The importance of communication and leadership in pandemic response

Student gains skills through UB Experiential Learning Network project

By Courtlin Byrd

Yijia Pan

While the coronavirus pandemic has prevented traditional learning in the classroom, for one student, it has revealed important lessons in a more expansive context.

After transitioning to distance learning, Yijia Pan, a business administration undergraduate in the UB School of Management, discovered the Soft Skills Studio project on the UB Experiential Learning Network’s Project Portal and decided to relate it directly to the COVID-19 crisis.

The Soft Skills project encourages students to develop the non-technical skills companies have identified as critical for employees: leadership, problem-solving, communication, collaboration and social competencies.

For the project, students like Pan identify professionals in their field of interest who exemplify such qualities, and study them to gain insight into techniques, strategies, lessons and resources.

This is particularly relevant today. As Pan says: “Due to the evolving pandemic, most of the companies and their leaders need to change their business strategy, so it is an excellent chance to observe their reaction. Therefore, I can learn how they use their soft skills in dealing with the changes, such as leading the team and communicating with the public.”

He chose to focus on an evolving and prominent situation: 3M, one of the largest producers of protective masks and medical supplies in the U.S., was trying to deliver their supplies to Canada, but was being prevented by the United States government.

Pan identified that as early as January, with the spread of the coronavirus beginning to increase globally, the CEO of 3M began to double their production. “The decision the 3M managers made to increase production a few months ago led the company in the right direction to better confront the coronavirus,” Pan says.

He continued: “Companies like 3M deal with tremendous amounts of things every day. Each time when the managers need to make a decision, they are under high pressure from both the company and society. It is not an exaggeration to say that any wrong choice they make may ruin the future of the company. Managers have to adjust their production, make strategy, pacify consumers, deal with public relations and strike back at rumors. Leadership is more important and significant in such a critical time.”

Indeed, 3M faced fierce pushback from the Trump administration as it tried to deliver its masks to Canada and Latin America. The President ordered the company to stop exporting masks to keep them in the United States. Pan saw 3M protest the decision with “humanitarian concern.” He thought the company leaders’ communication with and concern for the public was very good, and these are skills he looks to improve on himself.

The Soft Skills project also encourages students to reflect and identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and work toward improvements, both personally and professionally.

Due to its individual and research-based parameters, Pan says it was quite easy to work on the project remotely, and it kept him engaged both with UB and the current global situation. “I would encourage other students to do remote projects,” he says, referencing the convenience and effectiveness of remote work. 

For Pan, this remote project has inspired him to collaborate more in the future. “In the past, I lacked soft skills like communication and leadership, which I cannot gain from books," he says. "This project got me started with out-of-class experiences. In the future, I would like to engage in more social activities or work experiences to enhance my soft skills.”

Remote projects give students time and space to work on skills they may have thought they could never master, to make mistakes and amend them, to develop courage and self-sufficiency, and to become the kind of person who possesses those certain indefinable and unteachable characteristics so desirable in the world.