Navigating Crisis as a Business Leader

Panel of industry and academic experts lead a virtual panel discuss how to lead a company through a crisis situation during the recent Lifelong Lerner webinar.

This year, due to the many implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, livelihoods, communities and businesses across the globe have been fundamentally challenged. While there has been affirming news about potential vaccines, businesses of all sizes will still be attempting to navigate a crisis in the coming months as coronavirus cases continue to surge. As these implications have proved disruptive to customary organizational procedures, leaders have had to take risks and think creatively to keep their businesses alive.


Experienced leaders from different sectors of the business world and academic experts talked crisis management in the second installment of the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics’ Lifelong Lerner Webinar Series.


Derron Bishop, assistant professor of business administration at the Lerner College, acted as the moderator for this discussion. He led panelists Judd Wright, Kyle Emich, Maria Black and Sal Mistry in an insightful conversation about one of the most pressing issues in today’s business climate: leading teams during a crisis.


Bishop first asked the panelists, “What is essential for leaders and teams to understand about crisis situations so that they could adapt effectively?” Judd Wright, partner at Grant Thornton LLP, suggested that in such cases of crisis, it bodes well to be more proactive than reactionary. Wright noted that the key to maintaining proactivity is to secure an understanding of factors that have the potential to disturb a working routine, and then, circumvent those shortcomings.


President of Worldwide Sales and Marketing at ADP, Maria Black, pointed out that crises are times where teams can actively anchor into their mission as a culture and a company. ADP’s mission, she said, was clear.


“Our first mission was all about making sure that we are keeping our clients, our channels, our partners and their families safe,” Black said. “Second was making sure that our world remained paid. Being in the middle of a crisis put us into this clear focus and it was soon defined at every level of the organization.”


Considering the shift into adaptability, the next panelist, Assistant Professor of management at the Lerner College Kyle Emich, suggested that the most important measures for people to take in this unprecedented era are to, “stay creative, stay psychologically safe and listen.” Emich elaborated on the importance of organizations taking advantage of this crisis, as it can be an opportunity for creative and ideological expansion.


“Imbuing a sense of psychological safety can really help to increase creativity in these times,” Emich said. “Part of creativity is taking risks because it’s something you haven’t done before, which means that there’s a certain probability of failure and there’s a certain probability of success.”


Sal Mistry, assistant professor of management in the Lerner College Department of Business Administration, illustrated that large-scale crises signal a need for individuals and organizations to step up and act. Mistry added to Emich’s advice by noting that listening is a definitive action to take, being that unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic raise more questions than produce answers.


Shifting the discussion to look at crisis through a more positive lens, Bishop asked what opportunities should leaders and teams be looking for during crisis situations, and how can they best take advantage of those opportunities?


Wright responded that crisis provides an occasion to make a shift in mindset, as the complexity of uncertain times requires professionals to approach business matters in a way that is agile.


“I think [the pandemic] opened up an opportunity to make an extended reach into the organization with empathy and connect in a very human, different kind of way,” Black said in response to Wright.


In their own words, the panelists each acknowledged that leaders, teams and employees across all establishments are attempting to navigate the same dilemma, and for this reason, team environments are being asked to trust each other like never before. Given this sweeping theme of complexity, the panelists were asked how they’ve been able to balance their understanding of the personal challenges their team members are facing while also driving and motivating them to be productive.


Mistry said that this poses another question in itself: do we maintain what we are doing or change the course?


“That’s a key question that all of us have had to ask over the last six months; do we keep continuing to do things the way that we’ve done it? Or is it time for us to switch to a new way to adapt to what’s happening?” Mistry asked. “I think a lot of times companies are forced to do that dance, which puts the company’s agility in question.”


Emich, responding to the Bishop’s last question regarding balance and motivation, shared two ideas. One was that, to keep any team motivated, a leader must reaffirm to that the collaborators of that team that their work is meaningful. Another of his ideas stressed that creativity is a joint effort between leaders and team members. To get operations to run smoothly during or after disasters, multiple productive approaches and ideas are needed.


Bishop then moved on to asking questions submitted by the audience, first asking Wright to speak on how connections are made possible while social-distancing restrictions are enacted.


Wright noted, “It’s about making sure that we embrace the technology that we have and really use it to our advantage in staying connected.”


The next question from the audience asked if there are signs that people might not want to have a leadership role after seeing the effects of the pandemic on a majority of industries.


Mistry acknowledged that leaders are currently experiencing amazing amounts of stress. However, he reminded the audience that there was probably a reason why people chose to take the leadership role in the first place.


“I would say for the vast majority of us that choose that line, it’s because it builds intrinsic motivation. It’s something that we want,” said Mistry. “Whatever the case may be, I think those benefits of being a leader will soon kick in after all of the stress has kind of been alleviated.”


To segue this idea to the next, Bishop asked Black to comment on how she will make sure that leaders will continue to want to lead in the future, in spite of the prospect of burnout.


Black insisted that “we have to continue to deposit into our leaders because it is not only about they wanting the social glamour of it but they also truly want to feel what it means to lead.”


Black went on to say that building a sense of social structure while granting rewards and recognition to the team is what makes a good leader. She stated that there are many ways that a leader can create this culture, both in-person and via virtual connection, and they should diffuse those virtues in all cases.


Bishop concluded the discussion by noting that though the negative events of 2020 seem like they would only occur once in a lifetime, they produced useful organizational lessons and ideas that business leaders can apply to future operations.


“These are actually times when we can see systemic processes more clearly,” said Bishop “We can then adapt how we work in normal times and apply what we’ve learned about these processes in times of pressure.”

Upcoming Lifelong Lerner Webinars

Thursday, Dec. 17, 4 p.m. EST — Weathering the COVID Storm – Keeping Small Businesses Afloat
Register here:

Recordings from previous Lifelong Lerner webinars can be viewed on the Lerner College website here:

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