Preparing Business School Graduates to Manage Successfully in Times of Crisis

The business world has changed dramatically since the tragic events of September 11. Teaching students a contingent mindset will help them effectively manage a crisis.

It’s hard to believe it has been 15 years since the fall 2001 semester. Since that time, the business world into which our graduates enter to begin their pilgrimages as business professionals has changed dramatically. As business educators, we have also engaged in a continuous pilgrimage designed to ensure that our graduates are well prepared to survive and succeed throughout their business careers.

The day before those tragic events on September 11, the class activities in my business policy classes, our capstone course that all business students take, included assigning the first consulting project to the consulting teams that had been formed. The scope of work for this project required each team to conduct a SWOT analysis for an assigned organization. These organizations included a major airline, a hotel chain, an entertainment organization with several major theme parks, and an aircraft manufacturer.

Students learned early on the morning of September 11 that the contemporary world in which we live and work can change profoundly in a fairly short time as a result of environmental forces often beyond the control of an organization or industry. As the student teams worked on this first consulting project, they realized that, as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks, people would be less inclined to travel for business or pleasure, impacting organizations that operate airlines, hotels, and theme parks. They also determined that the resulting downturn in commercial airline flights would likely have a related impact on orders that the aircraft manufacturer might receive.

My emphasis in teaching the capstone course has always been on facilitating the development of a strategic mindset and preparing students to engage in the strategic thinking that will be instrumental to their success throughout their business careers, as well as the survival and success of the organizations they will manage and lead. The focus of my pilgrimage as a business faculty member since that memorable semester has broadened to include preparing my students for the many unexpected crisis situations that their organizations may encounter.


While most of these challenges will not involve events like those that occurred on September 11 or as a result of Hurricane Sandy a number of years later, successful organizations must be prepared to address a multitude of potential crisis situations including financial or legal issues, issues involving business relationships, technology failures, emergency incidents, and natural disasters. How we prepare our business school graduates will, in large part, determine their ability to successfully “weather the storm” of a crisis situation impacting their organization.

While business policy has always been focused on developing a strategic mindset, in recent years I have concluded that the successful business professional must also have the knowledge and skills that contribute to what I call a “contingent mindset.” The essential importance of contemporary organizations enhancing their proactive planning orientation to anticipate the various crisis situations their organizations might face—and the potential threat to their success and survival—is clearly illustrated through the experiences and outcomes of organizations that been confronted with such situations.

Successful crisis management involves a multi-step approach built into the planning process:

  • understanding the potential crisis situations an organization may face
  • evaluating potential crisis situations based on likely frequency and severity
  • recognizing the business impact of different types of crises
  • preventing, where possible, or minimizing the organizational impact of a crisis
  • managing and leading decisively throughout a crisis
  • recovering successfully from a crisis

The strategic thinking skills that we have been developing in our business graduates for many years can be further enhanced through the development of related contingent thinking skills. These skills enable business professionals to understand the potential crisis situations to which an organization may be vulnerable and appropriate strategies to manage and lead their organization successfully through the crisis. Essential crisis management skills include

  • a proactive management and leadership approach
  • exceptional situational awareness
  • astute decision-making
  • masterful crisis communication

These skills will serve our graduates and their organizations well as they proactively pursue future success while also being prepared to recognize and navigate a necessary detour as they seek to achieve an organization’s goals and fulfill its mission.

As business faculty, we have an awesome responsibility of preparing our students to succeed in both the good and bad times. While hopefully during their pilgrimages as business professionals they will encounter limited crisis situations requiring them to detour from original plans, the ability to anticipate, evaluate, prepare for, and address potential crisis situations will distinguish our graduates and enable them to succeed and advance to progressively responsible positions within their business careers.


In considering crisis management in my classes, we consider the various internal and external crisis situations that an organization could face and the challenges these situations present in terms of continued organizational success and survival. Students are expected to identify potential situations and challenges as they complete the SWOT analysis that serves as a foundation for later strategy formulation and implementation in their consulting projects. The potential crisis situations identified during the initial environmental scanning activities are subsequently addressed as consulting teams formulate goals, strategies, and objectives for a planning period. The students are also required to address these potential challenges to organizational success and goal attainment through the identification of potential implementation issues and resolution strategies.

The potential crisis situations that are identified and considered in planning activities include events in an organization’s general environment, such as an economic downturn, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack. Students are also expected to address possible crisis events specifically involving their assigned organization, such as product defects, recalls, or tampering; data breaches that compromise customer information; litigation and regulatory compliance concerns; or issues involving business relationships.

We discuss the actions that an organization should take before, during, and after a crisis occurs. Interestingly, I have found that these new aspects of the course have significantly strengthened the consulting projects prepared during the course, as students have fully appreciated the inherent crisis situations with which an organization may be confronted and have formulated viable strategies to prevent, minimize the impact of, and recover from a crisis situation.

"Our challenge as business faculty, regardless of our area of specialization or the courses we teach, should be to prepare our students for meaningful, successful business careers."

The feedback from students throughout and at the end of this course has affirmed the merit of incorporating contingency planning and crisis management into the course. Nontraditional students in particular, through their real-world experience, have commented on the value of this approach and the essential importance of business leaders having the prerequisite knowledge, skills, and confidence to engage in visionary strategic and contingency planning, so they can successfully guide their organizations through dynamic change.

The most significant affirmation of the need to prepare business school graduates with the strategic and contingent mindsets necessary to address present and future business challenges is the feedback given by graduates who have fully recognized the significance of these skills through their experiences in the business world. It has likewise been rewarding to hear from past graduates who have personally committed to enhancing their skills in these crucial areas and how many of their organizations are incorporating crisis management considerations into their planning activities.

Our challenge as business faculty, regardless of our area of specialization or the courses we teach, should be to prepare our students for meaningful, successful business careers. I would challenge you to consider how you can contribute to preparing the next generation of business professionals to more fully understand and address the numerous crisis situations that they will likely encounter throughout their professional careers.

Robert S. Fleming is a professor of management in the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University, where he previously served as dean. He also has an affiliate appointment as a professor of crisis and emergency management.