A factory fire halfway around the world has resulted in multiple casualties and disrupted production for a U.S.-based clothing manufacturer; the media is clamoring for answers to what happened; and the company’s board of directors wants to know what’s next for the brand.

That was the challenge facing undergraduate students in the Honors Cohort as part of the first-ever Crisis Leadership Case Competition. The project, which was conducted in conjunction with Fisher’s Leadership Initiative, provided students with the opportunity to hone their leadership skills in a real-world simulation.

“This was the most amazing experience of my college tenure thus far – truly unparalleled,” said Wesley Smith, a third-year finance and economics student. “I’ve never felt so much like a real CEO (and I’ve owned an actual company for seven years). It was such unique, engaging case. It was fast-paced, stressful, realistic and very demanding.”

During the course of the three-day competition, groups of students addressed a number of key issues facing their fictional clothing company in the wake of a catastrophe at a manufacturing facility in Guangzhou, China. The students explored crisis communications, brand management, supply chain disruption and financial forecasting as they prepared strategies to engage with two key constituencies — the media and their company’s board of directors.

“The Leadership Crisis Case really had three main objectives: effective teamwork, leadership and communication and decision making,” said Ty Shepfer, director of Fisher’s Honors Cohort. “The students were given ambiguous tasks at different times. They didn’t have clear information and had to make decisions in real time.”

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A team of Honors Cohort students presents to their company's board of directors.

The project had the support of several real-life C-suite executives who portrayed members of the fictional board of directors, including:

  • Teresa Cracas (BSBA ’87), senior vice president and chief risk officer of The Cincinnati Insurance Companies
  • Bill Oeters (BSBA ’80), COO of KOST USA
  • Elena West (BA ’89), CEO of Ohio Art
  • Christine Poon, executive in residence and former dean of Fisher College of Business

The media relations simulation also had a real-world touch, as Michelle Newell and Brooks Jarosz, reporters for ABC6/FOX28 participated in the mock news conference and in providing “breaking news” of the fire.

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Honors Cohort students field questions from media members as part of the Crisis Leadership Case Competition, which was conducted in conjunction with Fisher's Leadership Initiative.

“I think Fisher has prepared us well for situations such as speaking to a board of directors or addressing the media,” said Nick Stamatis, a third-year finance student. “It was a unique experience. Typically in class we would give presentations then receive a few questions. However, in both settings, we were constantly grilled with questions and had to adapt quickly to address different issues. The feedback the board members gave to us at the end as someone who had gone through the experience many times in the past was invaluable and something I'll definitely keep in mind in the future.”

The competition provided the students with the opportunity to apply their technical skills to a number of facets of the case, including brand management and investor relations. It also helped crystallize to them the importance of strong, effective and principled leadership in the face of crisis.

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An Honors Cohort team explains its strategy to its board of directors.

“This experience exceeded my expectations and will positively impact my future endeavors,” Smith said. “I learned firsthand what it’s like to be a CEO for 48 hours – including all the good and bad aspects of the role. This experience taught me valuable leadership lessons that I will be able to carry onward with me as I move forward in my career.

“If I ever encounter a crisis like this in the future, I am confident I will be able to better manage it because of this experience. Experiences like this one allow me to be forever grateful to be at such a prestigious institution with outstanding faculty and students.”

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Students, participants, faculty and staff members of the inaugural Crisis Leadership Case Competition.