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Student Experience

Executive Perspectives On Leading Through the Pandemic

First-year Wisconsin Executive MBA students reflect on challenges, changes, and lessons learned

By Paul Smirl

April 15, 2021

Person at computer with text bubbles popping up

On March 13, 2020, much of Wisconsin’s workforce went home for the weekend. COVID-19 had taken a foothold in the United States. A good amount of panic was sweeping the country and yet for many, Saturday, March 14 was still simply the first day of a weekend. 

Organizational leaders like Chris Feuille, Kristine Zickuhr, Mike Koel, and Shawnee Parens had a lot of thoughts running through their heads: Come Monday, would the only difference be a shorter commute for their office workers or would true danger be brought on their employees and true damage brought on their industries?

As COVID-19 surged, these leaders were suddenly faced with decisions about ensuring employee safety, keeping their businesses afloat, and navigating unending uncertainty. 

The Wisconsin School of Business spoke with Feuille, Zickuhr, Koel, and Parens—all business leaders and first-year students in the School’s Wisconsin Executive MBA Program—about navigating the ups and downs of leading through the pandemic’s enormous challenges. 

Viewing leadership through the lens of COVID-19

Early on in the pandemic, Feuille’s company, Tribe 9 Foods, qualified as an essential business. Its 100 manufacturing employees were able to keep production going with new protocols, such as temperature checks, in place. 

As the company’s vice president of co-manufacturing and industrial sales, Feuille takes peoples’ culinary ideas and turns them into nationally distributed products, working with everyone from startups to national food service and grocery giants. Suddenly, Tribe 9’s expanding business had to be re-examined. 

Feuille says, “a new lens was put over everything,” once COVID-19 hit: “Something that you had never thought about became the forefront of every decision.” 

“You’re always aware of risk, but it doesn’t have to do with the problems that surfaced due to COVID,” Feuille adds. “Originally there was a lot of fear. A lot of people were scared. The messaging from the executive team had to exude confidence and communicate how lucky we are that we’re deemed an essential business and that our business was booming.”

For Zickuhr, the assistant director for administration at the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW–Madison campus, the biggest question was “how can we get through and thrive?”

“It was extremely difficult to project what this year would hold for us, and then looking ahead three to five years, it gets even harder,” says Zickuhr. “Museums in general have been really hard hit by this pandemic. The Chazen has been open since September, but many museums in Madison still haven’t opened to the public, so it’s been difficult.”

Koel is president of a division of U.S. Venture, the fifth largest private company in Wisconsin. While he oversees clean fuel development and sustainability, much of U.S. Ventures’ business is in refined products like gasoline and diesel as well as tire production. 

“We really rely on people driving, and people didn’t drive much in March and April of last year, so it was quite concerning,” says Koel. There was also the day-to-day uncertainty about team morale and employee growth. Koel oversees culture for his division and noticed a stark difference between U.S. Venture’s open concept workplace and remote work. “Our business was very collaborative in person. We had whiteboards and windows and would write on anything you could. Now there’s nothing.”

Taking on challenges—because that’s what we do

Professional challenges hit new heights for Parens, a director at UW Health. What was already a busy leadership job, turned into something even greater. “For several weeks we were working seven days a week and sometimes we were working 12 to 14 hours a day.” 

“Health care leadership was working really, really hard,” says Parens, who heads UW Health’s operations for urgent care and pediatric care clinics. At the onset of the pandemic, Parens led the total physical restructuring of multiple clinics. One facility had a small entryway where patients from different units would all normally pass through. That became a major health hazard, and the facility’s respiratory clinic had to be moved immediately.  

“People who manage operations, what do we do?” asks Parens. “We solve big problems. This is just a much bigger problem.”

Parens and her coworkers leaned heavily on each other in the pandemic’s first few months. She at times moved major work off her plate in order to tackle the massive challenges that COVID-19 posed for UW Health. 

Growing skills, implementing systems, and simply being flexible

For Feuille, Zickuhr, Koel, and Parens, lessons in leadership were key throughout the pandemic. “I learned a lot about leading people and taking stock in ways you can have a bigger impact,” says Feuille. “Leading by instinct and intuition can get you far, but when organizations get to a certain level, you’re going to want to put some systems behind it.”

“The Executive MBA Program has been a lot of self-reflection,” adds Koel. “We are asked what kind of leader we are, and what kind of leader we aspire to be. (Associate Professor) Alex Stajkovic did a really good job of setting that with transformational leadership, and with (Faculty Associate) Steve King’s course, we were writing journals on leadership. It was really good to self-reflect on that.” 

One of the things in Steve King’s class is change management. If this isn’t change management, what is?

—Mike Koel (MBA ’22)

Learning to be flexible was a true takeaway. Feuille had to manage the state’s changing guidelines for essential businesses; Zickuhr had to work through the Chazen’s opening, closing, and re-opening when cases grew in Dane County; and Parens had to continuously educate herself on new findings on how the COVID-19 virus was spread. 

“One of the things in Steve King’s class is change management. If this isn’t change management, what is?” asks Koel. 

Parens notes that although everyone’s exhausted, the struggles of the past year will leave a positive mark in terms of people’s willingness to change course and adapt. Being a student in the Wisconsin Executive MBA Program during this year of stress has helped her re-anchor her leadership beliefs, while learning lessons that she could implement to her work right away. During Steve King’s course, she took insights from it to her team almost every week and even recommended the course’s books and readings to other UW Health leaders. 

Reflecting on a year in business—and business school

The decision to start a two-year executive MBA program during the most unpredictable year of their lives has proven beneficial for Feuille, Zickuhr, Koel, and Parens. Like everything during the pandemic, starting the program had its challenges, but the strategic insights gained helped the leaders better their organizations and themselves. 

“Building my business vocabulary and becoming a more confident leader around the business of health care has been really helpful,” says Parens. “I had to tighten up my time management systems and let go of some things, but having the MBA allowed me to keep some complexity in a year where it felt like all of our lives had gotten smaller and smaller. I’ve appreciated that.”

A “school junkie” with several post-grad degrees, Feuille met often with the program’s career coaches and took away a lot from the program’s 365 and Human Synergistics career assessments. He was able to gain some impactful tools that he could instantly put into motion in his work. He originally sought a peer group to help with his career development, and the Wisconsin Executive MBA Program’s blend of coursework, collaboration, and coaching helped deliver what he needed. 

When consulting a colleague, he joked that he had more degrees than all of his partners and may not need an MBA. The colleague reassured him that he would learn a lot. This year, Feuille, Zickuhr, Koel, and Parens did indeed learn a lot. 

The pandemic has shown everyone the importance of leadership during times of crisis. As a result of lessons from the Wisconsin Executive MBA program, these leaders are better equipped to manage change and drive their organizations forward.