This year’s Executive MBA theses presented — leadership in crisis and change recurring themes

2 July 2021

The last term of the Executive MBA programme at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg consists mainly of writing an academic thesis. A challenging project which results in new knowledge about corporate development and leadership. The topics are always relevant, and the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the choice of subjects for this year’s theses — several of which focus on leadership in crisis and change. This applies to the thesis that Emily Holweck, CEO of Öredev, and Matilda Örnmark, CEO of Amoma Sweden, wrote on the importance of corporate culture in a crisis as reflected in previous research on “sensemaking” and “sensegiving”.

The participants on the Executive MBA programme in Gothenburg study part-time over a period of 21 months, in parallel to their regular management and leadership roles. The programme, taught in English, focuses on leadership and business management, and has a large proportion of international lecturers. It is divided into four terms, each with a different theme: From strategy to action; Managing functions; Navigating in a changing world; and Renewing business & thesis work. The final thesis provides 15 higher education credits.

“This year, the programme elements relating to leading in a changing world and renewing organisations were particularly relevant due to the consequences of the pandemic on the companies in the various industries that the participants represent. This is also reflected in the theses. Leading in a crisis is a recurring theme and the theses offer exciting analyses, as well as new and up-to-date knowledge,” says Håkan Ericson, CEO of GU Executive Education.


Sensemaking and sensegiving as a basis for analysis

Emily Holweck and Matilda Örnmark found each other already when they ended up at the same table during the programme’s first module in the autumn of 2019. It was evident that they would end up writing a thesis together. The result, which was recently presented, is entitled Enabling the strategic retreat: How can leaders influence the performance of their organisations during crisis?

The thesis deals with how corporate culture and management influence, and are prerequisites for, how a company and its employees handle a crisis situation. Quite early in the process, they decided to use the theories of sensemaking and sensegiving* as analysis tools.

“We are both very interested in corporate culture and leadership, and we were very inspired by Professor Gideon Kunda in the module on Organisational structure and culture, by Professor Pekka Mattila who was responsible for Change management and by Frank Stenman in the module Organisational behaviour and leadership,” says Matilda Örnmark.

Emily Holweck adds, “We had some previous knowledge of sensemaking and sensegiving and thought that the theories explained some of what we saw in the organisation we investigated. In addition, it turned out that our supervisor, Associate Professor Andreas Diedrich, has extensive knowledge of that research area. He encouraged us.”


Observing internal interaction

Matilda Örnmark and Emily Holweck studied a family-run business with around 60 employees whose operations were greatly affected when the pandemic broke out. They interviewed employees and managers. Using the theories of sensemaking and sensegiving as analysis tools, the aim of the thesis is to increase the understanding of the change process in an organisation that is going through a crisis by observing the interaction between management and employees. In the thesis, they show that a strong corporate culture and clear leadership, with a lot of transparency and communication, can contribute to security, create action and lead to a crisis situation becoming an opportunity for development.

“The pandemic meant that many at the company, not least the CEO and the members of the management team, were not travelling, as they normally are, and that the employees had less work to do. In the interviews, they described how the situation created time and space for discussions and strategic development work; a kind of strategic retreat, which gave us the inspiration for the thesis title,” says Matilda Örnmark.


Theory and empiricism

Writing the thesis was both fun and challenging, according to Matilda Örnmark and Emily Holweck.

“We have creative brains and sometimes they clashed with the academic structure, which could feel a bit awkward,” says Emily Holweck. “However, the whole journey was so much fun: learning along the way; being able to research and discover; and understanding the relationship between theory and empiricism.”

Now, they are talking about possibly writing a book, where they can let their creativity flow and turn their new knowledge into practice. “You bring the theories into your own leadership. Through the thesis, we have learned a lot about the importance of values and the significance of corporate culture,” they both conclude.

*Sensemaking theory describes how individuals are building an understanding of an unexpected or confusing situation first by making observations, then interpreting these observations and taking actions according to their comprehension (Weick, 1995; Maitlis and Christianson, 2014). Sensegiving means that someone strives to influence other people to perceive and interpret certain actions and events in special ways (Söderberg, 2003).



Images from left:

  1. Emily Holweck. Photo: Zinnie Pham Nilsson
  2. Matilda Örnmark. Photo: Zinnie Pham Nilsson
  3. Håkan Ericson. Photo: Nettan Kock


For more information, please contact:

Håkan Ericson, CEO, GU Executive Education +46 709 50 63 35

Emily Holweck, CEO Öredev  + 46 702 45 62 94

Matilda Örnmark, CEO Amoma Sverige  +46 761 13 95 61


The School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg delivers Sweden’s first AMBA-accredited Executive MBA Programme, company-adapted leadership programs for internationally oriented companies in the Nordic market, as well as shorter open-enrolment programmes. The courses are delivered in Sweden and globally. By combining academic weight with practical relevance, the school develops its customers’ key employees. The School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg is one of only approximately 100 business schools in the world that is Triple Crown accredited, i.e. it has the three main international accreditations for business schools from AMBA, AACSB and EQUIS. This corresponds to approximately 1% of the world’s business schools.