Guests on Wharton Global Youth’s Future of the Business World podcast often close out their 20-minute interviews answering the lightning-round question: You’re starting your own business talk show, who is your first guest and why?
A popular response? Dr. Erika H. James, dean of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
“I would love to have Dean James as a guest because I’m always in awe of her charisma and passion as a leader,” replied Sophie B., a high school entrepreneur featured on the July 2023 episode of the podcast.
Sophie, a summer student in Global Youth’s Leadership in the Business World program, was among some 300 high school students on Wharton’s Philadelphia campus to attend a July 13, 2023 lecture given by Dean James. Dr. James spoke on crisis management, her long-time area of academic research and expertise, as well as the theme of her book, The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient than Before.
While Global Youth has written about some essential aspects of the Dean’s crisis-leadership research, we thought we would bring you a few of her bonus insights from the Q&A session with high school students attending her lecture.
Global Youth’s ‘Business Talk Show’ with Dean Erika James
Q: How have you used your own lessons of crisis management in your leadership?
A: I wrote The Prepared Leader while I was leading Wharton through COVID [in 2020 and 2021]. So, it was helpful to be reminded of all the things that I was writing about as I was trying to lead this organization. In particular, it was important for me to talk about building trusting relationships. I started as dean of Wharton [in July 2020] and we were already remote. I didn’t know anyone here before I started. I had to work hard to find ways to connect with my colleagues, students and faculty, even though we were operating through Zoom. Making that a priority helped encourage people to want to follow my vision for the school once we were out of COVID.
Q: Did going through a crisis when you joined Wharton help or hinder your ability to fulfill the requirements of your job in the long run?
A: Initially, I thought it was going to hinder my ability to be effective in the long-term. But what I realized is, when you are in the trenches with people, heads down working 18 hours a day trying to solve a problem, you get to learn a lot about the people that you work with and about the organization and school in general. So, I learned so much more about Wharton in that first year trying to deal with the crisis than I ever would have learned had that not happened. I’ve used all those learnings to determine what the long-term strategy should be.
Q: How do you seek opportunities in a crisis?
A: The key thing is [to embrace] the learning phase. You’ve got to go back with your team — the people that you’re working with — and ask important questions. What did we do well? What didn’t we do well? What did we learn? What should we be doing differently? Now that we have experienced this, we are a different organization. So how do we apply these things in new ways? It’s looking inward at your organization and what your capabilities are, and it’s also looking at the external needs in the world. When you find that intersection between what your company can now do really well and what is necessary out in the world, that’s the opportunity that you want to pursue.
Q: How do you inspire trust both inside and outside an organization?
A: I think about a few things related to trust. First, you inspire trust by being trustworthy yourself. If you can’t be trustworthy, why would you expect anyone else to be? It’s a mutual thing. You also have to be competent. You have to demonstrate that you have the knowledge, the skills, the ability to do the work that you’re hired to do, either as an individual, or as an organization working with vendors and suppliers; you’ve got to deliver. Then there is communication — demonstrating that you’re willing to be transparent and open, honest and candid. And when there’s information that should not be shared, because it’s confidential, that you are able to maintain confidences, which is part of inspiring trust. And then the final one is what I refer to as contract-based trust. This means that if I say I’m going to do something, I’ve got to follow through and do that thing. Time and again there is consistency and people can predict and expect that I’m going to deliver on whatever it is I’ve committed to do. That’s true as an individual and it’s true as an organization with your external stakeholders.
Q: What are the consequences when leadership decisions are influenced by emotions?
A: Emotions matter, and they can be fueled and channeled in ways that lead to productive outcomes. There are two kinds of consequences. When you are experiencing a crisis, if it’s painful and hard for you, then you know it’s also probably painful and hard for all of the people that you’re working with. You have to allow people to go through the fear, the anxiety and the stress and frustration, because that’s human nature. You’ve got to give permission for people to feel what they feel when they’re going through a crisis, instead of trying to pretend as if it doesn’t matter or criticizing people for what they feel. At some point, you also have to move beyond those kinds of emotions to the sensibility of overcoming the crisis. How are we going to work together to make things better? I think it’s the leader’s responsibility to set that vision and articulate what’s possible — why your team is going to work as hard as you’re going to ask them to work to get out of this crisis. What’s waiting for them on the other side is going to be so much better. The communicating and the convincing of that is the important work of a leader.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing crisis management?
A: The biggest obstacles are within ourselves. The pull towards human nature is like gravity; it’s a really strong pull. We like to avoid bad things. Think back to when you were three years old and your parents said don’t eat the cookies before dinner. And then you ate the cookies before dinner and got caught. You said, ‘It wasn’t me, it was my brother!’ We don’t want to be associated with bad things — and crises are bad things. That tendency for us as humans to want to avoid or deny or not be a part of those bad things is the biggest obstacle to allowing us to be effective leaders when something bad happens.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of our time?
A: Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s just one. The demographic shifts that are happening around the world are going to have huge implications. Trying to address some of the climate issues and the wealth gap in this country and outside the country are going to continue to be really challenging. AI could be problematic if we don’t handle that one right. I think it’s still early enough that we have the chance to manage AI and machine learning in a productive way. But it could also become unproductive for us and a dangerous tool if we don’t think about the ethics of the work. I have extreme confidence in our generation of youth to help us work through these things. I listen to you, I talk with you, and I hear how you care about these matters. And at a very early stage in your life, you’re already trying to be problem solvers in all of these things. If you continue with the same values that you have, we’re going to be in really good shape.
Have you ever have to lead through a crisis? What was your biggest lesson from the experience? Share your story in the comment section of this article.
The world has talked a lot about resilience in the years during and emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. How does this interview with Wharton’s dean help add meaning to what it means to be resilient?
Do you have a leadership question for the Dean? Ask it in the comment section of this article.