How to succeed and thrive in MBA Teams

This post was originally published as a LinkedIn post on Oct 29th, 2016.  The original can be viewed here.


When I began my MBA, I knew I needed to hone my teamwork skills especially since I knew I would be in a demanding and performance driven environment requiring intense collaboration. However, a google search yielded advice that was either too generic, not practical, or not applicable in an environment typical of modern MBA programs.  

With one year left of a two year program, in collaboration with my colleague Philip Gingras, we decided to offer to new MBA students what we feel are essential skills to succeeding in an intensely competitive environment that also requires intense collaboration.

Social interaction, in a team setting, is imperfect, dynamic, and often conflicting. Here’s what we’ve learned from teamwork in a demanding high performance, results oriented team environment.

Chu’s Tip 1

In the teams I’ve lead or have been a member of, I’ve always tried to ensure a healthy discourse and exchange.  Even if it is only for 15min, the knowledge enrichment that adds to the collective wisdom consistently impresses me.

In most team environments, it’s important to be able to have, as my colleague Isaac Gould put it, “passionate discourse without the emotional attachments”.  Constructive dialogue and healthy debate adds to the collective knowledge base and expands everyone’s understanding of the issues, possible solutions, and its implications.  In fact, one of the main reasons of having a team in the first place is to intentionally expose yourself to alternative perspectives.  By making the unknown known, teams are better positioned to provide deeper analysis and richer solutions.

Spirited discussions only push our learning so that when we leave, we leave that much more prepared to make decisions.  Build on each other’s ideas.  Speak up, ask questions, disagree, and ensure your voice and ideas are heard.

Business education is not about finding the right answers, it’s about knowing what questions to ask”  - Prof Rohit Deshpande, Harvard Business School

Philips Tip 1

Business school arms you with the tools necessary to succeed in the modern, collaborative work force and a fundamental skill is the ability to work with others. However, sometimes when we collaborate, we lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve. We’ll endlessly debate who has done what, what still needs to be done and focus on timelines, deliverables and prospective results. We lose sight of the most fundamental aspect -- we lose sight of our goal. When working together, teams need to ask themselves about the goal: What are we being asked to do? What does our goal look like? Have any of us ever worked on a project like this?

Knowing that you have to submit a 5 page report with 20 appendices is insufficient if you cannot define the subject matter, objective, and scope of the project. Assigning tasks and dates before the team knows exactly what the project is and how to define the objective will lead to inevitable failure.  Here are my tips for success:

  • Take 15 minutes to read the assignment and see what the project is asking you to do;
  • Get group feedback on the objective and define it in one key sentence;
  • Define project parameters and understand what methodologies are best suited;
  • Finally, divide up the work according to strategy and set realistic timelines.

Group projects are often fraught with conflict and many students dislike working on collaborative projects. It’s often because teams don’t have buy-in from all members, many don’t feel that they agree or they feel like they are doing too much of the work. This is often a result of poor planning and execution and not a reflection on the talent or ability of your teammates.

Chu’s Tip 2

Just because you agree with someone’s idea doesn’t mean they are correct.  And just because you disagree with them doesn’t make them wrong -- they could in fact be right! Many high performance teams of expert talent often struggle with this.   As a result, these teams  often become mired into time consuming and unproductive debate as each member tries to prove that their ideas are correct and disprove everyone else’s.

In the real world, it’s not always possible to ensure uniformity of agreement or 100% consensus all the time, every time --  especially given the fast-past, high pressure nature of an MBA program.

Agree despite your misgivings and place your trust in the collective  experience, expertise, and wisdom of the team.  Even if you believe that your viewpoint is the best, still listen - because the other person’s viewpoint just might change your view of the problem.  

Philips Tip 2

Everyone is a collection of unique experiences, knowledge and backgrounds that can contribute to a project in surprising ways. There is a tendency to divide up the work based on someone’s natural abilities and experience -- people adept at finance tackle the finance question while the marketing and sales professionals do the pitch and presentation. While it’s tempting to play to our abilities, it doesn’t contribute to our learning. We remain firmly ensconced in our bubble and it fails to challenge what we know and lead to new experiences.

I spent years in marketing and sales where I have done everything from cold-calling prospective clients to leading pitches to C-Suite executives. So, if a project requires a pitch, why would I do that? I already know how to do that. I should challenge myself and challenge my teammates to get out of our comfort zones. We should be tackling aspects of our project and assignments that challenge us. We are here to learn and develop our business skills, this is the time to learn, to make mistakes and to practice.

If I am on a team, I always volunteer to champion a presenter, offering them assistance with building their pitch, perfecting their posture, hand gestures and cadence. I will be there to make them feel comfortable speaking in front of a group and we’ll practice together until they feel ready. I can contribute what I know to my team by helping someone else learn a new skill. Moreover, when I am doing a cash-flow statement or analyzing consolidated financials, I get the advice and assistance of accounting and finance professionals from our team. Their wisdom is what helps me learn and perfect new skills. Challenging ourselves on team projects is what we should be doing. We shouldn’t be afraid to fall down now and again and we should not be afraid to ask for help.



Yuting Chu is a management professional with several years of leadership experience in change management/organizational development and in the Canadian Forces.  He is now specializing in healthcare strategy and operations at the Schulich School of Business.  He currently lives in Toronto, Canada and has lived in Vancouver, Halifax, Nunavut, and India.  

Phillip Gingras is a marketing and sales professional with over six years of leading revenue generating projects and effective business strategies for clients entering the global marketplace. He is specializing in strategy and marketing at the Schulich School of Business. He lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife, son, and cat.