For most university students it is a well-known fact that in your final semester, you spend some time dedicated to writing a thesis. At WHU, such thesis topics can vary from entrepreneurial ideas to artificial intelligence, to macroeconomics, or empirical analysis. With the support of Assistant Professor Dr. Lukas Löhlein WHU Bachelor students Erik Hansen and Maximilian Müller, focused their final thesis on a more topical issue – how corporations can leverage the communication challenges posed by the pandemic, into a leadership opportunity.
What was the motivation behind this particular topic?
Erik: At the time we were considering the focus point of our thesis, it was also the time that COVID-19 became a major cause of concern in Europe. We suddenly saw that many executives were reaching out to their networks looking for answers as to hope to cope with the situation. Some were sharing their personal experiences of how they tackled the home-office setup and we saw there was an opportunity here to approach it from a scientific standpoint.
Max: This was the first time that a pandemic had such a profound impact on the business world and while many were thinking about numbers i.e. the loss of money, we were particularly interested in the impact it had on people. Whether organizational distancing or social distancing, we were keen to find practical answers focused on the psychological impact this has on the working culture and leadership behavior.
What key information did you uncover during the project?
Max: If you offer open communication as a leader and become more interactive during meetings, you can provide the social aspect that is often missing during the home office. You are no longer meeting someone for coffee or having lunch together, so it is important to reintroduce that social aspect into online meetings and virtual communication. This is also important for leaders when safeguarding that feeling of cohesion and culture within a corporation.
Why is it helpful to have the support of a professor throughout the process?
Erik: With Lukas, we had interacted with him before during other courses such as the Management Abroad Course in Shanghai or seminars, so we already had a strong working relationship with him. We had regular check-ins and calls where we would ask him questions and throw some ideas around. The key point was that nothing was given to us: he trusted us to take the right measures and gave us the freedom to find our conclusions from our findings. We knew that we could always approach him and he would always give us honest feedback. Even though we had complete support from him throughout, we were confident that when we completed the project, it was 100% our own.
Max: At WHU, you are never just a number like at a larger university – you are a valued person with a name; professors genuinely care about you. Lukas was always supportive and pushing us to the next level so that even when we struggled, he was ready with constructive feedback to help us develop.
Lukas: To explain further, my approach to supervising consists of three parts. In part one, I am heavily involved in the project and discuss with the students their broader research theme, relevant literature, and method to help students to build a solid base for their thesis. It is important to me that the students find a topic they are passionate about researching. In part two, I encourage the students to explore the empirical phenomenon they investigate, to step back from the established literature and their supervisor's opinion. In part three, I encourage students to reflect on whether and how their findings might contribute or challenge already established views of thinking. This is not easy, as the students have to shift from a consumer of knowledge to a knowledge producer. Ultimately, my aim in supervising is to encourage students to be creative and take risks.
How did you approach collecting the research?
Max: We connected with senior business managers via the WHU alumni association In-Praxi, introducing the research project and ourselves. What we did not expect, however, was that everyone would respond so positively or be so willing to help. Not one single person refused our request; there was one sentence repeated by them all, “when someone calls me from WHU, I always make time.” This attitude impressed us. It’s not something you expect from a CEO or COO who has an incredibly busy schedule, but there is a connection to WHU that remains far beyond graduation.
Erik: For many of the people we contacted, they were genuinely interested in the project and our results. What was most surprising was just how quickly they relaxed with us – it was as if we had been working together for 20 years. They even asked us for advice, which made us pause as a 23 and 24-year old, you do not expect to be offering insights to a senior manager. However, there is this mutual respect within the WHU network; they remember their time at the school, so they understand the level of maturity you gain by the end of your Bachelor's degree. That level of trust was an additional motivator for us to produce great results.