An online Oxford: Saïd Business School course gave Trent Smyth insights into adapting to change
An online Oxford: Saïd Business School course gave Trent Smyth insights into adapting to change © Ying Ang, for the FT

When the Formula 1 season-opening race in Melbourne was cancelled hours before the Friday practice session in March last year, Trent Smyth had a pit lane view. As a director of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, he knew it was a big decision to call off a A$120m ($91m) event. But, by the end of the weekend, other big sporting occasions had followed suit.

“It was early exposure to the severity of what Covid was going to do and I realised 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.

© Ying Ang, for the FT

“I began seeing patterns of delivery, marketing channels, customer touchpoints and supply channels all being interrupted,” says Smyth. He later decided to take a six-week online course on strategic alignment in the face of disruption, launched last year by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the UK.

“The programme made me reassess what my organisations exist to deliver,” he says. “If you’d told me two years ago that I had to be effective in my roles without events, I would have told you it couldn’t be done. But the course showed me how to pare everything back and consider the real purpose of what we do, which is about making connections, not running events.

“If we can’t run lunches, dinners, cocktail parties or even shake hands, then that’s OK. There are other ways we can deliver the necessary outcomes, whether that’s building networks within the Consular Corps or building influence and respect for the chiefs of staff profession. I learnt that it’s OK to let go of some things.”

Many executives turned to business schools and executive education courses to help them understand and adapt to the changes wrought by the crisis — and providers responded at speed. “We analysed breaking business issues and market conditions, and decided on the most critical topics,” says Mike Rielly, chief executive of UC Berkeley Executive Education at Haas School of Business in California, which launched a series of short videos titled Leading Through Crisis in collaboration with its alumni relations office.

This free content focused on leadership in a crisis but also included elements on related topics such as innovation, digital transformation and post-pandemic leadership practices, with an eye to the future. Rielly says the series received positive feedback from clients, which included Facebook, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson and Thermo Fisher, as well as university partners Aalto in Finland, Skolkovo in Russia and KFAS in Kuwait.

The 2020 Australian Grand Prix was cancelled with a few hours’ notice © Tracey Nearmy/Alamy

In Spain, Iese Business School responded to urgent needs during the first lockdown with Project Safeguard, a three-week online programme that covered crisis management, adapting to uncertainty and preparing for the post-Covid 19 future. Faculty also offered personal consulting sessions to help with particular problems faced by executives.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, company directors were so busy coping with the immediate situation that we found most training on shorter programmes was being funded by executives themselves,” says Yolanda Serra, director of international executive programmes at Iese. “Now we’re seeing companies refocus on developing talent, recognising the opportunity here to reinvent and transform.”

Lockdowns have put jobs in many sectors in jeopardy © Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

In Dublin, Michael Flynn, Trinity Business School’s director of executive education, says the challenge has been to help local executives repel two threats. “In Ireland, we have been impacted by the double calamities of Brexit and Covid,” he says. “Aside from job losses and the squeeze on incomes, these separate forces have simultaneously interrupted European and global supply chains, disrupted the flow of exports and set back by years the business plans of many companies, especially SMEs.”

Trinity responded with workshops and webinars during 2020 to help leaders and organisations cope with the “here and now” — how to navigate lockdown, lead scattered workforces, reorganise operations and mitigate harmful effects, as well as look for hidden opportunities. In collaboration with Trinity’s Centre for Social Innovation, the business school also set aside places on these courses for leaders from non-profit organisations. “We need to ensure this vital sector is not left behind,” says Flynn.

Supply chain disruption has been one important threat to business © Sergii Kharchenko/Getty Images

In France, in collaboration with large employers Renault, Air France, Accor and Jet Group, HEC Paris created a series of bespoke programmes called Rebooting Your Business for a New Normal, funded partly by the government’s Fonds National de l’Emploi (national employment fund) initiative. Two online-only programmes followed — Sustainability Transition Management and Data for Managers — to help companies tackle post-pandemic challenges.

When Grenoble Ecole de Management launched several short courses in response to the crisis, it found that the three most popular with clients were agile management, resilience management, and sales and customer relationship management in a crisis. It also set up a series of six free online conferences and roundtable discussions on the last of the above topics with France’s Association for Customer Relationship Management (AMARC).

“For a business school, being in direct contact with companies is always critical to fully understanding their needs and expectations. During the Covid crisis, this has been even more important,” says Adrien Champey, associate director of executive education at Grenoble. He predicts demand will rise for courses on customer relationships in crises; leading digital transformation and change; and business model innovation.

Not all pandemic-related risks are immediately obvious. As part of its Leadership Partners programme, the University of Exeter Business School in south-west England has been running a session that alerts executives to the heightened risk of professional misconduct during the pandemic.

The class is based on research by Will Harvey, professor of management at the school, and PhD student Navdeep Arora, a former partner at consultants McKinsey who in 2018 was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud. It highlights how the risk of professional misconduct and ethical lapses increases in stressful situations and what leaders and organisations should do to mitigate this.

As the pandemic continues, business schools will already be formulating the next wave of programmes to help organisations navigate an altered world once the crisis subsides.

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