miners. He called his superiors, built a team, and made time a vital resource given the circumstance.’ His decision process becomes a template or inspiration for their own.”

In the MBA course and Leading through Challenging Times, some of those insider accounts will be firsthand. Guest speakers will include senior leaders who are still grappling with the pandemic, such as CEOs Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson and Tricia Griffith of Progressive Insurance. They will reflect on how their experience of past disasters has shaped their response to COVID-19.

“There is nothing like literally being there by talking directly with those who are in the middle of making some very wrenching decisions,” says Useem. “They can say, ‘Here's what I face: our budget's down by $300 million, I've got customers who literally can't contact us, I've got X dollars due in debt. What do you think I should do? Should I go to my board? Should I bring a consulting firm in?’ Even more powerfully, we draw participants into trying to solve those problems. You can almost feel the nervous energy, the great anxieties about getting it right. They’re in the middle of the emotional experience of making a difficult decision when the right one is unknown.”

A Heightened Need to Know

He notes the impact is especially valuable today because “the need to know has never been greater. Participants have been struggling with these decisions intensively, especially over the last year. That may be largely because of COVID-19, but think about Black Lives Matter, issues of equity, diversity, and now the political instability and crisis we're going through. Leaders are asking themselves, ‘What can we do? How can we help our business address any or all of these crises?’”

Answers may come by referencing decisions made in the past, exploring firsthand accounts of those grappling with tough issues today, or from those who study both. Today, though, it can also come from a fellow participant in a virtual classroom. “If you turn to them and ask, ‘Got any ideas about what I ought to be doing?’ the answer will probably be, ‘Yes,’ because they've been through it themselves,” says Useem. “The Leading through Challenging Times classroom becomes not just the faculty at the front — it includes the participants on the Zoom screen. Today, we're all teachers and learners.”

Whether the lessons derive from the pandemic, a historic military battle, or an economic crisis, there is no doubt that they will be applicable in the future. “You're going to have your own defining moment, your own crucible moment, again and again, in the years to come,” says Useem. “Life is filled with setbacks. We want to manage for growth, but we also have to manage when there's a huge risk or calamity. The essence of the program is to help you be ready.”