Oksana Chikina, who hails from Uzbekistan, is an international development professional on a leave of absence from Population Services International (PSI), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. Having spent the past 12 years living and working in 10 countries on four continents, she is spending a year as an international student attending the executive MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. This is her fourth post in a series.
As I mentioned in my previous post, almost half of the learning in the Rotman School of Management’s EMBA program happens through team projects. This is true for most business programs around the world. But the difference with an EMBA is that most of the executive students have years of technical and managerial experience and go back to their daily jobs after class.
This brings entirely different dynamics into course-learning and teamwork. Imagine spending six to nine hours a week in the company of five individuals who live in different parts of the country and work in completely different industries. That means there are up to six personality types and sets of expectations, coming together to work on well-defined tasks, influencing 50 per cent of each other’s grades. Like any relationship, this can either turn into a great success or become quite a painful experience. Either way, it is bound to result in profound transformations.
What happens when you are assigned to lead a team? You could use your “proven leadership style” and jump right in. What if you are not in charge or are not even a key influencer any more? What if you are an equal member in a company of five other type-A individuals with their own ambitions, experiences and communication styles? Well, in my case, I went through a temporary shock and developed a new style.
Our first briefing at the beginning of the term mentioned that all teams go through a few storming and forming stages before they start to perform. Lucky for us, my team did not spend a lot of time storming, but I still remember trying to keep up with discussions, while mentally flipping through the communication techniques that worked well for me in the past. This, like active listening skills and the “advantages” of being an introvert, did not work. My wisdom for future students (especially the introverted ones): Be prepared to put your ideas forward and get on with the discussion. Analysis and feedback will be useful later, but sometimes discussions are shaped and influenced by participation and voicing your views (they might be wrong, but still move the discussion forward).
Some of my Rotman teammates are not based in Toronto, while others have to travel. While this was a challenge, it resulted in yet another level of learning for many of us. As face-to-face meetings were not an option, we used Google Hangout. Within a few days our team was set up on Asana, the online project management site. I kept on thinking that introducing even these simple technologies could have increased the efficiency of many of my previous projects.
We spent many evenings discussing pricing models and marketing strategies, financial calculations and accounting equations, vacation plans and career transitions, children and major family events. Yes, you end up developing rather strong connections while solving mandatory course cases and there is a great value in that, as well.
Ironically, many breakthroughs came to our team past 10 p.m., after a round of jokes and laughter when we all agreed that it was time to sign off.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the highlights of the term were the projects requiring the application of theoretical frameworks on the actual companies managed by my teammates. There is a significant difference between learning the applications on well-known Harvard Business Review cases on Coke and Pepsi, for example, versus spending time understanding, asking and answering hard questions about the unique companies managed by one of us. There is a lot to be said about the excitement of finding the answers that have not been discussed or published online and are happening in real time. Having been through this process, we will all remember the frameworks quite well, even though the answers were not always entirely correct.
My time with my first team has just come to an end and, reflecting back on the past three months, I am very sad facing the reality of having to change teams. I have developed a new teamwork and leadership style, went far beyond my traditional comfort zone, discovered different communication technologies, learned about intricacies of businesses I would never think about, and, most importantly, made good friends. I really hope the remaining nine months of the program will be able to continue providing me with such amazing learning and transformational opportunities.