Tag: team performance

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.

Laura Tellman, EMBA 43

Laura Tellmann, EMBA 43

Laura Tellmann, Executive MBA 43, was born in Missouri and was the first in her family to go to college. “My first day of the Introduction to Computers class was the first time I ever touched a computer,” Laura said.  Although a counselor in high school had encouraged her to study math and science based on a skills assessment, Laura still said it was by “sheer luck” she ended up a Computer Science major. “I love it,” she said.

After graduating from Missouri State University in three years, Laura went to work at Emerson Electric Company in the Government and Space Division where she provided Information Technology support for the group that created missile guidance systems. “I got progressively more challenging assignments, and a wealth of experience. After awhile I wasn’t comfortable making bombs.” Laura left Emerson after 6 years to work at Washington University Medical School, and has been there in some capacity every since.

Now, in her dual roles as Director of Healthcare Informatics at Washington University School of Medicine, and Director of Clinical Informatics at BJC Healthcare, Laura develops and supports enterprise clinical decision support, data management and electronic clinical quality measurement. Most recently she officiates the enterprise data governance program.

Laura had three main goals when she decided to enroll in the Executive MBA Program at Washington University. At the beginning of the program she said,  “I want to become more knowledgeable about business in general, gain confidence, and take advantage of the huge networking opportunity the program presents.” She had already begun working out of her comfort zone, expressing interest in and being selected for speaking engagements at various conferences.

Reflecting on the EMBA program, Laura said she got what she hoped for and more. “I did get the fundamentals of business that I was lacking. It was a good introduction. I got the skills and confidence I needed to sit at the table with the executives where previously I didn’t think I belonged. What’s changed the most is how I operate in general. I understand more and I aspire to  more. Before the MBA I never would have wanted to run a very large group. Now I am ready to do exactly that.”

Laura took advantage of the career development staff of the EMBA program who are available for additional assistance if a student requests it. She said that both Frans VanOudenallen and Lee Konzak assisted her with gaining additional insights. “Frans told me that there is no way I could not brag. That unless I feel like I’m bragging, I’m not selling myself.”  They also helped with framing conversations she wanted to have with management regarding her salary and role.

In addition to what she had hoped for, Laura said the encouragement from her teammates took her even farther. “They never let me step back, they always pushed me forward. When I faltered, I couldn’t falter for very long. My team wouldn’t let me.”

Image: Laura Tellmann, second from left, on the Great Wall of China with fellow EMBA 43 classmates, March 2015

Professor Andrew Knight explained to business professionals, fellow faculty, and guests at the recent Olin Award luncheon what drives interpersonal influence in teams and connects patterns of influence to team performance. His latest research finds that individuals in teams defer to others based on specific attributes, either affinity based or task/skill based. The research concludes that the make-up of the team and patterns of deference determine the level of team performance and productivity.

Dr. Andrew Knight presents winning paper

Dr. Andrew Knight presents winning paper

Knight presented findings from his paper, “Who Defers to Whom and Why? Dual Pathways Linking Demographic Differences and Dyadic Deference to Team Effectiveness”. He is a co-winner of the 2015 Olin Award for this work that was co-authored with Aparna Joshi at the Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University.

The Olin Award, was created by Dick Mahoney, former CEO of Monsanto, in 2007. The competition encourages and rewards research generated by faculty of the Olin Business School that has the greatest potential to enhance business results. This year we received 20 submissions from Olin faculty members. For the first time, the judging resulted in a tie with Knight and Professor Anne Marie Knott as honorees.

Watch video of Prof. Knight talking about his research.