Leading through teams: Which MBA will build your collaborative skills?

Leading through teams: Which MBA will build your collaborative skills?

What comes to mind when you think of leadership? Are you at the head of the table, delegating tasks left and right, spearheading the vision and direction of the company? In reality, leadership is not exclusively about giving orders – it’s about fostering teamwork that is effective and innovative. There are no leaders without teams.

In many ways, MBA classrooms mimic the work of organizations to be able to teach students what it means to lead a team well. There are group projects, leadership exercises, and team-building opportunities designed to polish the way participants approach teamwork. Some programs and cultures will organically focus more on this aspect of leadership than others, but in general, teamwork is an integral part of most curricula.

What is good team management?

Research published by Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that leadership often works best when it’s well-balanced. For example, leaders and teams that get stuck in “exercise authority” mode (in which the leader holds tightly on to power) “don’t generate the innovative, creative thinking that is the lifeblood of companies”. Part of the manager’s job is to inspire employees to come up with new ideas and suggestions that can improve how the organization works. To be able to do this, leaders need credibility and trust - and those can be easily lost with leadership that is too authoritative.

Stripping yourself of responsibility and sharing too much power as a leader will inevitably lead to problems as well. Leaders who fail to demonstrate the decision-making and discipline necessary within a team often undermine its performance, according to HBR. In that sense, leadership is part of a two-way street, says author Adam Bryant for The New York Times. You need to trust and respect your team, but you also need to hold them accountable for their work within that team.

If you’re thinking “easier said than done”, you would be right, of course. Many of these team skills may not come naturally to every professional on the way to a leadership position. This is why business schools are dedicated to using different mechanisms to help aspiring leaders get proficient in all forms of collaboration and communication.

How do MBA programs teach teamwork?

Group projects are an important part of every higher education degree, and an MBA is no exception. Yet there are hundreds of ways to approach group work in business school. For example, Queen’s University Smith School of Business (Canada) have paid special attention to the importance of the study environment and how it can boost learning and collaboration. Team-based learning has been at the center of this full-time MBA for a long time as each year students form diverse teams of six to seven people. In 2018, the Canadian business school initiated a complete redesign of the rooms and offices where teams convene “to make each room more like the boardrooms that are found in highly collaborative workplaces”.

We know that there is a lot of power in working together and we wanted to ensure the environment the students were in reflected that,” says Diana Drury, Director of Business Coaching at Smith.

Unimy’s tool for calculating cultural fit provides another interesting layer to the discussion on teamwork and collaboration at school. One of the dimensions used to paint a fuller picture of an institution’s culture has to do with the degree of collective accomplishment vs. personal contribution. Neither end of this spectrum is “good” or “bad”; there is value both in enhancing collaboration and in recognizing individual achievements. Yet it’s insightful to see that Queen’s University Smith School of Business is one of the institutions with the highest level of collective accomplishment globally (2nd in the world for collective accomplishment).

A way to gauge school values

For many universities, teamwork is not just a teaching method, but a core pillar of the institution. In those cases, it will impact all processes building your MBA journey, including MBA admission.

When approaching your application and admissions interview, be prepared to share experiences where you have led a team or worked with a group that struggled to work well together or reach consensus,” highlights Cornell Johnson’s Chelsea Hann in an interview for Unimy. “Through these diverse and often times challenging team experiences, our students learn about their own team skills and the role that they typically play on a diverse team, and the individual strengths they bring to the group.

Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management (US) is another North American school that scores higher on collective accomplishment than personal contribution (8th in the world for collective accomplishment). Chelsea Hann is associate director of admissions at the school and she says it’s the class size and location of the Cornell MBA that makes their community so collaborative. She adds that the school takes great care to select students who will thrive in this type of environment.

And it’s not just North American schools that put teamwork front and center. Alliance Manchester Business School (UK), IESE Business School (Spain), ESSEC Business School (France), and Cranfield School of Management (UK) also score highly on Unimy’s Cultural Fit index in terms of collective accomplishment.

Studying in the same cohort with high-level professionals who are accustomed to being leaders further boosts your collaborative and leadership skills, says Mat Barrow, 2020 MBA graduate from Alliance Manchester Business School.

The requirement for a greater degree of humility, listening and reflection has evolved my general leadership style,” he highlights.

If you want to explore your leadership style and reflect on what you need to learn through an MBA, use the MBA Cultural Fit to discover schools that fit with your values and orientation. 


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