Stern's New Leadership Accelerator Cultivates Skills and Agility

Nate Pettit and Hannah Levinson headshots

Launched in March 2020, NYU Stern’s Leadership Accelerator immerses Full-Time MBA students in a sequence of experiential modules that trigger the need to act, and then reflect. Unlike case studies that rely on best practices through passive learning, the Leadership Accelerator creates a continuous cycle of real-time actions, followed by reflections, to hone students’ leadership agility and skills. A cornerstone of this initiative will be hands-on simulated experiences to accelerate students’ leadership development, including plans to build their own set of trademarked simulations in-house. Over time, the Leadership Accelerator will expand across populations.

After the Leadership Accelerator’s launch amidst the many challenges brought on by a global pandemic, Leadership Accelerator Director and Professor Nate Pettit and Associate Director Hannah Levinson (pictured above) reflect on the essential qualities of leadership in a crisis.

What choices or characteristics have been most important in leading organizations through the unexpected challenges they have faced in recent months?

The ability to put a team of experts around you, and then to trust their expertise, has always been important, but especially so this year. Everyone has weaknesses, and the best leaders deliberately bring people onto their teams or into conversations that can compensate for these, and then understand when it’s necessary to trust their guidance. This requires the leader to check their ego and cede control for a moment. Failing to do so means that an organization’s best interests are taking a back seat to the leader’s need for control. Furthermore, empathy has always been important, but it is even more important today. The trade-offs that leaders are facing now are especially stark. They face the choice of whether to lay off a number of long-time employees against keeping a business afloat. They face the desire to provide employees more latitude in their work hours to accommodate their caregiving needs against a need to be efficient in a troubled economy. Leaders who show empathy both in the process of making the decision and communicating it are more likely to retain the support of their employees, regardless of the choice they made.

How do the Leadership Accelerator’s programs help Stern MBA students build key skills to be successful lifelong leaders, especially during times of change and unpredictability?

One of the Leadership Accelerator’s six core values is continuous learning, which means developing people who seize challenges when failure is possible and who learn from and are resilient in the face of failure. Through our programming, we put students through a difficult experience that involves an unexpected change that likely leads them to fail. For example, an exercise for the entire incoming class of 2022 during orientation involved coping with an unexpected change. We do this because we want students to prepare for change and learn from failure beginning on their first day at Stern.

Tell us a bit about the pre-Launch Women’s Leadership Summit.

Stern’s inaugural Pre-Orientation Women’s Leadership Summit, a partnership between the Leadership Accelerator and the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, was an opportunity for incoming Stern students to connect with fellow woman-identified students and begin building community. Over 100 students joined the event, where they gained insights from alumnae, heard cutting-edge research on the power of diversity in business, and began discovering how to excel at Stern and beyond.

Are there any lessons from 2020 in particular that the Leadership Accelerator is incorporating into its programming going forward?

Even prior to 2020, one of the abilities we developed in Stern leaders was agility, the ability to modulate one’s thinking and behavior across diverse situations and in the face of change. 2020 could not have made it any clearer how important this is. This is a big reason why our current and future programming asks students to cope with the unexpected. We cannot claim to be equipping students to lead without forcing them to frequently deal with and drive change during their time here. This year has also further highlighted a need to develop inclusive leaders, those that don’t simply tolerate differences among people, but also who seek out and incorporate diverse voices. Like agility, inclusivity is something we valued before, but it needs to feature even more prominently in our curricular and co-curricular programming than it has in the past. Being more inclusive in our own thinking has been an ongoing area of growth, and being willing to see and acknowledge our own imperfections has been difficult but important.

Leading By Example

Headshot of Gus Giacoman
Gus Giacoman (MBA ’11), partner, Strategy&, part of the PwC network, highlights the importance of being prepared and acting deliberately.

 My role as a leader is to create a culture that fosters fundamental care and trust and empowers people to take action. Caring also means recognizing that the emotional fatigue of Covid-19 will be felt far more significantly than the physical fatigue. To help people overcome this challenge, leaders need to understand how people think, feel, and behave. This understanding, alone, helps reduce emotional fatigue. But it is not enough—leaders must reinforce the importance of their team’s contributions and replace the negative emotions teams feel with positive ones.

Read Gus' full story.
Pooja Bavishi (MBA ’15), founder and CEO of Malai Ice Cream, focuses on being transparent with her team as they navigate unfamiliar territory. 

In these uncertain times, I am sure that I must offer my team transparency where there are very murky waters. They need to understand the decisions that are being made and the thought process behind each choice so that we can truly ride these waves of change together (and learn along the way). And most important, it is essential to celebrate every win (no matter how small) to ensure that even tiny moments of joy are present during challenging times. This boosts morale and shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Read Pooja's full story.
Ken Stolman (MBA ’07), senior sales executive at Salesforce, illustrates the deliberate actions we can take to address problems and show empathy.  

Creating a strong culture means leading with empathy, understanding, and a willingness to be vulnerable. I am inspired  by the senior executives at Salesforce who lead by example, opening up about personal challenges in this new work from home reality and allowing our community to share in this unprecedented time together.  In speaking to my clients, I do  my best to reveal stories about myself so they view me as a whole person. Leading with empathy also means acknowl-edging that self-care and family come first.

Read Ken's full story.
Susan Jurevics headshotA FOCUS ON RESILIENCE
Susan Jurevics (MBA ’96), EVP, head of international at Audible, redefines leadership as a series of small, humble behaviors, rather than a title.  

I have lived through challenging times such as 9/11 and the Great Recession, and ambiguity always feels disorienting, yet growth happens. While Covid-19 is an unprecedented global pandemic, lessons I have learned through these prior experiences apply:  In chaotic situations, all I can control is my response. I take the best steps I can with the information I have, and pivot as needed. Take the long view. Communicate clearly and often. Humor helps diffuse tension. People genuinely rise to the occasion facing them. Kindness and empathy can win the day. 

Read Susan's full story.