From the moment you walk into Cass as an MBA student, barely having exchanged a few platitudes and making the utmost effort remembering everyone’s name, you’re thrown into a team and before you know it, someone’s already shouting because you need to make a decision NOW before you all die on an alien planet. And then you die anyway. Have I lost you already? Welcome to induction week at Cass.
When I researched my MBA, I realised very quickly that teamwork would be a major aspect of it. Personally, I dreaded the thought of it. Throughout my professional life, I never had any problems working in teams but rather than real teamwork or collaboration, what I had mostly experienced were lone wolves that happened to sit next to each other, occasionally covering someone’s work during holidays.
Equally, in my personal life, my preference of working alone is well reflected in my hobbies: I write fiction, play classical piano and run marathons. There are ways to incorporate others in all of these activities but I have never actively chosen to do so.
When I applied for my MBA, I made the conscious decision to address this weakness of mine. However I didn’t realise just how much teamwork would be required.
At Cass, not only do you have a team of eight you work with for all projects in the first two blocks (including an integration week after each block which is an entire week of just your team and your project), there’s a team for your Strategy Project, a team for your leadership training at Sandhurst, a new team for blocks three and four, various teams you’ll be in for your electives and probably other teams I don’t even know about yet.
In summary: there are a lot of teams and A LOT of teamwork is involved.
So why is there such an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration?
According to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Corporate Recruiters Survey Report 2017, 4 out of the top 5 skills employers wanted from new hires could be grouped in communications skills , while teamwork skills such as adaptability, valuing others’ opinions, ability to follow a leader and cross-cultural sensitivity were all to be found in the top 10.
GMAC makes two observations:
- Changes in today’s workplace occur faster and on a more global scale. To be successful, employers need business leaders who are solid team players and good managers: people who can both follow and lead, who can work with those from different cultures, who can quickly adapt to change, manage strategy and innovation, and make decisions.
- Though employers place increased emphasis on teamwork and managerial skills this year, they still rank communication as an essential skill to have mastered (Graduate Management Admission Council, 2017).
This year, Cass Full-time MBA class is comprised of 73 students, 29 nationalities with no single region represented by more than 20 per cent. Students coming from so many industries, even the biggest group of finance professionals only makes up 23 per cent. It makes sense then to experiment and hone teamwork and communications skills in the uniquely diverse setting of this MBA.
As one fellow classmate put it: “It’s the crucial part of an MBA to learn how to lead a team and prepare ourselves to use the same skills to lead people once we step out of the classroom. We need to understand our leadership style and make a conscious effort to readily change it based on different scenarios.”
So that’s the thought then. Learning by doing. Work in teams and polish your teamwork and communications skills. But how exactly does it work in practice? Does throwing a bunch of people into one room, calling it a team and making them do stuff really teach you anything?
Now that our first block is over, I took some time to reflect on my experience working with my team for eight weeks. I was also interested in how others perceived the experience and asked my cohort to participate in a quick survey.
Although we’ve been together for just two months, our team already developed a strong sense of identity and looking at others, we often said we were lucky with the mix of people. I for one, had gone into this with a healthy level of scepticism and defensiveness, so I am quite surprised to find myself in this rather happy position.
I wondered whether this was luck or whether at the end of the day, pretty much any group could be happy and perform to a level that made them believe they were better off than others. Asking my cohort, 70 percent of respondents said they felt lucky with the mix of people while 16 percent considered themselves unlucky but thought they still made the best out of the situation. Yes, people who sign up to an MBA are a particular subset of society already and perhaps there are not that many things to clash on but I still find this to be a respectable result.
Using Tuckman’s framework of Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing (Tuckman, 1965), I then asked my cohort to identify where they saw themselves in the team development process. The majority saw themselves either in the norming or performing stage; promising after just two months. Of course, not everyone had gotten past the storming phase with one respondent considering themselves “floundering like a fish out of water.”
More significantly, the majority had gone through some difficulties to get to where they were now. That’s to be expected and a healthy stage in team development to get to the other side. Someone mentioned “avoiding confrontation” as a problem and I can see how that would suppress the growth of a team which may be a reason for some (38 percent) picking out groupthink as a problem. Many commented on these conflicts as minor and I would probably count myself in this camp too.
However, some voiced larger concerns over individuals dominating the team and taking over the discussions, warning that it stifled progress by causing the team to be stuck in minute arguments. Clearly some frustrations built up in some teams.
Given the demographic mix of our cohort, some of this is unavoidable but it did make me sad and made me reassess my own behaviour, looking for ways I could possibly make someone in my own team enjoy the experience more. After all, I already was someone who was benefitting from this. As one student said, “to work together you need to honestly care about each other’s opinion. Don’t formulate pre-conceived ideas. Sometimes genius comes from unexpected places.”
However, what was more surprising to me however was that 62 percent of respondents thought they were victims of free-riding (assuming they weren’t talking about themselves). The optimist in me wants to believe that this high percentage is rather a sign of miscommunication and a proof that teams may not have reached the norming or performing stage just yet. MBA students have made a lot of sacrifices for this experience, so why would you be here just to free-ride and upset the rest of your team, when you’d at least spend another two months working with?
