Business School Adventures, Part 2: Leadership Reflections

[GET MY WRITING IN YOUR MAILBOX HERE]

Greetings!

In Part 1, I wrote about the motivations my classmates and I had for attending business school.

Today I want to share some reflections about leadership that we experienced in our team-building exercises.

I am enrolled in the Global EMBA program at CEIBS (China Europe International Business School). One key experience of the program is the opening Leadership module that kickstarted our journey. For me, this was exactly one year ago.

We conducted team-building events involving rowing, challenges, and other competitive pursuits:

In October 2021, we participated in a “second round” of team-building, via what is called the Midterm Leadership Module. This serves as an official halfway point through our Global EMBA journey.

Here are some reflections from our second team-building session, which involved a number of new leadership/teamwork simulations.

Out of fairness to the school, I am not able to disclose the exact activities. But the specifics are not as important as the takeaways, anyways.

I hope you enjoy the read 🙂

The Midterm Leadership Module was insightful and built upon the foundation of what we experienced, as a team, in the opening Leadership Module. Back in November 2020, our team had worked well together. From a results perspective, we finished in first place in the rowing challenge. One of the things that contributed to our past success was experiencing the full range of collaboration – from “fake harmony” to open conflict to reconciliation to high-performance culture – over the span of one week. We genuinely became friends and had several social gatherings over the past year.

In the past module, the actionable takeaways for me, after discussion with the team and coach David, were to: (1) contribute more to the team, even when it went outside my comfort zone; (2) be more expressive and positive in a team environment. Over self-reflection and follow-up discussions with our coach, I set the plan in motion and applied it to my own work situations.

Fast-forward to this module. The insights this time were variations of what I had learned/experienced last year. One big insight was that in time-sensitive, urgent team situations, I lacked transparent reasoning. My comfort zone, as with almost everyone else’s, is making high quality decisions and being inclusive in regular, non-time-sensitive situation. As the coach remarked, I was also one of the few people who asked others “what do you think?” when I felt that they were quiet in discussions. My strength is in consulting with others and leveraging a multitude of opinions to make high-quality decisions.

Specifically, there was a critical decision that we had to make during the simulation. We had agreed upon a voting system in case we could not reach decision consensus and time was running out. I had heard the opinions on why we should pursue option A versus option B; I felt that both decisions had merit. When it was time for me to cast my vote, I was indecisive. I asked everyone else to vote first, so that I could see what others thought. My rationale was to gather more information. Most critically, I wanted to see how one of my team members would vote, because I had developed an internal heuristic that they were aligned to my values and were correct more often than not.

As I voted last – and the vote was a tie-breaking vote – it created the possible perception that (a) I stalled my vote; (b) I did not want to make a choice, period. I spoke to my teammates after the event. While they did not have these perceptions, I realized that the risk was there. This approach could lead to future misunderstandings. What I will apply going forward is being more transparent with how I make decisions. For example, I could verbalize the following: “I think option B is better because X. I want to vote for B after hearing what team member S has to say, because I have found myself agreeing with S in the past. This allows me to make a higher-quality decision.”

Another insight is to be mindful of how I am inclusive towards the team, especially taking into account possible blind spots and biases. A big part of this self-discovery stemmed from the FIRO-B assessment. I had believed myself to be an inclusive person. The test demonstrated, however, that I had low scores in that area. On reflection, I saw that within my leadership team, I still applied a level of bias to inclusion – I subconsciously excluded some team members and included others, based on past judgement and experience. So it is important to be aware of my own self-selection, and to never be comfortable with thinking that I had reached an adequate level of inclusion. There is always room to grow.

It also led me to question my authenticity in leadership – was I really inclusive, or was I applying inclusion techniques in a team setting because I felt it was the “right thing to do” as a leader/manager? While there is no perfect way to answer this question, the takeaway is to continue to self-introspect, ask for peer feedback on performance, and continue reminding myself that the world does not center around me. I am not the center and others are not expected to think and behave as I do – and drawing on different opinions is important. As leaders, we should strive to do that all the time.

