Testing Your Parachute: Reflections on Teamwork in Business School

Ask students in top MBA programs across the country and they’ll tell you there’s no shortage of teamwork in business school. Working on teams for courses is so common that it should cease to be a selling point for any given institution. And it’s with good reason that MBA programs, despite their diverse requirements and teaching styles, unilaterally emphasize teamwork—no great business is built alone. Adapting the words of my favorite author, I most admire the leaders who “jump off the cliff and build their wings on the way down,” and somehow manage to get others to go jump off that cliff with them. Whether jumping out of a plane or into a new market, the best leaders are those who can appreciate the value of teams and leverage their power.

Though almost every business school program has a teamwork component in its curriculum, one of the things that attracted me most to MIT Sloan was the focus on group projects from the very first semester. You’re assigned into a core team of 6 or 7 and have problem sets and reports you hand in with all your names on it. The biggest test during the fall semester of first year for many core teams is a research project for the Organizational Processes (OP) class notoriously due the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

Speaking from my own experience, last year the Pacific Petrels were generally “on top of it” throughout the semester: we were organized and fairly timely when it came to researching and conducting interviews at the lunch delivery company we had selected for the OP project. Still, for half of our team, more time was spent writing about the organizational politics of delivering turkey sandwiches—at least more than we would have liked—than on eating turkey sandwiches the day after Thanksgiving. Better teaming could have prevented this situation.

That experience didn’t stop me from working in teams at Sloan. More traditionally, I’ve worked on team projects for classes and on marketing teams for at least two conferences at MIT. Less conventionally, I’ve worked on a team to produce a MBA production of Julius Caesar and—because this is MIT—on a team that used masking tape and corrugated cardboard to make a bridge, the stability of which we then proceeded to test by driving over it with golf carts. Again, because this is MIT. Even less conventionally, I just started a podcast with a classmate of mine, Lily Chen (MBA 2016) on MBA students with nontraditional backgrounds and unconventional ambitions after business school.

If you saw me interview for MBA programs and internships the past two years, when someone asked, “Tell me about a time when you worked in a team,” you’d have seen me struggle in coming up with answers. Not so anymore. If you watched me answer that question now you might witness the peculiar sight of me asking my interviewer to “be more specific.” That’s because in this past year, I’ve worked with more teams than I can count and more diverse teams than I can describe in the scope of one blog post: startup teams and corporate teams, big teams and small teams, international teams and domestic teams, old teams and young teams, male teams and female teams, and so on.

Working on many teams doesn’t mean that working on teams and with teams is easy. Far from it. Especially for me. In my work experience prior to MIT, I didn’t work often with other people, and in the few cases where I did, working with them affirmed my heavily-ingrained mentality of “if I don’t do it myself, it won’t get done.” My self-motivation and self-starting spirit have served me so far and surely will continue to do so in my career. But in the past, it often came at the cost of tremendous stress and alienated me from others and the good ideas and ways of doing things that I could have learned from them.

One of my greatest personal challenges at Sloan so far has been learning not just to trust others but really to go one step further and rely on them. When I start working on teams now, more than ever before I’m transparent and blunt about my shortcomings (over-bluntness being one of them). I trust them both to accept me as I am, with all my moments of control-freaking and impatience, and to put my growth in their hands. Appreciating the failure of self-centered work has opened me up to the wisdom of others. It’s what Prof. Otto Scharmer here at Sloan might call the movement from “ego-system to eco-system.”

Interpreting the learnings from my Sloan experience so far: you can’t feel your team help you until you take the risk of letting them help you. Or, as I prefer to illustrate it, you can’t really test the parachute if you never jump out of the plane.

Erica Zendell

Erica Zendell is a MBA Candidate in the MIT Sloan Class of 2016. A former HBS case writer and researcher of contemporary China, she aspires to work as a Product Manager at the crossroads of the real and digital worlds of retail. When not hitting the books, she hosts a podcast with a classmate called "The Business of Being Awesome" focused on inspiring MBAs to find work they love after business school, even if it means going off the beaten path (www.soundcloud.com/bizobapodcast).

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