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Using Technology to Make Connections

The pandemic threatens to cancel a competition at Utah State. Technology brings it back—and makes it better.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many students feeling disconnected from their schools and their peers. In fact, a recent survey found that, because of the pandemic, young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are experiencing higher levels of loneliness and depression. This sense of isolation is often exacerbated by the fact that most of us are only interacting through technological interfaces. But technology also has made it possible for people to connect in new ways.

At the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University (USU) in Logan, we wanted to leverage students’ newfound expertise with communication technology to help them fill the void that the pandemic had created in their social lives. We were guided by the spirit of Ubuntu, a Zulu philosophy that essentially means “I am because you are.” We wanted to remind our students how interconnected we all are.

One way we did that in 2021 was through a virtual International Executive Challenge (IEC) hosted by the Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center. The event brought together students from around the world to develop their leadership skills, expand their networks internationally, and compete for monetary prizes.

The mission of the Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center is to develop leaders of character and competence who elevate society. Historically, the Covey Center Executive Challenge has been an in-person event for USU students, who evaluate leadership crisis scenarios before a panel of judges.

The outbreak of the virus nearly caused us to cancel our 2020 event, which was slated for March of last year. But one of the guiding principles of the Covey Center is to continually strive for innovation, so we adapted from an in-person competition to a Zoom format. In the virtual competition, eight four-person teams devised solutions for an international airline facing a leadership crisis during the pandemic. The event was so successful that we decided to open the 2021 version to international competitors, while retaining the virtual approach.

Disruption and Innovation

We hesitated before making the March 2020 event virtual, because we thought the quality might drop significantly. But contrary to our worries, students made great efforts to prepare and propose excellent solutions to leadership quandaries.

As we reflected on the success of the virtual competition, we became curious about whether this format would be of interest to the international collegiate community. The pandemic had made most students comfortable with virtual communication tools, so it seemed plausible that an international competition could be appealing.

We were also intrigued by the potential benefits to USU students if we expanded the program internationally. For instance, our students would prepare more thoroughly because the stakes would be higher. They would have opportunities to learn about other cultures, safely build new relationships while maintaining social distance, and expand their networks internationally. Finally, they would be able to add an attractive new activity to their résumés.

There was an appetite for leadership development and extracurricular opportunities at a time when student loneliness and depression were high and many events had been canceled.

To recruit international schools to participate in the IEC, we reached out to our international connections and ran an email campaign targeting universities in Europe, the United States, and Africa. After two months, 12 teams from seven universities had registered for the event, including students from Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa; Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; the University of Zürich in Switzerland; the University of Manchester in the U.K.; Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany; the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; and Utah State University.

To our surprise, many of the schools that registered came from our email campaign rather than our connections. We saw this as evidence that there was an appetite for leadership development and extracurricular opportunities at a time when student loneliness and depression were high and many events had been canceled.

Challenge and Execution

We carefully devised our format for the IEC. Teams were made up of four individuals, who received the case study one week before competition day. We let them know that no slides or handouts could be used in their presentations. Teams were encouraged to work with coaches or faculty members to develop and practice their presentations. To help them prepare, we gave each team questions that we had created for the case and the rubric that the judges would use to evaluate contestants.

The rubric contained four categories, each worth 10 points in the teams’ totals. These categories were based on the Covey Leadership Center’s LEAD model, which teaches students to utilize four fundamental qualities of leadership: learning, empathy, authenticity, and drive. We gave judges in-depth guidance for evaluating students on each quality:

Learning—adapt and innovate. Within this category, judges considered whether students sought out and integrated information from a variety of credible sources, devised innovative solutions that reflected a growth mindset, and demonstrated a mastery of key issues.

Empathy—seek deep understanding. Judges noted how well students articulated an in-depth understanding of the most important contextual issues and perspectives. These included the culture of the business; the constraints, values, and aspirations of the business’s leaders; and the needs, values, and aspirations of its customers.

Authenticity—give voice to and live important values. Judges evaluated whether or not students had thought about how their decisions would impact stakeholders. They also considered whether the teams’ action plans embodied the values of integrity, fairness, courage, transparency, accountability, and compassion, and whether the proposed solutions aligned with the organization’s mission.

Drive—establish inspiring goals. Judges assessed whether students articulated clear logic for their choices, guided by their bigger “why,” and whether they identified inspiring goals. They also looked for evidence that students had provided clear action plans for implementing their solutions.

During the first round of the competition, each team presented its solutions within a strict 10-minute time limit. The top three teams moved on to the second and final round, where they had to adjust their presentations to account for a twist in the case. Following presentations, judges offered constructive feedback to participants.

The top team took home 2,000 USD in prize money, while the second-place team won 1,000 USD, and the third-place team won 400 USD.

The networking experience was meaningful because we all walked away with lasting connections to each other. It only took one hour, but it added a great deal of value to the event.

One week after the competition, all participants were invited to attend a virtual networking event where they were divided into groups of seven to complete two connection-building exercises. One exercise consisted of “the five-minute favor,” which was popularized by Wharton professor Adam Grant in his book Give and Take. A five-minute favor is an act of kindness one person can do for another in five minutes or less. In the breakout session, all participants identified one thing they needed, such as having a résumé reviewed or making contacts in the technology industry. As each person voiced a need, someone in the group agreed to offer help after the meeting.

This networking experience was meaningful because we all walked away with lasting connections to each other. It only took one hour, but it added a great deal of value to the event.

Surveys and Results

To help us quantitatively gauge the event’s success, we asked all participants to complete a survey that described their leadership development experience. We appraised their responses by using the measures we employ to determine assurance of learning in our required leadership classes. We were pleased at the high percentages of students who agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:

  • 81 percent—I am more confident in my ability to lead because I participated in this event.
  • 72 percent—I see myself more as a leader.
  • 77 percent—I am more self-aware.

Not only did students realize deep benefits from the IEC, but school leaders made some important discoveries as well. For instance, we learned that it is relatively simple and affordable to host a virtual case competition. We now are planning to hold the IEC virtually every year because involving students from different countries enhances the competitiveness of the event and increases the pressure on our students to learn, prepare, and perform.

Lessons and Suggestions

Because the pandemic has made most students and faculty more comfortable with virtual communication, we think other schools now can afford to think more globally with their own events. We offer these suggestions for administrators planning international competitions:

Encourage coaching. We recommended that our participants find a professor, high-achieving peer, or industry professional to coach their team. Coaching elevates the experience for participants by making them strive for better results and often compels them to put more time into their preparation.

Develop a leadership rubric. Our research-based LEAD model is designed to help professionals and organizations lead effectively. It’s important for schools to create a rubric that doesn’t focus solely on public speaking skills, but helps students develop as leaders.

Solicit feedback from judges. Instead of having panelists ask questions, have them provide feedback to participants. A competition provides a uniquely safe place for experienced leaders to give students candid, constructive feedback on their leadership abilities.

Plan a networking event. For a networking event to be effective, every attendee needs to start or strengthen at least one relationship. This goal can be met if the school organizes fun leadership development games or has everyone share a personal story. There’s no need to try to make everyone get to know everyone else. If everybody’s network is expanded by just one person, the event is a success.

We feel that the experience of our first IEC is summed up by the words of Robin Hijzen, who was part of the second-place team from Erasmus: “The International Executive Challenge was a very intense but extremely rewarding experience through which we were able to develop ourselves as a team and as future leaders!”

 Weston C. Hyde Weston C. Hyde is program coordinator of the Covey Leadership Center at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business in Logan.

Bret CraneBret Crane is an associate professor at the Huntsman School of Business and Executive Director of the Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center.