An issue that often comes up is the differences in motivations and aims which may be a cause of what others perceive as free-riding. As one respondent put it: “Some want to get a distinction, others would rather save time and effort for networking and professional development.” In our team, we quickly developed very direct and honest communication which would usually be led by someone asking something along the lines of: “How do you feel about this? What do you personally want out of this? Are you OK with what we’re doing?”
Overall, as a team, we do have similar motivations and our work during integration week was rewarded with a grade we were all satisfied with. We could have done better, no doubt. But I believe no one regretted the outcome. In an MBA setting, motivations are much clearer and easier to discuss. Once we get into the real world again, individual motivations can be much more complex and may not necessarily be shared. You can’t just ask “what do you want out of this?” and expect a straight-forward answer. I’m not under the illusion that these few weeks of working through conflict have provided me with all the answers. Still, it has definitely raised my awareness around these issues and I will think more about individual motivations before making any assumptions about others based on what I want.
If you’d ask me today how I felt about working with a completely new yet-to-be-disclosed group in blocks three and four, I’d tell you that I still dread the thought. I am however in a minority. The majority (73 percent) in my survey are excited to work with a new group of people in blocks three and four. The reason I don’t look forward to it though is a different one than at the start of my MBA.
“What has truly changed in the two months, is that I am comfortable telling people in my team when something doesn’t really motivate me or when I know someone else is better for the task.”
What has truly changed in the two months, is that I am comfortable telling people in my team when something doesn’t really motivate me or when I know someone else is better for the task. Equally, I’ve learnt to trust every individual’s performance and let them lead when it makes sense. For example, when you end up in a baking contest (yes, that happens in an MBA) and one person in your team tells you they’ve baked their own wedding cake. Then you can happily let go and just do what they tell you to. I am one of those who felt very lucky about their first team and , I can’t imagine it to be better or even just as good next time around.
Having said that, I approached my team for the Sandhurst leadership training last week with the same hesitations and was very positively surprised how much I enjoyed the experience working with this completely different set of people. In fact, several people in the survey commented on how good their Sandhurst teams were. Perhaps it was the different types of tasks that provided us with the right kind of stimulus after five weeks of academic study.
I am honest in saying that the outdoor tasks were an absolute nightmare for me. There were several occasions where I seriously thought about leaving this all behind and just head back to London and have a couple of quiet days off. I was paying for the pleasure of this torture.
What made me stay however was my Sandhurst team, who readily accepted the fact that this wasn’t my cup of tea and still recognised the effort I was putting into it. We don’t all get pleasure out of the same activities and knowing when someone is struggling, recognising it and acknowledging the effort they are making can go a long way. I truly appreciated everyone’s kind words that kept me going until the end. If I would have given up halfway through, I would have never known the sense of accomplishment I felt when I reached the end and for that I’m truly grateful to my team and a particular someone who told me how disappointed they’d be if I left.
“We don’t all get pleasure out of the same activities and knowing when someone is struggling, recognising it and acknowledging the effort they are making can go a long way.”
That leads me to the final question of my survey: has all the teamwork you’re exposed to at Cass changed the way you feel about it?
Thirty-eight percent of respondents saw no change in the way they felt about team work of which 14 percent disliked teamwork to begin with. One respondent commented, “team work at Cass has reinforced my anecdotal rule that 30 percent of the team are good performers, 30 percent try but lack technical skills and 40 percent are substantially sub-par in skills and attitude.”
Two months of teamwork can’t convert everyone. What was encouraging however was that 57 percent of respondents said they saw more of the merits of teamwork than they had previously, and felt comfortable doing more of it.
As one student said “I have come to the realisation that working effectively in a team is perhaps more important than being individually brilliant for doing most jobs.” I’m certainly one of those who see teamwork in a more positive light. While I still dread working in a new team and having to face new personalities, I am likely to be more open and understanding to it than I ever was before. If that’s the result of just two months, I’m optimistic that while I may never be a teamwork-loving person, I will be confident to embrace any teamwork environment that comes my way in the future and be able to recognise the merits of it.
I’d like to conclude with a comment from one of my survey respondents that beautifully sums up the MBA teamwork experience:
“The biggest surprise for me was how often we actually operated as a team – where the total output of our work was better than what we (probably) could have done individually. I’ve yet to feel like I could have done better on my own (maybe the same, but certainly not better). We’re somewhere between storming and norming now – we see our flaws clearly but haven’t yet managed to overcome them. But we have a good group, and we all have each other’s backs. I’m nervous for my next groups – I feel like I’ve been blessed this time around!” (Anonymous, Cass Full-time MBA, 2017).
Full-time MBA (2018)
Graduate Management Admission Council (2017) Corporate Recruiters Survey Report 2017. Available at: https://www.gmac.com/market-intelligence-and-research/gmac-surveys/corporate-recruiters-survey.aspx (Accessed: Nov 5, 2017).
Nilsson, P. and Moules, J. (2017) ‘What employers want from MBA graduates — and what they don’t’, Financial Times, Aug 31, 2017.
Tuckman, B.W. (1965) ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological bulletin, 63(6), pp. 384-399. doi: 10.1037/h0022100.