Award-Winning M.D. and Journalist Teaches Crisis Leadership

Award-Winning M.D. and Journalist Teaches Crisis Leadership

Dr. Seema Yasmin brings unique expertise to UCLA Anderson classrooms

Seema Yasmin is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, poet, medical doctor and author. Yasmin served as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she investigated disease outbreaks and was principal investigator on a number of CDC studies. She was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news and recipient of an Emmy for her reporting on neglected diseases. Yasmin’s expertise in medicine, epidemics and journalism has been called upon by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, the Aspen Institute and Skoll Foundation, among other organizations.

Dr. Seema Yasmin is no ordinary b-school professor. She’s not a typical M.D., either, detailing a resume unlike those of her colleagues in academe, medicine and journalism. Her experience investigating epidemics lends her expertise in crisis management and her journalism degree underscores her expertise in communications. A visiting scholar from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, she is perfectly positioned to teach a course in crisis communication at UCLA Anderson.

Q: Why don’t we begin by talking about your class? What topics are covered and what are the goals of the course?

I’m an unusual business school professor, in that I’m a medical doctor, epidemiologist and former disease detective at the CDC. But my experience managing crises is very much related to investigating epidemics.

The course is Crisis Leadership and Crisis Communications. It’s a very interesting time to be teaching it since we are living through concurrent crises.

We do two things. We have a textbook way of studying crisis management. As a scientist, I really like evidence-based teaching, so we look at the frameworks in the literature, at the frameworks that evolved over time and at best practices across multiple disciplines for leading through a crisis and communicating.

Then we have guest speakers — executives, professional athletes, politicians — who have lived through personal and professional crises. They generously come to talk to us off the record, and they disrupt a lot of what we learned in the textbook. I think it’s really important that this class is a conversation between the students and our esteemed guests because we can see what we learned in the textbook, but then we meet individuals who, you know, have successfully maneuvered through crisis tell us what worked and what didn’t. This really challenges our understanding of managing these situations.

Q: What’s the difference between a problem and a crisis?

I don’t know if I’m interested in those binaries so much. What I get my students to think about is the way the crises are often framed. In the literature, it’s a fire. It’s a natural disaster. It’s a life-or-death thing. That can lead to complacency and dismissal of pre-crisis warning events and smaller crises with the potential to evolve in larger ones.

Some academics in this field say crisis management frameworks should be a part of strategic planning and should be woven into the DNA of an organization. I’m always getting students to think less about crisis as, say, a life or death event, and to think about the little fires everywhere. What is simmering that could escalate? That’s an important mindset to have so that you don’t just have a strategic plan for a natural disaster or terrorist event. Instead, you explore your particular vulnerabilities and you plan for different families of crises. We spend a lot of time looking at the pre-crisis phase of the crisis lifecycle to detect early-warning signals.

Q: If I’m running a company, what should be in my crisis “go bag”?

When we look at the framework in the textbooks it can be quite discipline-agnostic. I think it can be more useful to think about the particular scenarios that might occur for your organization or industry.

What’s really important to have in your tool kit is a support network. Identify your core competencies as a leader and your weaknesses. Build teams and networks of people that you trust who are not “yes” people.

Those individuals, people who are not obsequious and who give solid counsel, are really important.

So, you think about the potential crises that might occur, and those things are shifting all the time. You have to be at the forefront of thinking about what could go wrong.

We look at the literature and then see how professionals handle crises in practice.We had a guest speaker, a Black woman entrepreneur who started her business recently, and last February decided she would shift her operations from California to China. Literally a few weeks later, both countries went into lockdown. Then, after the murder of George Floyd, major retailers paid lip service to diversity and offered opportunities to cosmetics companies run by Black women. Except, there was great risk involved in those opportunities and large upfront costs that were to be borne by these small businesses. She experienced crisis after crisis in the span of a few months.

Q: Could you tell us about some of the assignments?

One is an individual assignment where students analyze a crisis case study of their choice and decide, “They did this wrong, but this was okay, and I would do this differently.” Students align the crises they are looking at with the crisis lifecycle we study in class and identify which frameworks were used. It’s really Monday morning quarterbacking a real-life crisis.

Then there’s a group project that is a crisis simulation. Students present their crisis management and communication framework to the class, who offer critique and analysis.

Q: Is there a single biggest error or a universally common mistake people make in crises? Something people do that, no matter what, they shouldn’t?

Not thinking it will happen to you.

My personality is, when something bad happens to someone else, I always think, “Oh, there but for the grace of God go I.”

One of the exercises we did in class was writing down our weaknesses. What do you need help with? Because it’s really good to know your weaknesses; and consider: “Well, if I’m not so great at this thing, who is good at it and is in my network?” Have a plan where there is someone you can call because you need help with something that is not your strength. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I think the biggest thing is, know what your weaknesses are and don’t be complacent.

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