UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Under pressure


UNC Kenan-FlaglerThe students were ready.

A day after they received their mission — create a viral video for a for-profit client of their choice — six team leaders went to meet with Mike Christian, the professor who designed the “Apprentice-style” challenge.

They had spent the last 24 hours leading their teams through brainstorming, planning and creating formal presentations (including a storyboard and financial analysis) in preparation for pitching an executive team.

Before they could pitch their ideas, however, each team leader received a memo: the mission had changed direction. No need to make their presentations.

Instead, each team needed to create a viral video for Paws4ever, a non-profit animal sanctuary in Mebane, N.C.

Most of the previous day’s work was now worthless. And just 24 hours were left in the 48-hour challenge.

“The real leadership lesson here was not just about creating a viral video and leading a team,” said Christian. “The other lesson was about leading through times of change, being resilient and communicating bad news to team members in ways that keeps them motivated.”

The viral video challenge was part of the MBA Leadership Immersion Capstone Course, which is unique among business schools. Students spend seven weeks – an entire quarter of their second year as MBAs – working solely on honing their leadership skills. The module teaches real-world leadership skills through “Apprentice”-style team competitions, business simulations, outdoor challenges, engagement with C-suite executives and individual observation, coaching and feedback.

Twenty-three second-year MBA students were chosen for the course, which is led by Mindy Storrie, (EMBA ’97) director of leadership development, and delivered by faculty, staff and executive coaches.

“These were some of the highest potential students in our MBA Program,” Christian said. “They were all second-year students, moving on to great jobs. This is a significant capstone that gives them intensive hands-on experience and feedback just as they prepare to move into important positions in top organizations.”

The most successful leaders in the challenge reassured their teams after the change in direction, he said. “They went back to their teams and said, ‘Hey guys, we have an opportunity here to do something meaningful for the community.’ I was thrilled to see the high quality of their work on such short notice. It’s difficult to lead when the ground is moving underneath you, which is what they were faced with and is very common in organizations.”

The students presented their videos — most shot with cell phones and edited with free software — to a panel of professors, students and community members. They judged the videos based on several categories: best overall, most creative, most beneficial to Paws4ever and overall favorite.

Video subjects ranged from “Why Dogs Are Better Than Men” to “That Pet Got Skills.”

The winning video was “Looking for Love,” a minute-long video about animals using the popular dating app Tinder to find owners. Judges also voted it most creative and most beneficial to Paws4ever.

The most difficult part of the challenge was being patient, said Jessica Newfield (MBA ’14). “Clearly our ‘furry cast mates’ weren't professional actors, so they frequently got distracted or annoyed and would try to wander off,” she said. “Getting everyone to cooperate for the dinner party scene was particularly challenging, so it was great to see that the final results turned out well.”

The importance of leadership and constructive feedback were lessons from both the challenge and the overall immersion for team leader Michael Johnson (MBA ’14).

“I learned about the strengths and weaknesses of my leadership style. For example, my positive approach to team projects can motivate my team and ensure that everyone's opinions are heard. However, my inclusive attitude can hinder progress during times when decisive action is required,” he said. “More importantly, I learned about the various leadership styles of my teammates – what works and what doesn't work.”

“Looking for Love” was posted on YouTube. Paws4ever, the only guaranteed-adoption sanctuary in the southeast United States, was thrilled to have UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA students create publicity that could lead to more donations and adoptions.

A primary goal in creating the challenge was to give back to the community. “We try to do at least one challenge that does something good,” Christian said. “Our students love Chapel Hill, and a lot of our students are really interested in helping out non-profits. I think students find it to be more meaningful to develop their leadership skills in that type of setting.”