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News & Events

GIM students show crisis leadership, resilience

From war to the SARS virus, Kellogg students in this year’s GIM course tackle global challenges along with global research projects

By Kari Richardson

1/1/2004 -

With a deadly virus and the start of Middle East strife complicating travel, this year’s Kellogg School Global Initiatives in Management (GIM) course proved an opportunity to exercise leadership and management skills for the students and faculty advisers who set off on the annual academic adventure.

Prerequisites for the popular Kellogg School course include an interest in international business, a desire to learn from other cultures, and a bit of Indiana Jones savvy tucked in among the laptop computers, textbooks and case studies. But with the threat of an Iraq war, as well as mounting fears about a little-known respiratory illness called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), this year’s group of about 220 participants tapped an additional skill set: crisis management while on the move.

In some instances, the Kellogg School teams were forced to change itineraries quickly, based on what the day’s news brought.

“The GIM course always requires great coordination from a number of people,” said Professor Mark Finn, the GIM program director who led a trip to India. “But this year’s trips demanded extraordinary effort from Kellogg School faculty, students and staff to meet the challenges presented by world events — while also doing our best to live up to the expectations that this world-class experience has provided for more than a decade.”

Each year, as many as two-thirds of all Kellogg students spend 10 weeks studying and designing real-world research projects, then jet off to countries around the globe for two weeks of intensive project research. Once at their destinations, students meet with government and business leaders to learn about topics ranging from socially responsible business practices in Brazil to entry strategies for multinational firms in China.

First-year student Daniel Garcia packed his bags for Vietnam and Cambodia this year fully expecting two weeks’ worth of challenging team and individual learning opportunities, as he and his classmates negotiated a new culture and foreign business environment.

But Garcia, head of the five-person leadership team for the Vietnam trip, got more than he bargained for when the excursion presented a primer in how to manage expectations and communicate difficult decisions to a group.

As GIM participants carried out their international research agendas, faculty and staff back at Kellogg juggled information from the U.S. State Department, World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to evaluate the actual risk to students traveling abroad. To address concerns over the start of the war in Iraq, the Office of the Dean had previously advised trip participants to maintain a low profile by avoiding crowded gatherings and clubs and refraining from boisterous conversations at restaurants that could draw unwanted attention to the group.

The Vietnam trip included a planned stop in Hanoi, but midway through the itinerary, the SARS threat made it unsafe to travel to that city. SARS patients were quarantined in the main hospital there, and the CDC and State Department urged U.S. citizens not to enter Hanoi.

Students’ emotions about the schedule change ran the gamut: A few wanted to plunge ahead with the itinerary regardless of the threat, while another small group barely suppressed a desire to hop on the next plane back to the United States. GIM trip participants were, of course, free to do just that and to conclude their experiences at any time if they feared for their safety.

“A lot of people had put a lot of heart into the trip beforehand,” faculty adviser and Kellogg Assistant Professor of Management and Strategy Johannes Moenius said, explaining why some students found it so difficult to cope with itinerary changes.

“There was a potential for a group disaster,” added Garcia, who said the top priority for him and other student leaders was keeping the group together.

Garcia and the leadership team, working with staff back at the Kellogg School, quickly prepared an alternate agenda: a trip to central Vietnam and the site of the ancient capital of Hue.

To Garcia’s relief, the group embraced the new agenda, though it meant some interviews needed to be rescheduled or conducted through videoconferencing once the students returned to Evanston.

“The trip actually turned out to be much better than anyone originally expected,” he said. “We experienced greater unity because of the situation.”

“One of the challenges for us back here was convincing the China and Vietnam students there that the threat from SARS became more serious after they departed on their journeys,” said Assistant Dean and Chief Marketing Officer Richard Honack.

Honack was set to lead a group of 85 Executive Master’s Program students to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Bangkok, where they were looking forward to touring Volkswagen Shanghai and SC Johnson and meeting with the deputy prime minister of Thailand. When it became apparent the SARS virus made a trip there unsafe, and the war started three days before the departure date, the trip was postponed.

Concern over the SARS threat also prevented a planned stop in Hong Kong for a group of full-time students visiting China.

“SARS began to pop up on the radar screen about two to three days before we left,” said Dave Gent, faculty adviser for the trip and associate director of the Kellogg School Career Management Center. “But it really intensified after we arrived in China.”

Acting on information from government agencies, Kellogg staff, faculty advisers and student trip leaders decided it best to bypass Hong Kong in favor of extra time in Shanghai and a two-day early return to Evanston.

“Once a decision was made, students stepped up to make it a good experience,” Gent said. But he added the decision took some adjusting to, especially since several students had important meetings set up in Hong Kong to complete a project on advertisers entering the China market.

But the amazing experience of a trip to the Great Wall of China on the day the group made its decision helped students maintain their positive outlook, said Brian Ericson, a first-year student who served as logistics leader for the China trip.

“I was impressed by how quickly people moved past [the itinerary changes],” he said.

Flexibility was key for all of this year’s GIM participants. Even students who visited Brazil — and were largely unaffected by the war or SARS — had to remain flexible when inclement weather prevented a trip to the scenic Iguassu Falls, faculty adviser and Kellogg Associate Dean Emeritus Edmund Wilson said.

The SARS virus has also affected some faculty meetings and teaching commitments this spring. Dean Dipak C. Jain postponed a trip to Singapore in late March, and several professors have been forced to cancel teaching commitments in Hong Kong because of the virus. In addition, Kellogg School alliance partner, the Business School at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has canceled classes until April 21 and postponed its spring graduation.