How a Team of Michigan Ross Exchange Students Excelled in the March Leadership Crisis Challenge

by | Apr 4, 2022 | Leadership Crisis Challenge

A team of four Michigan Ross exchange students from Bocconi University in Italy used their diverse backgrounds to successfully navigate and win a high-stakes, high-pressure simulation during the Sanger Leadership Center undergraduate Leadership Crisis Challenge (LCC). 

The members of Team Italian C-Suite, Giovanni Iurlandino, Podolfo Passeri, Federico Panariello, and Matteo Roberto Facta, attended Bocconi University in Milan, Italy prior to coming to Ross to study business administration. The exchange program is offered through Ross’ Office of Global Initiatives, which—every year—gives 150+ students from around the globe the chance to study at Michigan. The team saw an opportunity to practice their English public speaking skills, test their ability to work under pressure, and receive feedback from industry experts at LCC, which led them to participate in the Challenge.

The Challenge, developed by the Sanger Leadership Center at Michigan Ross, and sponsored by PNC Bank, annually tests students’ abilities to tackle high-stakes issues as a simulated crisis quickly spirals out of control. The 2022 simulation was the winning case from last year’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Global Case Writing Competition, written by a team of Michigan Ross MBA students. The case writing competition was organized by Ross, Sanger, and WDI Publishing.

This year’s winning team—Italian C-Suite—developed a crisis management plan to solve the PR nightmare by combining their strategic thinking to spark new, innovative ideas, leading them to success. The students worked together in C-suite executive roles of an HR software company, UtUHR, which claimed its new product, MardukAI, used artificial intelligence and machine learning to remove prejudice and unconscious bias from all HR processes. However, the students learn from a whistleblower that the product makes systematically biased decisions, which impact employees and company culture. Then, the students are given less than 24 hours to navigate the simulated crisis.

Left to right: Matteo Roberto Facta, Giovanni Iurlandino, Federico Panariello, and Rodolfo Passeri

Navigating a crisis in a non-native language

All members of Team Italian C-Suite agreed that the most challenging aspect of the crisis was speaking in a non-native language while defending their strategic plan to the board of directors—composed of Michigan alumni who volunteer to support current students, and real journalists from outlets including the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio. 

But the communication barrier didn’t hold the team back. Instead, Iurlandino said it encouraged the team to stick firmly to their strategy while aiming to deliver high-quality results. 

“Because we are Italian and competing with mother-tongue English speakers, this empowered us to stay more united and support each other when needed,” Iurlandino said. “On the day of the presentations, I boosted my confidence in my English communication skills and learned how to improvise to defend my ideas in front of an outstanding board of directors and a panel of challenging journalists.”

Though the team did not know each other before the exchange program, they all came from a technical finance background, which helped them bounce ideas off one another and integrate the skills they’ve developed over the past three years into the challenge.

“As a team of exchange students, this helped us bring a fresh and different perspective,” Panariello said. “We all come from a technical finance background; however, we all come from different parts of Italy and didn’t know each other before the exchange term. We merged what we learned at Ross with the skills that we developed during the past three years at Bocconi University, and this sensibly helped us think out-of-the-box for solutions for the Crisis Challenge.”

Determined to reach the end

The strategy for success the team focused on had a clear goal: getting to the final press conference. 

“We were all very motivated to win this competition, and therefore we were all aligned on the final goal and did our best to achieve it,” Passeri said. “We successfully struck a balance between dividing tasks based on our roles and discussing the most important issues and decisions altogether. Having different interests and perspectives allowed us to pool together a large number of ideas and come up with the optimal solution.”

One of the team’s strategies was going into the board presentations reminding themselves that the board of directors are their allies, rather than a group of people who didn’t want them to succeed, allowing the undergraduate students to remain calm while presenting to the board. 

“What really helped us is being very honest in acknowledging the company’s mistake, being laser-focused with our solutions, and treating the board of directors as allies rather than opposers,” Panariello said. “The Sanger Leadership Center gave us the unique opportunity to practice what we learned in class in a real-life case scenario, preparing us for our career. I will be forever grateful.”

Despite noting that it can be challenging to fully trust others in high-pressure situations, Facta said he left this experience knowing he’d been a collaborative team member. This level of trust led the team to the finish line.

“Due to the time-stressed nature of the competition, we couldn’t do everything as a group, so we needed to trust the other members’ work without double-checking everything,” Facta said. “It is hard for me to completely trust other people’s work. However, I learned that if you work in a smart and committed group, and choose not to have everything under one person’s control, you save much time and foster the development of the overall group.”

Taking what they learned at Ross back home 

The students agreed that they will take this experience of winning the Challenge with them for the rest of their lives, and Panariello hopes a challenge like LCC can be created at Bocconi University one day.

“I wish to export this format to our university in Italy; we would love to implement similar challenges to transform the learning process from a frontal, theoretical one to a more applied and engaging one,” Panariello said. “With this experience comes so many fantastic memories that will stay with me for life, together with the skills that I learned and, most importantly, the amazing people that I met.”

Passeri said the skills he’s taking home with him include improved skills in teamwork, working under pressure, and public speaking.

“I took away valuable feedback from the communication expert and the board of directors, which I will use to develop my skills further. Moreover, I will also remove all the emotions and feelings I felt when presenting and getting hard questions from both the board and the press conference,” Passeri said.

For Iurlandino, his confidence in his English speaking skills has soared. He was inspired by one of the Ross alumni roleplaying as a board member—Akshay Kapoor, senior partner at McKinsey—to continue pursuing his career goal in consulting. 

Facta noted that this challenging experience has better equipped him for unprecedented times in his career following graduation this semester. 

“I am writing this as awful events are unfolding around us. Now, more than ever, I realize the importance of being able to thrive during such challenging times,” Facta said.