Maintaining Continuity and Connectivity During a Crisis – An Interview with EMBA Program Director Nikkole Liesse

Apr. 21, 2020

Crisis and calamity have a way of testing not just your resolve but also your ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. For EMBA faculty and Cohort 18 students, the coronavirus pandemic has become the ultimate test of their resilience, as they adapt to an online learning model that’s replaced face-to-face interactions and classroom instruction with video lessons and WebEx conferencing. 

The transition was sudden and certainly required an adjustment, explains EMBA Program Director Nikkole Liesse, but Cohort 18 is enduring thanks to the support system they’ve created since joining the program last year. 

“Any experience, particularly a negative or challenging experience, brings people together,” Liesse says. “What I’ve seen is the cohorts rally around each other.

“Everyone has each other’s back, and they’re going to be successful because they are a team.”

Cohort 18 will be remembered as the first group of EMBA students to take on the challenges created by the coronavirus. So far, they’re meeting those challenges head on. 

Moving the Classroom Online

In March, when UNLV announced it would move all learning online, Liesse and her team plotted a course for a smooth transition, one that would take into account everything from the tools available to students to the time they spend in the classroom. 

“We ordered headsets for everybody in Cohort 18,” she explains. “Then we did a WebEx technical session and got all of the students online, just to work out the kinks so they were prepared ahead of their first class day.”

Professors too, began making changes to the way they deliver their lesson plans. Now, finance class discussions are taking place in group chat and many of the lectures are delivered in video format – the latter proving surprisingly effective for students.

“What they’ve said is the videos are a better way to process the content, because you can pause it and you can go back,” Liesse says. “They can work at their own pace, and some have said this is a better way to master this particular      material”.

The one thing that can’t be replicated, however, is the guest speaker schedule that enhances weekly marketing lessons. The business leaders who lend their time and expertise to the classroom are currently working through the crisis in their own companies, but Cohort 18 students have the option to return to the classroom when the next cohort begins, so they don’t miss out on the experience. 

“We’re telling students that for any of the classes they’re taking online right now, they can come back next year and sit in,” Liesse says. 

Staying Connected and Focused on the Future

The camaraderie within Cohort 18 is developed in their first class, Leadership and Team Effectiveness, Liesse explains. In a lot of ways, the shift to online learning has increased the support, and compassion, that students receive from faculty and each other. 

“The students have a usual Wednesday night meeting in the EMBA suite,” she says. “So we’ve now created a standing WebEx meeting on Wednesdays, it’s informal, and gives students a chance to stop by and see each other.

“It started as a, ‘Hey, good to see everyone!’ kind of thing, but five or 10 minutes in they started talking about their homework.”

The aforementioned belief that a negative experience brings people together is evident, with Cohort 18 doing all they can to remain positive in light of the circumstances. By focusing on their tasks and what they can control, Liesse says, cohort students are able to see through to the end of their program and continue to plan for their future.

It’s an uncertain future, admittedly, but one that they’ll be uniquely prepared to face. 

Changing Perspectives on Crisis Management

The coronavirus has not only forced cohort students and faculty to master online technologies that they didn’t expect to use in the EMBA program, it’s also changing the way they absorb and process classroom curriculum. Suddenly, a student’s approach to business must be viewed through the lens of a world-changing pandemic. 

“We are all learning how to manage in a crisis, lead in a crisis, and develop strategies      to respond to a crisis,” Liesse says. “If we’re reflective about what’s going on and we take our lessons to heart, I think our students are going to be much more prepared for whatever is thrown at them.”

This summer, Cohort 18 will begin two critical classes: Strategic Management: Business Strategy and Corporate Strategy, and Management of Entrepreneurial Organizations. Both will allow them to tap into current events and apply lessons on strategy, as well as crisis and change management, to their projects.  

“We always talk about how what they’re learning on Friday and Saturday can be applied to their careers on Monday,” Liesse says. “I think that’s even more applicable now.