MBA and leadership should be inextricably linked. An MBA lets you explore and evolve management principles and techniques to build blueprints for your companies’ future growth in addition to concepts linked to finance, marketing, operations and more.
But what most MBAs, the one year programmes in particular, barely teach you is how to understand and navigate organizational dynamics. The focus instead is on imparting hard skills and not so much on soft skills resulting in most MBAs turning into highly efficient managers but not necessarily business leaders.
Many assume that when they graduate with an MBA, they’ll lead or manage teams but in reality, organizations are increasingly getting flatter. Hierarchical structures are being replaced with individual contributor roles working in highly matrixed environments. This lends additional complexity to your roles – how do you lead when you don’t have any one reporting into you? How do you lead if you are only a team member?
And this is where one of the most crucial aspects of a business school life – study groups – comes in.
Opinions on study groups and their effectiveness are divided. Some find it transactional while others find it transformational. If you get along swimmingly well with all members of your study group, you are indeed fortunate. But as individuals, we have our inherent differences – some of us are solo players, others work better in groups. Some of us are intrinsically driven while others are more laid back. Some of us might have a greater aptitude for say finance while others may find finance difficult and be inclined towards technology or marketing.
The key here is to recognize our differences and still find ways to work together. Study groups in this sense mirror the real world, albeit a sand-boxed version of it. Yet, the opportunities to hone your leadership skills within study groups are immense.
Lead by example
You don’t have to be appointed the study group leader to ensure everyone puts in efforts to complete group assignments. Start by showing up for every group discussion and get involved in working on assignments. You may not fully understand financial management or marketing concepts, but that’s okay. You don’t have to be a master of all subjects. Ask your team members to teach you topics you need help with. Leadership, sometimes is more about listening and learning than knowing and directing.
Complement and Supplement
Understand the strengths each member brings to the team and also their weak areas. If a team member likes to crack decision optimization problems but doesn’t enjoy writing reports whereas another enjoys the latter then find ways such that they complement and supplement the group activities through their interests. Team members will start to perform at their optimum best because everyone is valued for their respective skills.
When you say, you’ll take up an assignment, then take it up and own it. When you promise someone to help them with a task, then keep your word. Integrity is an invaluable trait and the bedrock of not just individuals but also organizations. But it all starts with individuals. When you honour your commitments, you also honour those whose work depends on yours.
Give credit where it’s due
In a team setting, it’s easy for the “we” to overpower individual contributions. Usually, there’ll be few who’d have contributed more to a task than the others. Always ensure you acknowledge the efforts of those and credit them with the success of an achievement.
Groupthink happens when team members don’t want to feel like a pariah for their singular opinion on an issue. Often, group decisions sway with the opinion of the most extroverted team member(s). The most common downside of groupthink is losing the opportunity to do something radically different by heeding to fresh perspectives on a subject.
Embrace new ideas
An extension of the above point on groupthink – the only way to assess a problem as objectively as possible is to encourage everyone in the team to participate in discussions. Even if someone doesn’t have experience or sound knowledge of a subject, it’s important to hear everyone’s thoughts with an open mind and to be able to debate as a group, the merits and demerits of each idea.
Culture of failure
Be willing to take risks, whether it’s using a different format for solving a group project or participating in a case competition. Build a culture where failure is acceptable as long as one is able to learn from it. Encourage your team members to think differently when working on a problem while also communicating that a failure – in this case a lower grade or failure to win a competition – will teach valuable lessons. Just like in the world, playing it too safe by taking the most known path doesn’t yield great benefits anymore.
Keep self-pride at bay
Your group members will each bring their unique experience and strengths to the team. Be willing to be coached and mentored by your team members. It’s important to recognize that we’ll not always have all the answers to our problems. Your team can be that source of support and objective reasoning that’d help you see through a problem. Even CEOs have executive coaches who help them stay the course when the going gets rough or when they need to hear an impartial voice.
Leadership is as much about supporting as it is about leading.
Above all, sustain a positive and can-do attitude as you transition from your life as a MBA student to working in the real world. You don’t require a formal title of a leader to practice leadership – it’s what you do that defines you as a leader.
(This post is the first in a series of posts where we explore leadership both in the context of a business school and the corporate world)