Month: November 2017

Can an MBA teach a lone wolf new teamwork tricks?

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.”

Sandhurt Team 8

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)

 

References:

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.

My first five weeks at Cass

So, you’ve made the jump. You’ve signed up, paid your fees, cancelled all social engagements hence and whence appropriate, deleted Instagram and invested in a Microsoft based laptop (curse Apple and their pesky social functionality apps). You’re ready! Either by self- narcissism, or by a sociopathic employer, you have been accepted into a one year Full-time, or two year part-time Executive MBA to improve and enhance your life and management skills, and have entered into engagement with other like-minded, intelligent people. You clever person you!

Cass was established in 1966; it’s pretty safe to suggest that they have a lot of experience in education and how to get the best out of people. Unlike other London business schools’ (no pun intended), Cass encourages development by engaging heavily with your cohort, as well as self-enhancement. This means working with groups. Of people. Like you, but not quite you. Yes, I did just type that. You must consciously engage with other people in order to achieve a portion of marks based on group coursework, and equally, reserve enough brain power to listen, learn, and enjoy lectures.

With that in mind; below is a snapshot of my first five weeks, which I hope you enjoy with as much merriment as I did whilst typing:

Week one:

With great power comes great responsibility. With extensive learning after many years of being educationally unchallenged comes a great sense of acute awareness to be near the closest outlet of alcohol (it served one so well for so many years). Fortune would serve that the ‘local’ carries very reasonable prices, including a bottle of prosecco for £20 (with up to 4 glasses and an ice bucket).

Downside of the week: Three hours of post-lecture dissection (drinking) on an empty stomach leads to multiple walk-around(s) of the Barbican roundabout.

(Lack of signs = impossible to navigate without SAS training).

Moral of the story: One must not rely on the skills established during undergraduate learning in order to pass said MBA.

Week two:

Upside: The lecturer knows my name (and therefore I am a valued member of this school).

Downside: The lecturer knows my name (and will therefore call me out when drawing an escape plan on lecture notes).

Week three:

Cognitive functions seem to be awakening. The learning process element of your brain has finally sprung back to life, refreshed after a long period of siesta, and seems ready to expand and dilute masses of information, ready to be processed into more tangible details.

Downside: That post lecture pub visit, in which you ordered the £20 bottle of prosecco with one glass, drunk on an empty stomach, and then spent 4 hours marching around the Barbican roundabout, trying to work out which exit to take (they really should signpost or number them).

Week four:

The windows look pretty triple glazed and probably won’t act as a decent escape route.

Week five:

The end of your two First-year lectures. Things slowly seem to be coming together, including financial accounting, and equally a sense of feeling smug at being able to express, in detail, the difference between a balance sheet and an income statement (although the person at the bar didn’t really seem to care).

Downside:

The bar-lady knows your name and your pin code.

And we’re all still standing! And engaged, and very ready for a coursework review, submission, and onwards to the next assignment.

With all bravado follows humility, and mine very simply is that making this leap into Cass has been by far the best choice I have made in many years. One must consider the stresses and strains of the global economy and give praise to establishments that, even in such testing times, still retain the skills and strengths to envelop such commitment to people who want to learn. Cass employs an impressive collective of people who are at the top of their game; in fact, my first five weeks have been a sheer delight.

It is a true test of our freedom, democracy and fair sense of our need to improve which has, I do truly believe, led us to study at one of the best business schools in the world. For that, I commend you, you clever person you.

 

Claire Georgeson
Executive MBA (2019)

 

My first module is just exciting

I have to take a deep breathe as I just started my first module of Accounting & Finance and it has turned out to be beyond my expectations!

We all felt the challenge to deal with numbers and terms that are very new to us but I guess it’s just beyond that.

I really loved the fact that I can now look at the figures in these financial statements from different perspectives. A perspective that is wide and intuitive. Something I found so beneficial and new is being able to understand the soul of a business and link it to it’s strategy.

The workshop was interactive and the approach of Professor Danielle Lyssimachou was just right. I really appreciate the flow of the information and the sequence of going from the basic intuition to the high level goal of the module.

What I need to do now is go ahead and reflect this in my own work and business and to see how I can elevate the performance of the business support division that reports to me. I feel I can adjust many things now; the reports that I generate to management and shareholders will be prepared in a different way that addresses these kinds of stakeholders. Also, I grasped enough knowledge to decide on things or support my boss in providing relevant data to help them make more appropriate decisions.

Moreover, the cohort is so amazing and diverse. We share this experience, we learn how things are happening in different industries and this experience has widened our horizons dramatically from just the first week of work and a single module. This has built up my excitement going forwards.

Another challenge is to work as a team to prepare for the assignment. It’s  not only about the product that we will submit, but more importantly, the way we have to work together and the way to interact as a team. Being a leader or a follower is another behavior that we will learn throughout.  I am learning how to reap the benefits of this opportunity; to build different expertise and skills in different areas, splitting the work in a very efficient way to ultimately arrive at the final best product is something vital for all of us and will add to our experience through the programme.

I’m feeling very positive and confident we will all have a great experience and look forward to enjoying the course ahead.

Lawra Hasayen
Dubai Executive MBA (2019)

 

Being at a crossroad

Reaching the doorsteps of Cass Business School on the first day to formally enrol, I began to reflect on the decisions taken that had led me to reach this juncture. Months of planning, preparation, self-assessment and consulting with family and close friends felt just like yesterday. The first day was the first time I met everyone in my cohort after connecting online and getting to know them virtually through chat groups.

