During any crisis, a company’s brand is at stake. That’s why calm, effective leadership is crucial in maintaining a firm’s reputation and ensuring key stakeholders are informed until the crisis is resolved.
That type of leadership mettle was put to the test for four teams of Fisher undergraduate students who experienced what it’s like to lead in the face of a crisis as part of the Fisher Leadership Initiative’s second-annual Crisis Leadership Case.
The students, part of Fisher’s Honors Cohort, assumed the roles of senior leaders of Prepádo, a fictitious consumer packaged goods company forced to handle a food-contamination situation in which two infants died after ingesting glass-laden baby food produced by the company.
As part of the simulation, students participated in a press conference, where they fielded questions from media members and crisis experts. They also presented to three business executives as part of an emergency board meeting.
Tanner Daskalakis, a third-year finance and accounting major, served as CEO for his winning team.
“Nervousness isn't the right word; it was closer to controlled excitement,” he said. “We had a phenomenal team and were confident in our content. I just had to make sure I communicated all we had worked on.”
It was impossible to prepare too much, he said.
“One task our group focused on was brainstorming ways the crisis would worsen,” he said. “This exercise proved invaluable as the situation continued to gain complexity.”
Gary D. Lewis, Jr., executive director of campus safety and chief of police at Cleveland State University served as a member of the media. Previously, Lewis was senior director of media and public relations at The Ohio State University from 2013 to 2015, and prior to that held leadership positions at the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
"The Fisher case study and crisis communication press conference illustrates all the attributes — expectations, stress, decision-making, leadership — that are experienced during a full-scale table top exercise," Lewis said.
Bryant Somerville, a reporter with WBNS-10TV, also volunteered his time and expertise to grill the students during the press conference.
“I was amazed by this competition,” he said. “Furthermore, I was really impressed by the students’ approaches to this assignment. They were professional. They were calm. They treated this as a real-life situation. It’s a very engaging way for students to think outside the classroom and gather real-world experience.”
Somerville said the event gave students the ability to engage and be passionate about the assignment.
“Having the board room and the media news conference is an extra layer of experience that they will take with them through the rest of their schooling and, furthermore, through their careers,” he said.
Philip Buerk, a third-year management information systems major, served as a CEO and had to field difficult and complex questions. The simulation helped him hone his leadership skills.
“This was an experience that will prove to be extremely beneficial to any person who aspires to be in charge of a company during their career,” he said. “It gave me a real-life experience in dealing with adversity. I have had an internship, which has given me exposure to working for a company and a taste of the ‘real world,’ but this challenge gave me exposure to the next level. I was in a management position, and was making decisions that affected the entire company, rather than just my project as an intern.”
Justyn Bostic, a third-year finance major and another student CEO, said the experience required intense levels of preparation.
“There is an art to being able to articulate complex ideas on your feet while being subject to criticism and held accountable for all the tough calls that were made throughout the course of our case competition,” he said. “This crisis case was so unique because it provided us with an outlet to practice this skill.”
Executives who served as members of Prepádo’s fictitious board included Christine A. Poon, executive in residence and former dean of Fisher College of Business; Phil Derrow, president and CEO of OTP Industrial Solutions; and Christopher Shanahan, global director at Frost & Sullivan.
Bostic said the experience exposed him to the potential of catastrophe that can erupt at any company.
“I feel so much more prepared and empowered to handle a crisis situation that could occur in any of my future business endeavors,” he said. “It really hammered home the importance of over-communicating through these crisis situations.”
Miki Treiber, a third-year accounting major with a minor in computer science, said the experience helped him evolve as a leader.
“As someone aspiring to start and grow a company of their own, this challenge has amplified my desire to follow such a path in the near future,” he said. “Not only did it reaffirm my aspiration to work among incredibly passionate and driven teams — ingredients absolutely vital to the success of any startup — but it also revealed an inherent attraction to leading effective strategy and analysis.”
He learned no one can successfully lead in a vacuum.
“Without the help of my team calming key stakeholders, suggesting various solutions, organizing and prioritizing countless bits of information and much more, I would not have been able to fulfill the duties of CEO,” Treiber said. “Plus, surrounding yourself with hardworking, intelligent people in a demanding situation was just fun. The atmosphere in the room was electric.”