The leaders of the business world of the future must be fast, flexible and comfortable working from far-flung locations. That means seamlessly adopting the latest communication tools.
Students in Southern Illinois University’s Leadership Development Program are training for precisely that mission, so when the COVID-19 emergency struck campus they were ready. The students in the STEM-based program had moved to the communications platform MS Teams just before the crisis hit.
“When we needed a way to have a virtual meeting with over 20 people, we looked to MS Teams,” said Brock Ward, a junior in mechanical engineering. “Once we started experimenting with it, we realized how much more Microsoft Teams had to offer, and we are now looking to make it our centralized form of communication for LDP.”
“Stay home” order impacts LDP, all campus programs
The state directive to stay at home to stem the spread of COVID-19 impacts every aspect of activity at SIU. Faculty are not only moving courses on online instruction, but also trying to creatively solve the challenges presented in their laboratories. Students, as well, are making adjustments and implementing creative approaches to keep their educations on track.
The Leadership Development Program at SIU is designed to mold students into future executive leaders in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) by providing leadership training, mentoring and community service learning opportunities. Students in the program also get opportunities to complete a summer internship with corporate sponsors, a major boost to starting their post-graduate career in the working world.
Communication is key
To stay on top of its many activities and priorities, the LDP holds several virtual meetings each week. About 10 seniors meet at 7 a.m. on Mondays while the program’s 25 members as well as staff meet at 6:15 a.m. each Thursday to conduct their leadership labs virtually and discuss upcoming events and new ideas and how to better mentor newer students. Second-year members also meet weekly with first-year members for coaching sessions.
The meetings fulfill a practical, tactical mission of facilitating communication. But they also provide an education unto itself.
“The meeting also gives us the opportunity to practice leadership skills, such as public speaking or giving encouragement and recognition to other team members,” Ward said. “Recently, a lot of our discussion has been based around our online transition, what our expectations are going to be and how we can make the most out of this situation.”
Embracing change and challenges
Bruce DeRuntz, director of the LDP, said students have embraced the challenge that this disruption has presented, just as they would have to adjust in a “real world” situation.
“I’m inspired by the way the team has gotten behind this,” DeRuntz said. “This new technology is going to prepare them for their careers, and it opens up boundless possibilities for us to invite in guests to join/contribute to our meeting.”
Diogo A. Seixas, coordinator of the LDP program, said Microsoft Teams allows the students to do everything that they normally did in their weekly face-to-face meetings. And there are other benefits, too.
“An advantage of the online meeting is that because both people can’t talk at the same time, you are forced to pay closer attention to what the other one is saying and hold your thoughts for a second before saying anything” Seixas said. “Because of that meetings are more organized and it’s hard to see people talking over each other.”
Students must work to overcome some disadvantages of “virtual” meetings, too, such as being unable to gauge the reaction of others during presentations, he said. But being able to meet effectively in such a format is an invaluable skill for students to master.
“The easy answer would be saying that the world became more global, companies are in different countries and people are looking for more opportunities outside their countries of origin,” Seixas said. “But more importantly, learning this skill can be another tool on your tool belt. It challenges you to do things differently and it helps you to be different from everybody else. Having the ability not only to do it but to teach people and organize a company entirely online can be something that many businesses would appreciate.”
SIU ethos readies students for challenges
Ward said SIU expect students to push boundaries right along with the faculty.
“SIU is a research school, and with that mentality, really pushes for innovation,” Seixas said. “We have had to come up with new ideas and make adjustments to be able to work through this situation. Our innovative mentality allows our team to think outside the box and come up with new ideas to improve the experience of our team during this situation or any other unexpected change.”
The current health crisis is testing the mettle of the future leaders, Seixas said, and it’s a time they will likely remember the rest of their lives.
“It’s showing them that it’s important to choose your attitude in times of crises,” Seixas said. “It’s easy to freak out and give up on everything, but it’s more impactful to adapt, learn and grow. It’s also important, in times like these to be grateful for what you have and find ways to help other around you, as well as be close to family and your loved ones.”
“This is definitely going to be a time period I will always remember, because I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “The biggest lesson is to not focus on what you are not able to do, but on what you can do. We unfortunately had to cancel many events, but we have been constantly looking into new technology and ideas to be able to do as much as possible this semester.
“Life is very unpredictable,” Ward said. “But if we react with a positive attitude and think about what we can control, we can make the best out of any situation.”