From Angry Voicemails To A Dog’s Death, These Students Grapple With A Leadership Crisis

Michigan Ross Leadership Crisis Challenge

A communications coach assesses Team 25’s boardroom performance at the 2024 University of Michigan Ross School of Business Leadership Crisis Challenge. CEO Josh Gribben (lower right) led the presentation.

Having met for the first time only moments ago, the seven anxious MBA students crowd into a 10-foot-by-10-foot meeting room at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. It’s early evening on a Thursday night as the group gathers around a small table in room R1226, their open glowing laptops at the ready.

Team 25, self-dubbed the Ross Quarters, is one of 60 student teams competing in the school’s annual Leadership Crisis Challenge. It’s a stress-inducing simulation as elaborately complex as the upper levels of Minecraft.

This year, the 24-hour business game is the largest ever since the launch of the Challenge in 2008. Some 416 graduate and undergrad students, nearly 30 faculty members, 15 communication coaches, and 83 alumni are engaged in the exercise. Simulations are a common feature at most business schools because they create risk-free environments for students who have to manage through a challenge with less-than-perfect information. The game imposes real-world deadlines and requires collaboration, brisk analysis, and smart decision-making under pressure. It also demands clear, concise communication skills. The Ross Challenge, sponsored by General Motors and McKinsey & Co., has to be one of the most bewildering and intricate ever.

“We want students to learn how to navigate ambiguity and do it strategically,” explains Sanger Leadership Center Managing Director Jeff Domagala. “They’ll deal with team dynamics, manage tension in the boardroom,  and will need to demonstrate executive presence.”

Ross Dean Sharon Matusik points out that the Challenge is just another of many experiential learning opportunities at Ross that make the school’s approach to business education distinctive, along with its signature six-week action learning assignments for MBA students called MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Projects). “We believe putting our students in real-world, relevant situations — with faculty guidance but with real stakes — helps prepare them to thrive and lead in a dynamic world,” says Matusik.

THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS CHALLENGE: ‘WE ARE COMMITTED TO TAKING YOU OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE’

In Ross’ Leadership Crisis Challenge, teams will be confronted by a myriad of challenges that will ultimately include a flood of social media hate, a ransom demand by hackers, a class action lawsuit, and even improbably the death of a dog, Fluffy. The leadership team is in charge of a startup with an inflated $5 billion valuation that has never been profitable and is low on cash reserves. Inevitably, the crisis will likely disrupt plans for a forthcoming IPO.

Tangled up in the crisis, each team will have to surmount a series of heart-pounding provocations: record a video to address the crisis to the public, present to an emergency board meeting, and finally–for a select few finalists–respond to hard-hitting questions from actual journalists at a press conference.

Each student on a team assumes a senior leadership role at an imaginary company called FullSafe that makes and operates home security and smart home devices.

On Team 25, the CEO is 41-year-old Josh Gribben, a self-assured Ross student in the school’s online MBA program who works as a sales operations manager for Hartford Funds in Philadelphia.

Gribben and his team of six other Ross MBA candidates have no idea of what is coming at them but the students know they will be pushed to the limit.  Moments before entering the meeting room, they were vaguely warned by Domagala.

“Stress is going to occur because we are purposely committed to taking you out of your comfort zone,

Domagala told a packed auditorium. “We’re looking for poise under pressure. You will need to take leadership development into your own hands.”

Michigan Ross Leadership Crisis Challenge

Team 25 huddles in a 10-foot-by-10-foot meeting room to manage the crisis

THURSDAY EVENING: THE LEADERSHIP CRISIS CHALLENGE UNFOLDS

Back in the meeting room, there’s nervous banter as the laptops are opened and the team awaits the first of a torrent of emails, text and voice messages, phone calls, and the inevitable call-out culture flames on Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Reddit.

Richard Simon, a Ross MBA student who will play the role of chief communication officer, suggests a team goal: “To gain experience in a crisis situation and collaborate strategically to devise an actionable plan for the board. That should cover a lot of buzzwords,” he laughs.

At 6:01 p.m., the team continued to wait, even though the first missive was expected to occur exactly at 6 p.m. “The crisis is late,” jokes Victor Solansky. 

Just a minute later, a news release comes through. It announces a partnership between the startup with a midwestern university to create the first-ever smart campus.

“This doesn’t seem like the crisis yet,” observes Jordan Gorelick, a senior systems engineer for Sikorsky who is playing VP of product design. “This looks like a good thing.”

THE DEATH OF FLUFFY CREATES A VIRTUAL STORM

Michigan Ross Leadership Crisis Challenge

The crisis claimed a victim: Fluffy, the dog

Soon enough, however, Gorelick will begin reading to his teammates one social media post after another, with increasing alarm. Several students report lights flickering on and off in the classrooms. Suddenly, the team finds itself dealing with locking doors, hacking cameras, and other malfunctions in FullSafe’s system that endanger the lives and information of the company’s customers. One student gripes about being locked out of his room, naked after taking a shower. Another customer reports that the company’s software allowed a doggy door to open while she was at dinner, letting her dog Fluffy wander outside in the bitter cold where the pet would freeze to death.

Over the next few hours, as the crisis unfolds and the tension builds, the team will get 22 more messages, including an early 6: 50 p.m. voicemail from Board Chair Alex Assad.

Gribben plays it out loud to a silent room. 

“What the heck just happened?” asks Assad. “The Twitter feed is blowing up…This is not ideal at a public launch, especially with our other potential university partners watching…These negative experiences early on in the process can have a large and lasting impact on the public perception  of our company…Reach me back!”

Gribben sighs. The room fills with nervous laughter. 

“Do we need to answer as soon as possible?,” asks Solansky.

“I don’t know that we have enough information,” responds Simon.

‘SORRY TO INTERRUPT YOUR LOLLYGAGGING’

Then, at 7 p.m., an hour into the simulation, Gorelick reads aloud a days-old Reddit post that makes clear that the source of the problems is not software bugs but something far more serious: a possible security breach caused by a hacker.

Two and one-half hours later, the whole mess becomes clear when the team receives a demand for 500 Bitcoin (roughly $21 million) from a hacker who infiltrated the system and gained access to private information on 61 customers.

If you don’t fulfill our demands, we will publish the most sensitive data on the dark web. The ultimatum comes in the form of an email.

“So sorry to interrupt your lollygagging,” writes the anonymous hacker, “but we’ve gotten impatient. All of your stored consumer data and home monitoring programs are now encrypted. We stopped other hackers from spying on your customers’ homes–but we still can, so don’t yet funny ideas.”

By 10 p.m., the Ross Quarters and the 59 other teams will have to finish up their videos for the public and send in one-page memos outlining the presentation they will make before the board in the morning. Some teams will stay up late to both script and rehearse their presentations. Others will huddle early the next morning to get in some prep before meeting their board of directors.

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