PNC Bank Sponsors Sanger Leadership Crisis Challenge for Third Year in a Row

By Tess Postema

Where can you find the top executive officers of successful companies, from Shinola to Sprint, from Vox Media to Blackstone, in the same space as hundreds of university students and a professional press corps?

The Big House.  

The Leadership Crisis Challenge at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business brings these groups together every year.  Organized and hosted by the Sanger Leadership Center, the Challenge places students in a simulated business crisis over 24 hours, culminating in press conferences by student team finalists in Michigan Stadium.

The Challenge is open to all University of Michigan students, with two separate challenges held for graduate students and undergraduate students in January and March, respectively.

Undergraduate students receiving feedback during the Challenge.  Photo Credit: Lon Horwedel

For the past three years, PNC Bank has sponsored the Challenge, contributing $140,000 in generous total.  

PNC top executives also volunteer their time to help judge the Challenge.  This year, Jacquie Thomas, Senior Vice President and Market Director, participating in judging the graduate Challenge.  Cynthia Gardner, Senior Vice President and Business Banking Market Manager, took part in the undergraduate Challenge.

This indispensable support has allowed hundreds of U-M students to participate in the farthest thing from a theoretical cost-benefit analysis or dry lecture: crisis management in real time.

“At Michigan Ross, we believe in learning by doing,” said Evan Marie Allison, associate director at the Sanger Leadership Center. “Ultimately, our aim is to close the gap between learning and what students will face in the workplace.” (Source: Ross School of Business).

This year, 180 graduate students and 150 undergraduate students, playing the roles of fabricated companies’ C-suite executives, maneuvered through a public relations firestorm of hectic phone calls, unhappy board members (played by real-life industry executives and U-M alumni), outraged protesters, and media blitzes.  Finalists held press conferences in front of actual reporters from BBC, The New York Times, Politico, CNN, Michigan Radio, and The Washington Post.

Graduate students holding a “press conference” at the Big House.  Photo credit: Lon Horwedel

The undergraduate Crisis Challenge, March 22-23, focused on the ecological disaster caused by a fictional cruise line company, Polaris Cruise Lines.  The graduate Crisis Challenge, January 11-12, put the spotlight on Dryyver, a fake autonomous vehicle company dealing with the death of a cyclist by one of its driverless taxis, a simulation that proved to be tragically prescient.

“Businesses want people who can work and think strategically in high-pressure situations,” said Ric DeVore, PNC regional president for Detroit and Southeast Michigan and a U-M graduate. “Crisis Challenge is a deep dive into what it’s truly like to collaborate, manage, and thrive during a company crisis.” (Source: Ross School of Business).

In the current era of instant news–and instant consumer outrage –the ability to calmly navigate a crisis as it unfolds is essential.  And for U-M students, it’s just one tool in their toolbox.  

U-M is home to a host of immersive, action-based learning programs that partner with industry, from the Crisis Challenge at Ross, to flash internships at the LSA Opportunity Hub and the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) at the College of Engineering.

“We are extremely thankful for PNC’s dedication to creating real-world learning experiences for students at the University of Michigan,” says Nell Dority, Senior Director at the U-M Business Engagement Center.  “Gifts like these help students gain crucial skills that make them not only better future employees, but better future leaders.”