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Leadership in Crisis through the Lens of the Control Room [Kyle Boutin]

Leadership in Crisis through the Lens of the Control Room [Kyle Boutin]

Leadership in Crisis through the Lens of the Control Room [Kyle Boutin]

 by Kyle Boutin

I recently volunteered for a control room position in the Leadership in Crisis (LiC) Simulation put on by the Leadership Development Program (LDP) at NYU Stern and sponsored by professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal. Being an alum, I expected to learn something new from a well-run event while giving back to a program I enjoyed while in school, but what I got what so much more. I was blown away by the organization, commitment, and participation of all parties involved.

On the morning on Saturday, February 10th, 2018 I walked into Room 1-70 of the Kaufman Management Center at 8 AM like I had many times before, but this time was different. The room had been transformed into the command center for Dr. Larry Barton to orchestrate the LiC Simulation without having to move from his seat at the front of the room. He had no less than 7 screens in front of him displaying the war rooms in which the groups of  first year MBA students would be participating and 2 screens projected behind him on the board for volunteers to see a rotating view of what was on his screens. Strategically placed throughout the room in front of him were 5 control room contact centers equipped with a phone, scripts, easel sized post-it paper, and color coded team shirts. I hit me that Dr. Barton and his team at Alvarez & Marsal had spent many hours tirelessly planning this coordinated effort with the LDP team and Stern’s IT Services to set everything  up perfectly and everyone was ready to make the most of it.

Senior Director of LDP Connie Kim and Dr. Barton briefed us on our duties before heading off to brief the students and other volunteers for the crisis simulation. I met my fellow volunteers who would be running the control room contact center with me for 1 of the 5 groups participating. We began to familiarize ourselves with the scripts and designate roles for how we would handle certain tasks. During this time the command center and the students’ war rooms began to come to life. We could see the war rooms start to fill with students and judges as they rotated on the screens projected at the front of the room. Each war room had their own phone, boardroom table, and whiteboards at the front and space in the gallery for judges to watch their every move. It was the calm before the storm.

Once Connie and Dr. Barton returned to the command center they kicked off the simulation by instructing us to make a single phone call. Each contact center had a volunteer notify their student group that the manufacturing company they were leading, Emerson, had an active shooter at their Nuevo Laredo in Mexico site as an HR manager stranded inside the building. Once the information started coming into the war rooms, it didn’t stop. Dr. Barton was calling out prompt numbers to phone into our groups from the front of the command center, volunteers were walking briefs into the war rooms, carefully edited news reels were being projected at the front of every room, and distractions like protesters were popping up here and there. It was hard for my contact center to keep all the information straight. What was real and what was fake? What was important and what wasn’t? As note taker and part time worried bystander I could barely keep up. I could only imagine how the groups of students felt. They were dealing with calls from employees, terrorists, diplomats, military officials, and worried loved ones on issues ranging from accounts payable to life and death. We were just delivering the information, but I too felt like I was learning how to operate and lead in a stressful situation.

On top of taking in and processing information, the teams had to respond and actively manage the situation during this simulation. Some teams made lists of action items and executed together while other teams broke into groups and tackled problems apart. Some teams were quick to disseminate information to concerned stakeholders while others made sure to have a polished brief before moving forward with release. One constant challenge that all groups were exposed to were live press conferences with real life communications professionals posing as reporters to question and heckle the company representatives. I couldn’t help back be proud of the groups when they made a great decision and feel sympathy when they took a step in the wrong direction. All good teaching points for me and the other control room volunteers!

And just as quickly as the simulation had started, it also ended. You could see the signs of relief on the student’s faces as they packed up their stuff and exited their war rooms. The control room volunteers, judges, reporters, students, and organizers all met to celebrate after the judges and reporters deliberated with the organizers to provide feedback for the students. At the celebration Dr. Barton gave pointed compliments and constructive criticism to all teams over food, drinks, and laughs before crowning a winner. Despite there only being one winner crowned, all the students and participants were winners that day as everyone there had benefitted from this great learning experience.

About the Author

Kyle is a Senior Associate focusing on clinical trial development in the Finance & Business Operations – Global Procurement Organization at Pfizer. He graduated from the full time MBA program at NYU Stern in 2017 and also holds a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Tufts University. Prior to pursuing his MBA, Kyle worked as a Research Engineer and IT Manager at Reactive Innovations, a small chemical engineering research and development firm outside Boston, MA where he performed electrochemistry research for NASA, NIH, and DOD.

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