When you come to the MIT Executive MBA, you hear that it is transformational. This sounds great because, after all, we are all here to transform our leadership skills and make a bigger impact in our jobs, at home, and in society. We want to learn how to manage new situations and break out of our comfort zones. We want to challenge ourselves to grow and be able to solve important problems.
But how exactly does this work? How do students learn to lead and affect change?
I took on a new leadership role a few months prior to graduation, which gave me an opportunity to reflect on those questions. Here are a few ways that the program helped (and is continuing to help) transform me into a better leader.
A more holistic perspective
As an engineering manager, I knew how to manage engineers. But my new role as head of business transformation required a much broader understanding of the organization and the people in the organization. I needed different tools and perspectives. This new mindset is one of the most important ways that the MIT EMBA program transforms students into better leaders.
We learn how to put ourselves in others’ shoes – to think about how they will view an action or the result of a decision. It is easy to convince yourself that you are right, but you have to consider how others will perceive something in order to really lead change.
This means asking critical questions and actively listening to the answers. Instead of presenting your opinions, frame them as questions. For example, rather than saying “I want to do X,” ask “What do you think of doing X?” Then, listen to the feedback.
As you gather feedback and consider solutions, try to view your actions through strategic, cultural, and political lenses. A strategic lens involves planning and strategy. A political lens means how others view your actions and how those actions may impact their power in the organization for better or worse. And a cultural lens focuses on how an action will be received culturally in the organization.
Another framework to analyze problems is called System Dynamics, which was created at MIT. This is a way to look at organizations as a system in which all parts are connected. An action in one part of the system will have consequences on other parts, whether you intended them or not. Leaders need to think about how their decisions will cascade in positive and negative ways. For example, if you want to automate a part of your system, think about how that will impact the employees who previously did that work. Can you engage them in other ways in the organization?
As you use all of these lenses and frameworks, do not lose sight of the data. Try to quantify and measure your actions to see if they are making a positive difference. Data can help leaders make better decisions. So, when you make a change, the first question should be: How do you know if the change worked?
This program gives students the confidence to lead in all types of situations. This starts right away in classes, where the faculty and diverse cohort challenge your assumptions. When you talk about a case or current example, students share their real-world experience and perspectives. Before you know it, you start to question your own assumptions and start to see the world differently. This gives you confidence that you will not have tunnel vision as a leader.
Students also get plenty of opportunities to speak in front of diverse audiences. At fireside chats, students are invited to share their stories and experiences, both personal and professional. When it was my turn, I was nervous, but I saw the value in sharing my history with classmates. The confidence to open up helps us connect with others, which is an important part of leadership.
Of course, transforming into a better leader does not stop after graduation. We do not just get an MBA and magically we are set for life. We need to work to avoid slipping back into our old and comfortable ways. The growth mindset that leadership is a learned and practiced skill and not something that you are born with is taught from the beginning in the EMBA program.
This means constantly asking yourself: How am I making a bigger impact? How am I maintaining a growth mindset? How can I keep learning and improving, even when I am not on campus?
I often remind myself to go back to the basics. I think about the strategic, cultural, and political lenses and use Systems Dynamics thinking for problems. I go back and reread materials from class and share key articles with my colleagues. And I follow new research coming out of MIT.
I also call my classmates to help think through issues and get their insights. These are not “yes” people. They do not report to me. During 20 months at MIT, I built close relationships with classmates who continue to challenge me with honest feedback. They create a unique sounding board that is immensely valuable.
Perhaps the best way to avoid backslide is going back to MIT. Each year, alumni are invited to Executive Electives to audit classes. This is a great way to meet new people and catch up with old friends. It helps to get a refresh on management topics as well as strengthen your network
Through a holistic perspective, confidence, and a supportive network, I am equipped to continue transforming as a leader throughout the rest of my career.
Dennis Burianek, PhD, EMBA '18, is Head of Business Transformation at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, MA.