EMBA Students Learn Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic

KENNESAW, Ga. (Mar 16, 2021) — Leaders from the healthcare, grocery, and tourism businesses - three industries highly affected by the pandemic – recently spoke to Kennesaw State University Executive MBA students about how COVID tested their leadership skills, and how some changes to the business landscape are here to stay.

“There are some really good things that we’ve learned,” said Andrew Cox, chief of staff and vice president of leadership development for WellStar Health Systems. “We became more efficient in how we communicated with each other and our emotional intelligence increased because we didn’t have time to be political.”

2021 Kennesaw State University Lessons in Leadership Panel

Cox was one of three panelists at the Michael J. Coles College of Business EMBA program’s 21st annual Lessons in Leadership event held March 4 on the Kennesaw campus. Fifty-three current EMBA students attended in person, with alumni and other guests watching virtually. Lessons in Leadership provides EMBA students and alumni with access to prominent Atlanta-area business, government, and community leaders.

Other panelists included Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, and Holly Quinlan, president and CEO of Cobb Travel and Tourism. The event was moderated by LeRoy Carson, Jr., founder and president of Urban Physiology and an EMBA alumnus. 

The event’s theme was Pivot, with the panelists sharing how the pandemic sent shockwaves through their industries and tested them as leaders.

For Cox, the biggest challenge was managing the 3,000 employees that became teleworkers overnight.

“Some people really thrive in that environment, while other people struggle with it,” Cox said. “Leaders had to lead on a deeper level. They had to understand the emotional wear on our nurses, our doctors, and our team members.”

The grocery industry faced a different problem at the start of the pandemic. As customers began panic buying in March 2020, stores found themselves scrambling to keep shelves stocked and staff safe. As the trade group representing Georgia’s grocers, the GFIA moved quickly to help its members.

“Heading up the association, I would have daily calls with local and state officials as well as with members,” Kusava said, “because there were literally people lined up to get into the doors with no food on the shelves. We had to pivot to much more communication than I ever could have imagined.”

Those efforts helped Georgia’s grocery stores manage their supply chains and share ideas for successful safety procedures like plexiglass shields on cash registers and social distancing markers around stores.

While the grocery store industry was nearly crushed under increased demand, the tourism business experienced the opposite problem. Hotel occupancy rates in Cobb County fell to single digits, while convention and trade show business dried up. Quinlan’s team developed innovative strategies to support the county’s hospitality businesses, such as focusing on residents over visitors, promoting restaurants with heated patios, and partnering with Expedia to drive some travelers to the area.

Accomplishing this meant collaborating with her team, which was a challenge while working from home.

“It’s harder when you’re virtual,” Quinlan said. “For me, it was making sure that people are still communicating and supporting each other. It’s my job to support all of them. Every conversation I have is me asking ‘what can I do to help you?”

The panelists’ insights resonated with the EMBA students. Many, like Lawanda Graham, director of launch project management at 3DE Schools, are dealing with similar challenges of their own. Her organization works with local school districts and other partners to create new curriculums. The pandemic put an end to traditional meetings.

Kennesaw State EMBA Outstanding Scholar Lawanda Graham

“I’ve shifted more effort to relationship building and creativity,” Graham said. “Working with Districts and schools around a service model – something that is not tangible and a year away – during a pandemic required being sensitive to their daily responsibilities while projecting an inspiring and exciting focus on the future.”

Graham also received the outstanding scholar award during Lessons in Leadership. She credits the EMBA program with helping her develop the collaboration, communication, empathy, time management, and other skills to succeed during this challenging time.

“These were the key skills needed in the pivot,” she said.

Alison Keefe, executive director of Kennesaw State’s EMBA program, said it was important during the pandemic that valuable opportunities like Lessons in Leadership still exist.

“The goal remains the same even though it looks different,” Keefe said. “By engaging in continuous learning, you have pivoted as many businesses have had to pivot this past year.”

Lessons in Leadership ended with discussions on which changes introduced during the pandemic would stick around. They agreed that working from home, telemedicine, and the increased focus on online shopping and grocery delivery are not going anywhere, but also that in-person business is not dead.

“It’s been good that we could continue on Zoom,” Quinlan said, “but for our team, it’s the innovation that takes place when we are in the office together that drives us.”

-Patrick Harbin