Fortunately, I had a conversation with our other coach – coach Ping – after this sharing. She mentioned that despite interacting with me for just a few days – she did not attend the December module – she could tell that I was self-critical. On the positive side, self-criticism leads to moments of self-awareness and clarity. On the negative side, it leads me to second-guess myself. Therefore, it’s important to put things into perspective – we can all improve, but we cannot be devastatingly hard on ourselves. I had believed myself to be a mediocre manager in the past; perhaps now is the time to lean into being myself, being authentic, and to stop doubting my own abilities, so long as I stay true to my values.

Another core insight, obtained from the whole GEMBA20 cohort: we tend to be much worse at evaluating why we are successful, compared to evaluating why we are not successful. This was apparent to me after hearing the other ten group presentations – the high-performance teams did not adequately explain how they did it. In fact, it was nearly impossible to tell which teams performed better than others based purely on their presentations. One Occam’s Razor explanation for this is that nobody wants to come off, in the GEMBA course, as sounding arrogant or overly self-confident. But it is also likely that we cannot say for certain what allowed us to succeed. Saying what didn’t work is easy, because there are far more ways to destroy a situation than there is to build it.

This experience made me reflect on the role of luck in contributing to success. In fact, I had some offline discussions with the “winning” team members of other groups in private, and they also attributed luck to the result. The reality is that the world is so competitive, and we as business leaders already know the “best practices” of nearly everything. All things being equal, luck becomes a tiebreaker.

It’s also a useful reminder that trusting the process, and being content with the process, is just as important as celebrating the outcome. Our team was fully satisfied with the framework in which we made decisions. We thought about the big picture (“what is our goal?”), the strategy (management vs. leadership), and the way we made decisions (autocratic vs. democratic). We had the shared trust to step back or push forward in key situations. We transcended fake harmony into a shared mutual understanding of what works based on the unique composition of our team. To say we were harmonious was underselling our culture, because we did not shy away from conflict when the situation called for it.

Furthermore, our team was incredibly cohesive – we were the only team to reframe the goal as we saw fit. For example, despite the creator of the simulation saying that we needed to have a 70% completion rate in the final round [game rules], our team was content with having 30% – on the condition that [we met another game criteria]. We discussed the arbitrary and subjective nature of the simulation – how the interpretation of how action X would move the needle – is reflective of the creator’s bias and not necessarily our belief system. The learning is that we should not be discouraged by one setback, and overhaul how we do things, until there is a clear definitive pattern that this approach is wrong.

We were happy together as a team before the result was announced. After the result was announced, we were…not as happy. But what made it clear to me, after discussing the approach taken by other teams, was that we put ourselves in a great position to succeed. And it was just as important to us that we enjoyed working with each other in future scenarios than it was to “win” in this one scenario.

The post-results discussion illuminated the fact that certain team members adapted their competitive nature to “fit in” with the working style of the group. They were content to do this so long as the result was achieved. This became an issue. For some of us, the working style was natural for us. For others, it is still acceptable or tolerable but they mentally and emotionally made a bigger concession to made it work. The takeaway here is to build that into inclusive thinking and actions – be mindful of how others may see the situation totally differently and be empathetic to their needs during and after a challenge.

Overall, the mid-term module confirmed some of my existing beliefs and highlighted some new areas to work on. The coaches – David and Ping – were excellent at facilitating and challenging us to move outside of our comfort zones to experience learning. As our group was quite comfortable together, we needed to push ourselves and strategically experiment to obtain valuable learning. Pushing ourselves to be deliberately uncomfortable is a possible area to work on for future team situations, both at GEMBA and outside it.

Thanks for reading! I hope this gives you a glimpse into the invaluable learning that we obtained in the Global EMBA program.

Peace,

James

[GET MY WRITING IN YOUR MAILBOX HERE]

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2 Comments

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  1. Thanks for sharing your learnings James, I got a lot out of it!

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