What became crystal clear was the diverse set of individuals hand-picked by Cass to be part of the Full-time programme – a balance of gender, age, experience, function, industry and life stage.  As we got to know more of each other during the following week, I began to ask: how would I be able to contribute meaningfully and add value to others? Having to adjust back into full time education after years of working, will I able to adapt to the demanding needs of a top-tier business school?

What was to follow was a career development programme tailor-made for current business challenges and needs. Sessions with outgoing cohort, networking skills, corporate panels and a leadership masterclass were arranged to provide insights into fully maximising the MBA and reflect on how best to utilise the opportunities available the coming year.

A leadership masterclass with Sir Chris Bonington and Dr Rodrigo Jordan were particularly eye opening as they reflect on the peculiar role of leadership in times of severe difficulty. Obstacles during the hike to Mount Everest forced them to reconsider their options and decide trade-offs between mission objectives and maximising chances of helping a different expedition in need. Most importantly, it became clear the level of expectation required as a fellow Cass student– perseverance in difficult circumstances, dedication to the cause and incubating an explorer’s mindset: to be open to change and uncertainty whilst hold true to the spirit of adventure and discovery.

The core modules began immediately after, delivered over four blocks following with electives beginning from April 2018 onwards. Block 1 covers Strategy, Organisational Behaviour and Accounting & Financial Reporting where the focus lays in learning strategy as a discipline and having the necessary tools to understand financial statements, while uncovering the nuance of culture and inner workings of an organisation.

As I reflect on our progress towards the end of Block 1, one advice from the outgoing cohort spring to mind – embrace your professors as the learning that you get from their teaching outweighs any amount of reading done independently.

Being at Cass makes me truly feel that we are standing on the shoulders of giants as the professors not only keep challenging us in terms of critical thinking and understanding the truth of the matter, but also realising that as leaders of tomorrow, we will only be able to face the challenges of the future by making it through together, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Classes and projects aside, the MBA at Cass,  without a doubt, is incomplete without the London experience and all it has to offer. What better way to decompress after a demanding first few months by enjoying London and meeting up after hours or over weekends. The prospects of a long weekend were quickly seized with the cohort forming travel groups to different destinations. After all, it would not be quintessentially London if it was not for the connectivity that allows access to the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond.

Muzaffar Muhtar
Full-time MBA (2018)

 

Reflections on the first month

Within a blink of an eye, the first month of our Executive MBA at Cass is complete. It therefore is an appropriate time at ‘reflection week’ to look back across our first two modules.

In that first month, as a group we have experienced a vigorous but rewarding induction, and have already completed five-week block lectures. In such a short space of time we have bonded as a collective group and within our coursework groups of five or six, are fully immersed into our first group submission (Financial Accounting), as well as extra-curricular activities such as executive presence and media skills training. The cohort is very diverse with regards to background and experience, which is one of the key reasons I chose Cass.

 

What more could one need to survive the next 2 years?!

With Cass regularly mentioned in the wider press (only this week moving up the FT Executive MBA rankings) it feels like a very topical time to be completing an MBA. It already feels like the correct decision in selecting Cass and I know the reputation of the institution was a key reason in gaining support from my employer (I am a sponsored student), along with the optional real estate investment modules which can follow in Year Two.

The recruitment sessions at Cass are definitely worth exploring and are a great indication as to how professionally run the programme is too. I personally attended a breakfast seminar, which took on the format of an informal roundtable discussion with past and present students and senior members of staff. It was very informative and welcoming and was also a great chance to experience the excellent facilities at 200 Aldersgate. The location is fantastic for me as my office is on the same street; but it is worth travelling for, trust me!

There are also many opportunities to attend lectures as a guest, which is another option I took and one I would also thoroughly recommend (we have already had our first prospective future students join us in a lecture to consider an application for next year). If an institution doesn’t offer them, then what are they trying to hide?

There are people who applied for the programme nearly a year in advance, or others like myself who flirted dangerously close to the deadline date. Another piece of application advice I would offer to candidates is if they are looking for sponsorship from their employer, is to start the conversation early. I am somewhat fortunate that I work within a small team (but in a large organisation). It is not uncommon for companies to have several layers of approval for further education requests and each stage can require multiple conversations.

Cass is mindful of this too. I found the published document about asking for financial assistance from your employer very worthwhile. It is certainly not a conversation you can go into without preparation.

Another great perk of the programme is the number of digital and physical subscriptions you have access to, which are already proving useful for wider reading. From the FT to Orbis (a global online companies archive), along with Bloomberg terminals, it really is top of the range. The library is still in existence in a physical form, but much changed from my days as an undergraduate; my back is certainly thanking me for the number of books available electronically!

A cause for celebration! The opening weekend induction

 

Now the first block of modules are completed it feels like the momentum is building, and the lecturers are warning us of the uptick in assignments. We have several weekend sessions coming up and with the first exam timetable published it is certainly now feeling ‘real’. It certainly felt that way this week when I finally got around to updating my LinkedIn profile!

It’s also great to be receiving the amount of support that I am experiencing too, both professionally and personally both inside and outside the programme. Without both the entire process would definitely be more of a struggle. As it stands I am thoroughly enjoying the programme, but I would be lying if I wasn’t a little bit apprehensive about what is around the corner. Fortunately we have been paired with some great former students as our mentors who have proved invaluable already.

The group work begins – it is more exciting than it looks honest!

Here’s to the next month!

Thomas Narraway
Executive MBA (2019)

 

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