The Fishbowl MBA

Advice for MBA students

8 steps to a good MBA team

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The MBA has lots of teamwork, but it is an open secret that most MBA teams don’t work. The cocktail of intense pressure, no sleep, diverging priorities and clashing cultural norms simply makes many teams explode or drift apart.

The good news is, if you invest some time and effort in building your team, you can avoid this. And from personal experience, I can say that being part of a team that works will make a world of difference to you, personally and professionally. Here are eight tips on how to build a good team, derived from our team’s experiences and my observations of other teams.

1. Go on a weekend trip together
In retrospect, the single best thing we did for our team was to spend two days in a summer house in Girona, two hours outside Barcelona. It was incredibly fun and very different from our day to day interactions in the team. In terms of team bonding, there is something special about a weekend trip, sleeping bags and all, that a regular dinner or a night out just can’t match.

Team trips like this one can be hard to squeeze into the schedule, considering how busy you will be. But try to make at least one, preferably within the first two months of your working together. It is the single best investment you can make in your team.

A team trip will also teach you new things. For instance, I learned that when your honorable Mexican teammate offers you a glass of prime, high-quality tequila, carefully brought all the way from his home country, you do not gulp it down like a two-bit vodka shot (my first registered encounter with the Mexican Death Stare™). Slow sipping is the way to go.

2. Agree on the team rules before you start
Before you start working together – meaning, before the inevitable conflicts makes rational discussion hard – it is a great idea to have a joint conversation about how you want your team to work.

One way to do this is to write up a team contract. Get together in a room, and spend 1½ hour agreeing on some ground rules for the team. (How many minutes can you be late for a team meeting without having to give a round of coffee? What should people do if they have trouble making a team deadline? What are your team’s succes criteria? How should personal conflicts be dealt with? Etc.)

The paper itself is just a tool; once written, you will probably never look at it again. The key thing is that you have the discussion together, so everybody is clear on the rules.

3. Appoint a weekly chairman
Your team will be most efficient if somebody is in charge of the meetings, acting as both a timekeeper and a general manager. Also, you need somebody in your team to handle the details; booking rooms, keeping track of deadlines, checking that all cases have been assigned, and so on. But it is not desirable to have the same person do this all year.

The best thing is to have a chairman role that rotates on a weekly basis. The chairman runs the meetings so that you stay on the subject and finish on time. He makes sure all of the practical stuff gets taken care of, if necessary by delegating. And he is the one who, one week in advance, creates new subteams and decides which tasks they are assigned. Rotating the role means that everybody gets some experience leading the meetings, and that the logistical burden is evenly distributed. Also, it avoids arguments about unfair distributions of the workload, simply because everybody gets their chance at distributing them. It is also a great way to ensure that the ‘natural’ leaders among you do not end up running every meeting by default.

4. Share your ideas
The arithmetic of teamwork is really very simple. If you give your ideas to the team, people naturally respond by giving their own ideas in return. And if you build the habit of sharing your ideas in the team, each of you will enter the classroom armed with the ideas and insights of several people. We got this to work in our own team, and it was exhilarating. We had great team meetings, we learned a lot from each other, and we did well in the courses. We even developed the habit of supporting each other’s comments in class – “Building on Maria’s point with the customers, I think that it is also important to remember that (bla bla bla)“.

Sharing your insights with the team has another advantage: it is a great way to test them and see if they can fly. On occasion, you will come up with ideas that are not good – and believe me, it is a LOT better to make your silly comment in the team meeting than in the classroom, in front of the professor. Share, test, and share again.

5. Help your team members improve their weaknesses
Each person in the team will have different areas of strengths and weaknesses. If you are good at something, offer extra help to those who have trouble with it.

Patricia, one of my team members, had significant trouble with her class participation in the beginning; she simply wasn’t comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. Two of us, however, were practiced public speakers, so we set up a two-hour training session where we taught the whole team to improvise, make stronger statements, use their voices better, and generally get more comfortable speaking in public. (This last part was achieved by having each member sing an Italian opera solo at the top of their voice. Once you have done that in front of people, regular public speaking somehow loses its terror.) Patricia later got to return the favor by hosting a team review session in Finance, one of her strong areas.

6. Balance learning and performing
Say one of your cases for tomorrow is in Accounting. It is a singularly bad idea to just let the team’s accounting wizard handle it. You may get a good team grade out of it, but nobody really learns anything from it. On the other hand, leaving it to the team member who prior to the MBA used to make sculptures for a living can also lead to trouble.

A good way to address this natural conflict between learning and performing is to assign each case to a small subteam of two to three people (effective work groups of more than three people are rare). Make sure one of them is good at accounting, so the two other people can learn from him while they solve it together. Also, make sure to mix up the subteams on occasion, so that they don’t turn into permanent factions in the team. We changed the composition of the subteams each week, so that everybody got to work with everybody else. This is also a great way to share the burden if you have a ‘difficult’ member in your team.

7. Plan some personal feedback sessions
Frictions will arise in your team, sometimes becoming full-blown conflicts. Given the pressure and the mix of different styles and cultures, it is almost unavoidable. You can, however, use these conflicts as occasions to improve the team, and give and get valuable personal feedback.

In our team, we found that the best way to deal with these issues was to hold regular personal feedback meetings, where we would give each other both positive and negative feedback. Our first feedback meeting was held five weeks into the program, where some conflicts had begun to get personal. It became a turning point in our development, marking our first major step towards trusting each other and forming a great team.

Personal feedback sessions are by their very nature sensitive. If you do them wrongly, they will quickly degenerate into defensive shouting matches, worsening the problems they are supposed to alleviate. Make a team member prepare and run it, so this doesn’t happen. (At a later date, I will update this post to include a detailed guide on running feedback sessions.)

8. Do something stupid on occasion
It is amazing what a little bit of practical joking can do to make a tough week better. In one of the more stressful weeks, for instance, our team chairman brought fake moustaches for everybody to wear during our meeting, declaring it ‘National Gonzalo Day’ after one of our moustache-wielding professors. On another occasion, we gave each other cheerleader girl names like Heather and Betty Sue, apart from our team’s one woman, Patricia, who was dubbed Bob. (Two of my teammates wore their cheerleader name tags on their laptops for the rest of the term, confusing the occasional visiting lecturer who would mistake them for their real names.) It may sound corny to you, but believe me, silly stuff like this can make the hard times a lot more bearable.


Written by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

September 2, 2009 at 02:03

Posted in Uncategorized

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