Tag: team building

A high-performing team is the holy grail of leadership. But how do you build a strong team in practice? The beauty of Olin’s Executive MBA program is the abundance of opportunities to learn, apply, and practice team-building skills.

Executive MBA alumni Eric Willis and Ali Ahmadi, EMBA Academic Director Lee Konczak, and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Andrew Knight summarize some of the more salient lessons about team-building from the Executive MBA program and their professional lives:

A Shared Purpose

As part of the Leadership Residency, Lee Konczak, academic director of the Executive MBA Program and senior lecturer on organizational behavior and leadership development, administers a team development survey to measure how well the student teams function.

The assessment is Olin’s way “of defining for EMBA teams what a good team looks like,” Konczak said. “Teams do better when they have shared goals, plan ahead, and communicate. In some cases, it’s obvious when teams aren’t on the same page using this assessment.”

According to Konczak, commitment to a shared purpose and a willingness to plan are the two most important team-building takeaways for executives in the program.

Diversity of Perspectives and Experience

Eric Willis, EMBA 43, was a senior brand manager when he started the EMBA Program. He was promoted to a brand director during the program and is now director of marketing at Nestlé Purina Petcare. For him, the team-building aspect of the Executive MBA Program was an opportunity to practice skills he’d learned at Nestlé with a completely different and diverse group of professionals.

“One of the things I loved most about the EMBA program was that it was such a diverse group of people with different points of view and different backgrounds, all coming together in one place,” Willis said. “On your team, you’ve got to figure out how to leverage everyone’s strengths to achieve a common goal.”

At Nestlé Purina, Willis regularly brings groups of disparate team members together, including finance and product development participants, to agree on mission and vision. Some of the challenges include developing trust, addressing different sets of values, and communication.

“To me, building a strong team means getting diversity of thought. It means respecting people’s different points of view,” he said. “When I think of building a strong team, I think of empowering people to make decisions, and I think of leveraging what everybody brings to the table and trying to find a way to use everybody’s different perspectives to reach a common goal.”

An Environment of Trust and Respect

Entrepreneurship is an area in which building strong teams—and building them early—is critical. As an EMBA student, Ali Ahmadi, EMBA 44, leapt fully into entrepenreurship, co-founding drone 3D software startup “Strayos” (formerly AirZaar), with a fellow student. He knows firsthand how important it is that teams work well when the stakes are high and the rewards are not guaranteed.

“Early stage founders often don’t realize that the idea or product is not the only factor motivating the talent; it’s also the willingness to follow their leader into an environment where the odds are stacked against them in succeeding,” he says. “When you build a team that trusts and respects you as a leader, they will go through a wall of fire to reach the common goal but if the trust and respect are neglected, then very little can be done to salvage it,” he says.

Be Open to Feedback

Andrew Knight, associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin, finds that one of the biggest roadblocks for entrepreneurs is cultivating and developing a sense of shared ownership—“not in an equity sense,” Knight said, “but in terms of the feeling of ownership that the team members have over the venture. There is kind of an asymmetry in people’s investment in the project at the outset.”

Knight suggests leaders invite input from those joining the team, while at the same time creating boundaries: “Encourage new team members to make contributions and suggest changes to the venture, but pair that with clearly communicating where the entrepreneur is less willing to make changes.”

This clarity—inviting input within a mutually understood structure—“applies in almost any creative team where there is a need to get people feeling ownership—especially implementation and innovation,” Knight said.

The importance of this delicate balance is supported by recent research by Knight and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Markus Baer, who identified three behaviors of successful lead entrepeneurs in the earliest stages of a venture.

Who are you ? What key traits define your character?

Are you a leader? Do you value integrity? Are you an idea generating machine? Or are you an executor? Do you respect other’s ideas and work methods?  How do you handle politics?

The Olin program accelerates the discovery of answers to questions like the above.

We are set in a group, starting out as strangers, and we must work with these people for at least a year. It’s similar to the majority of work places. It’s rare when we get to pick every person on our team. Naturally, everyone has their own background, their own method of solving problems, their own way to manage projects. Some people are predisposed to work better together than others. Background, experience, and personality all factor into how this plays out.

dinnerLuckily I’ve had the fantastic fortune of being placed on a team of brilliant individuals, who all can play as a team. We work hard, we get the work done, but we make sure we are enjoying ourselves and building the team and our relationships along the way. We have fun.

In my opinion it has everything to do with the team members’ character traits. We trust each other. We work together to manage the work load. We understand when members have other conflicts and cover for one another.  We also keep it light-hearted. There is no need to kill ourselves here.

Not every team or individual will have this experience though. So, when conflict arises, how will you handle it? Will you avoid it? Will you try to go behind the person’s back? Or will you confront the challenge head on? It’s easy when times are good, but what about the tough times? How will you lead as an individual to get the most out of this experience for yourself and for your team? The habits developed in this program are likely to be how we behave in the workplace.

Again, this environment allows us to experiment with how we want to lead and work in a team. The opportunities to deal with conflict, to let your leadership shine through, to understand others and ourselves better all exist throughout the program.

The picture of who we are, how we work, what our values are and how we deal with others naturally illuminates over the course of the program.


Members of Olin’s Executive MBA team shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience when we visited the New Future mining operation in Galatia, Illinois, approximately 130 miles from St. Louis. The mine is one of thirteen active mines operated by Murray Energy Corporation, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States, producing approximately sixty-five million tons of high quality bituminous coal each year, and employing over 7,500 people in six states.

Current Executive MBA student, Carson Pollastro, manages mining operations for the New Future mine and welcomed the EMBA team to the New Future mine for a day that most everyone described as one of the most thrilling experiences of their lives. The New Future mine and its neighbor the New Era mine make up the American Coal Company in the Illinois Basin and have been under the ownership of Murray Energy Corporation since 1998.

After going through two training sessions and getting outfitted in mining gear, we were ushered into an elevator and descended 500 feet underground. Once underground, we loaded into mining vehicles and drove six miles to experience the operations of a longwall mining system and a continuous mining operation.

Thanks to Executive MBA student Carson Pollastro and the members of the American Coal Company for their gracious welcome and a day that will never be forgotten!









Before the start of classes, new Specialized Masters Program (SMP), students spent a hot summer day bonding at Shaw Park in Clayton.  Students completed a series of team building exercises led by TEAM Works, a group that specializes in team building exercises.

Photo credit: Rachelle Potter

Photo credit: Rachelle Potter

Their role was to assist the SMP students in building a greater level of cohesiveness and community. The team building exercises were a powerful way to unite our diverse group of students and kick off the school year.

The SMP staff was delighted to see the students bonding and having fun at the same time.

It was certainly a Kodak moment with all of the red t-shirts in Shaw Park that day. As John C. Maxwell put it, “Teamwork makes the Dream work!”