When Formula 1’s season-opening race in Melbourne was canceled hours before Friday practice in March last year, Trent Smyth had his sights set on pit lane. As a director of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, he knew it was a significant decision to cancel a 120 million Australian dollars ($91 million) event. But, by the end of the weekend, other big sporting occasions had followed suit.
“It was an early exposure to the gravity of what Covid was going to do and I realized nothing was sacred,” says Smyth, who is also executive director of the Chief of Staff Association, an international professional body and secretary. of the Consular Corps in Melbourne, which serves the 84 permanent consulates in the State of Victoria.
“I started to see delivery patterns, marketing channels, customer touchpoints, and supply channels all interrupted,” says Smyth. He then decided to take a six-week online course on strategic alignment in the face of disruption, launched last year by the Saïd Business School of the University of Oxford UK.
“The program made me reassess what my organizations exist to offer,” he says. “If you had told me two years ago that I had to be effective in my roles without events, I would have told you that it was not possible. But the course showed me how to pare it all down and consider the real purpose of what we do, which is to connect, not to organize events.
“If we can’t organize lunches, dinners, cocktails or even shake hands, then that’s okay. There are other ways to achieve the needed results, whether it’s building networks within the consular corps or building influence and respect for the chief of staff profession. I’ve learned that it’s okay to let go of certain things.
Many executives have turned to business schools and executive education courses to help them understand and adapt to the changes brought about by the crisis – and providers have responded quickly. “We analyzed major business issues and market conditions, and decided on the most critical topics,” Mike Rielly, managing director of UC Berkeley Executive Education, told Haas School of Business in California, which launched a series of short videos titled Leading through crisis in conjunction with its Alumni Relations Office.
This free content focused on leadership in times of crisis, but also included material on related topics such as innovation, digital transformation and post-pandemic leadership practices, with an eye to the future. Rielly says the series has received positive feedback from customers, including Facebook, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson and Thermo Fisher, as well as university partners. Alto in Finland, Skolkovo in Russia and KFAS in Kuwait.
In Spain, Iese Business School responded to urgent needs during the first lockdown with Project Safeguard, a three-week online program that covered crisis management, coping with uncertainty, and preparing for the post-Covid 19 future. also offered personal counseling sessions to help resolve specific issues faced by executives.
“At the start of the pandemic, business leaders were so busy dealing with the immediate situation that we found that most training on shorter programs was funded by the executives themselves,” says Yolanda Serra, Director of International Executive Programs at Iese. “Now we’re seeing companies refocus on talent development, recognizing the opportunity here to reinvent and transform.”
In Dublin, Michael Flynn, Trinity Business School‘s director of executive training, says the challenge has been to help local executives fend off two threats. “In Ireland we have been impacted by the twin calamities of Brexit and Covid,” he says. “As well as job losses and income compression, these distinct forces have simultaneously interrupted European and global supply chains, disrupted the flow of exports and set back the business plans of many companies by years, particularly the SME.”
Trinity responded with workshops and webinars in 2020 to help leaders and organizations deal with the ‘here and now’ – how to navigate lockdown, lead dispersed workforces, reorganize operations and mitigate adverse effects, as well as looking for hidden opportunities. In collaboration with the Trinity Center for Social Innovation, the business school has also reserved places in these courses for leaders of nonprofit organizations. “We need to ensure this vital sector is not left behind,” Flynn says.
In France, in collaboration with major employers Renault, Air France, Accor and Jet Group, HEC Paris has created a series of bespoke programs called Reboot your business for a new normal, financed in part by the government initiative of the National Employment Fund. Two online-only programs followed – Sustainability Transition Management and Data for Managers – to help companies meet post-pandemic challenges.
When Grenoble School of Management launched several short training courses in response to the crisis, it found that the three most popular with customers were agile management, resilience management and sales and customer relationship management in times of crisis. It has also set up a series of six free online conferences and roundtables on the last of the above topics with the French Association for Customer Relationship Management (AMARC).
“For a business school, being in direct contact with companies is always essential to fully understand their needs and expectations. During the Covid crisis, this was even more important, ”explains Adrien Champey, associate director of continuing education in Grenoble. He predicts demand will increase for customer relations in crisis courses; lead digital transformation and change; and business model innovation.
Not all pandemic-related risks are immediately obvious. As part of its Leadership Partners program, the University of Exeter Business School in the South West of England held a session which alerts managers to the heightened risk of misconduct during the pandemic.
The class is based on research by Will Harvey, a management professor at the school, and doctoral student Navdeep Arora, a former partner at McKinsey consultants who, in 2018, was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud. It highlights how the risk of misconduct and ethical breaches increases in stressful situations and what leaders and organizations should do to mitigate this.
As the pandemic continues, business schools will already be developing the next wave of programs to help organizations navigate a changed world once the crisis passes.