08 May 2020

Managing Through Crisis: Exec Ed Program Delivery Team Maintains the High Touch Experience—a Q+A with Director Joanne Cornetta


by Shona Simkin

Joanne Cornetta is the director of program delivery for Executive Education. She and her team are responsible for the planning and delivery of a wide range of executive education programs. They work closely with faculty, as well as participants and clients, from around the world, delivering a high touch, rewarding educational experience. This includes confirming and arranging session material, building and maintaining program websites, managing complex program schedules, arranging IT and AV support, and providing classroom support. With participants staying on campus (in non-pandemic times), the team is also responsible for organizing experiences outside the classroom, including events on and off campus for entertainment and networking opportunities. With Exec Ed programs being cancelled or postponed, we wondered what work looked like for their team. We Zoomed in with Joanne to find out.

What has it been like to have to cancel programs because of the coronavirus?
Some programs were cancelled or postponed just days before they were scheduled to begin and required a very quick shift in our work. Each program cancellation or postponement has to be approached individually, with highly specific and customized communication. It’s a lot of unraveling of plans and work, and many very individual conversations. Our team gives each participant options for how they would like to proceed—ideally they are able to join us for a future program, so we work with them to consider options, including whether they want to join a different program later in the fall, or whether they want to transfer to the same program the next time it is offered. Thinking through those various choices takes time. If the options don’t work out, we walk them through the cancellation and refund process.

One of the things we've learned is that participants’ concerns are the same as ours. Lives have been turned upside down. When we first cancelled programs we gave participants two weeks to decide between various options, and very quickly we realized they needed more time, so we’re working to accommodate this. We've had to be very mindful and thoughtful in our approach and communication. We recognize that the current situation is a challenge—no one has experienced anything like this. Being sensitive and empathetic to what our participants are trying to manage means that it’s an ongoing conversation with almost everyone.

In addition to managing communication with participants, there is also work to unravel with vendors, local venues, closing out program websites, and many other logistics. Rather than using our program planning checklist to put logistics into place, we are using it as a resource to guide us through undoing all that was arranged.

Have there been other challenges?
We’re transitioning to a new learning management system in early fall, and had created a plan that transitioned programs during the spring and summer. A lot of planning had gone into the transition, accounting for staff training and minimal disruption for participants. Given program cancellations and postponements, we have had to revise those plans while continuing to meet our fall deadline. The transition will impact programs differently, including some programs where participants will transition to the new platform mid-program. This will also require highly customized communication.

The silver lining is that we’ve used this opportunity to do significant training. Normally we'd be trying to find ways to squeeze it in, given different schedules and priorities when programs are in session, so this was actually a time that everyone could come together, which has been incredibly valuable. There’s important value in training with your peers and learning from their questions and different perspectives.

What’s next?
Online programming! We have quickly pivoted to planning for and supporting online programs. We have a dozen or so programs that were initially planned to take place on campus that will now be offered virtually. We are quickly adapting our staffing and delivery structure to support faculty and participants in this new model. Assisting with the crisis management sessions offered to alumni gave us early exposure to this quick turn-around, and we’re putting best practices into place. The delivery team enjoys the face to face interaction with participants on campus, so this is a real shift. We've all been trained as OLFs, and are understanding how to pivot and support online learning. We’re creating new communication templates, new checklists, and revising timelines. We're also starting to think through how programs will evolve in general, and how we get back to campus.

How are you connecting with your team?
We have all become super users of Teams and Zoom! We've incorporated a weekly town hall meeting where the entire team comes together every Monday afternoon. We use this time to review the past week, look head to the upcoming week, and also to address any topics that are on people’s mind. This is in addition to smaller team meetings that happen on a regular basis. While the programs and our work look a little different, we're still trying to incorporate some sense of normalcy. We also have a group within our team called Connecting Y’all, which has always focused on engagement within our group. When we started working remote, this group immediately pivoted and arranged everything online. We have coffee chats at 9:30 a.m. three times a week--anyone is welcome to join. We have a watercooler Teams channel for sharing recipes, favorite movies, what we've all watched this week, etc. Working remotely, it's important we find ways to connect both professionally and personally. It's been working really well. It doesn't replace face to face communication, but it's still helpful.

How have you been caring for yourself?
I've been trying to step away from work at a reasonable hour. To shut everything down, have work be really over, but it’s hard to do. I’ve been trying to take breaks, to get outside to walk the dog, and have been connecting with my big extended family on group texts. It took some convincing, but we finally got my father to join us on Zoom!

Have there been any bright spots?
The delivery team is a fantastic group, always finding positivity when things get difficult. Colleagues have been checking in on one another, and the Connecting Y’all coffee chats are really helpful for informal connections. It’s a time where we share happy news about what's going on with our families and each other. The delivery team is always looking for ways to appreciate and thank their colleagues and that's been happening regularly.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I want to give a shout out to the team. They're in the weeds of it, fielding a lot of inquiries from participants impacted by cancelled or postponed programs, and also participants scheduled to attend programs later this summer and into the fall. I am especially mindful that this work continues while the team is transitioning to planning for and delivering online programming. The team has pivoted so incredibly quickly and efficiently. We've always stressed how important flexibility and adaptability are, and right now is a really good example of that. We couldn't do it without them.

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