Leading business schools through a global crisis: navigating the unpredictable


By Anna Jirova, Coordinator of the Executive Academy and the Online Executive Academy, EFMD Global Network and Jordi Diaz, Associate dean at EADA Business School and the Director of the EFMD Executive Academy

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

The global pandemic changed the reality of business education in a short timeframe and kept us busy adjusting to this new reality. With the vast number of emergencies to be dealt with and the new arrangements to be implemented, it naturally becomes challenging to decide where to direct the energy to stay focused, positive, productive, decisive, clear, and consistent without becoming incredibly overwhelmed in the process.

The recently concluded online Executive Academy programme Leading Through a Global Crisis: Navigating the Unpredictable has addressed the leadership challenges and generated discussions that proved how important and valuable the peer-spirit is, especially in the current context. From the week-long programme we can conclude that the crisis, even though being indisputably trying experience, has already proven to have multiple positive outcomes.

Despite the remaining uncertainty, there are also some fundamental points to remember, points we can use as a potential lighthouse to be able to navigate the unpredictable successfully.

Undeniably a lot remains to be discussed, developed and implemented, and it may feel as if we are operating in a relatively new environment. It is important to remember, though that neither the value of education nor our primary objective as educators has changed. Even though the channels to achieving it are to be adjusted, the fundamental job-to-be-done remains the same, and that is what we need to keep in mind.

In the chaos of today, it is tempting to focus all energy on managing the present as there seems to be no time left for anything else. However, by this point we are all aware that things are not getting back to pre-COVID-19 times; it is, therefore, the time to pause with the efforts of trying to return things to “normal” and reevaluate what we want our new normal to be. Now is the time to slow down, step back, reflect, keep our objective in mind, identify the appropriate opportunities to improve and move forward.

If we choose the right perspective, the global crisis has provided a unique momentum for business schools to update the processes and advance on topics that have been discussed already but were hard to execute in the previous circumstances. It has opened new doors and forced us to pay attention to things we should have been progressing on for some time such as sustainability, approaches to teaching, assessments, student engagement, AI etc. In other words, “If it is not now, when? If it is not us, who?”.

The options are endless and overwhelming, but it is important to remember here that we are hardly working with a blank canvas. In the last months, a lot of capacity has been built, a lot of lessons learned and new knowledge has been accumulated within our teams. For instance, the necessary transformation to online has highlighted exactly the aspects of the face-to-face experience that are hard and even impossible to recreate in an online environment. On the other hand, we have shown incredible resourcefulness in recreating as much online as possible and thus we have built a solid knowledge base to craft successful blended programmes. We have all the pieces of the puzzle and now mainly need to figure out how to rearrange them to create a sustainable future.

It is indeed difficult to predict the challenges of the upcoming months and adapt accordingly. However, that is going to be difficult with or without COVID-19. It is safe to say that a new crisis will come, be it in the next months or years. The key to deal with this uncertainty is to remain aware of the “weak” signals and be ready to act upon them. To avoid the scenario that we have witnessed in many cases with COVID-19 – where the time period between first hearing about the virus and implementing appropriate measures stretched over weeks, sometimes even months – we need to make sure to shorten this phony war-like period in the future. We need to keep an eye on threats that are not immediate now but have the potential to be catastrophic if accelerated by something like a pandemic and have a solution ready to be implemented.

A crucial part of being able to do this is the presence of resilient and resourceful teams. Our teams have learned in days what could have taken weeks. The impossible has been made possible. Resilient and resourceful teams are therefore the key to success and therefore it is important to support training, self-development and – yet again – take a step back from merely managing the present, keep an eye on the horizon and clearly communicate the purpose that the individuals can embrace. For the sense of purpose is the essential driver of longanimity.

Leaders certainly do not have an easy job ahead as we are hardly out of the woods yet. The next few months might be one of the most challenging and decisive, and creating the future is the one thing that can’t be delegated.

To thrive as a leader in such a context means maintaining a healthy balance. It involves figuring out how to follow the rules but only to a desirable extent, how to implement uniform guidelines but also customizing them, how to remain self-confident and decisive while also listening and having empathy for others, how to exercise control without suffocating and allowing for a healthy amount of autonomy, how to keep boundaries clear while keeping the team members connected.

To thrive as a leader in such a context means being able to look at oneself from a different perspective and switch regularly between focusing on the purpose, on the others and on oneself. To practice such ability, disconnecting is key. Making time to disconnect helps us to slow down, reflect, build capacity and reconnect later on.

To thrive as a leader in such a context, therefore, means finding time to take care of oneself.