Best MBA lesson learned - Don’t be a team player, be a leader

I graduated with an MBA in 2012. Looking back, the most meaningful lesson I learned was the one I learned outside of the classroom.

Peculiar Organizational Behavior in class exercise

During the MBA, all paperwork was due in groups of 4-6 students and counted for a big part of the grade. Each semester, we were divided into groups. It was a 6 weeks mini-semester with a total of 9 mini-semesters for the degree, so there were plenty of group permutations to be formed. For the first two semesters, the MBA administration would pick the groups at random, and for the rest, we could pick our own team. This was nice since I got to know a lot of students from classes I wouldn’t normally pick or get to work with. It was also sometimes really hard since some combinations were really tough to handle.

By the fourth semester I got really frustrated. Each paper took an unproportional amount of time and usually involved debates into the night for each paragraph, decision and minor detail. Not to mention the grades my team got usually weren’t that good (in retrospect this seems so meaningless). I was working in parallel to school at the time and this inefficiency just drove me crazy.

Another one of these nights

By the sixth semester I felt I was on top of everything. I evolved from being a team player to the one directing the group on the right path. During the first week of each course, I would pick my winning team and then go about to bring everyone together. By the second class in each course there was always this phenomenon that students wanted to join our team and sometimes other teammates wanted to let their friends in. After I experienced that a few times, I always voted against it. These students were always the ones to be late and not care much about the coursework. I became the bad guy that always said ‘no’. For each course, after the work was given, I would always decide which strategy I think should be taken and what was my stand. I got the team to agree that everyone should come prepared for the first team meeting and never left without a decision for the general direction. After this team meeting I would write the headlines for the entire paper, set the timeline and divide the work between the teammates, with a nice email to sum it all up. I always made sure I’ll pick the hardest parts for myself so no one will complain I took charge over it.

Continental factory tour, China field trip - Some remained my friends.

Me setting the tone had some effects. One was that everything was due on time, with extreme efficiency and my team always got great grades. The second was that I wasn’t that liked any more. I was used to being that guy that everyone liked. Sure, I would still have my friends from class, but in each team I could feel some resentment from one teammate or another.

Another lesson I learned is that for most people, it was very easy to follow these patterns. After I set the structure and sent the headlines, rarely people said they think differently. Sure, people argued about the order of the headlines, pushed some things on the timetable by a day or two but usually not much more than that. I learned to truly appreciate those who questioned the entire structure of what I set up. They would argue and give their take on what should be done. In those cases I was just happy that I got things rolling. Today, after graduating, I still respect the most those who have this special trait.

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