Prepare to be a Team Player in Business School

US News

In preschool, students learn the basics of how to work well with others. In business school, this lesson becomes a mantra for MBA candidates.

Team assignments are an integral part of the curriculum for many MBA programs. Several schools, such as West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics and the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California, assign students to teams at the start of their first semester and require them to work together in multiple classes. Other schools have students shift between different teams, depending on the course or semester.

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Learning to work in small groups, which often range from two to six people, can pay off when it's time to look for a job, experts say.

"We know that simulates what they're going to be doing in the work environment," says Karen Russo Donovan, the associate dean for academic affairs at WVU's College of Business and Economics. Employers want students who know how to be team players, she says.

After graduation, students may find themselves in a work environment that requires a group effort to achieve common goals, says Paula Caproni, who teaches about creating high-performing teams to MBAs at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan--Ann Arbor.

Figuring out how to launch a product in a new market is just one example, she says. Or, MBAs working at a hospital might have to design a strategy to reduce the cost of services while also improving the quality.

"Many problems are far too complex for any one person to resolve. They need to learn how to depend on others," she says.

If students are used to working on assignments solo, knowing how to be a good team player may not be intuitive. To perform well in a group, business school experts suggest students use several strategies.

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The first one is often figuring out who does what, when and how. Once a team is formed, it's important for all members to agree on objectives and how they'll be achieved, experts say. Laying out the ground rules early can establish a structure.

At the University of Miami, MBA students are sometimes put in groups to act as consultants and work as a team, says Gene Anderson, dean of the School of Business Administration. One of the first things they're asked to do is put together a charter, which lays out ground rules and roles.

"Who's going to act as the team leader. Who's going to be the scribe. Who's going to be the communications liaison to people outside the team," he says.

A team should also establish processes. "How often the team will meet, how long those meetings might be, what kind of records will be kept," says Anderson.

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These discussions, and future team meetings, can go especially well if students know how to listen.

What a student says sometimes isn't as important as what they are hearing, says Gregory Patton, who teaches communication skills at Marshall. Listening is a critical skill for being a team player.

Students in groups should be learning from their teammates, he says. They might have a solution for a team problem, but their team member might have a better one.

"We say listening to understand versus listening to argue," he says. If students understand a group member's good ideas and perspectives, it can advance their own thinking. They can integrate the teammate's ideas with their own to come out with better solutions.

Prospective business students can practice their listening skills before classes begin, Patton says, when they meet someone new.

"Ask them three follow-up questions to learn about them. Don't interrupt. Don't focus on yourself," he says.

Doing so will create a deeper relationship, he says. "You'll also learn more."

Employing strong communication tactics can help students mesh well with their classmates, but they should also be aware of how individual behavior affects the group. Student teams often work on projects for real clients. It's important for a student to be nimble if a project's goals change, says Anderson.

For example, he says, a project's initial goals may require students to figure out how to bring a product to market. Later, the project's sponsor may say the student team should instead work on how the company can be sold to the highest bidder.

"In most projects, things change and you learn things as you go along and you've got to adapt, whether it's with the time you're going to put into things, or what your role is," Anderson says.

One of the best ways prospective MBA students can prepare for student team projects is to do group or team-based assignments at work or while volunteering, experts say.

But it's key that they learn from the experience, says Michigan's Caproni.

"While you're on those teams, be very mindful of your own behavior in that team, of what you want to learn, of how you personally are helping and hurting the team," she says. "Learn as much as you can about team dynamics."

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