UEBS leadership week was an unexpected transformative experience. It was a week of setting challenges and being challenged; emotions oscillated between moments of plunging self-doubt to utter euphoria.
We arrived promptly on Monday morning with just our passports, as instructed. In true MBA fashion, there were secret expectations of a ‘trip to Paris’. The announcement that followed was something of a shock: an assignment in Greenock Prison! With illusions dashed, we were to be thrown into an unusual and uncomfortable environment, asked to interview members of the Senior Management Team, and to present back to the Prison Governor (with six hours’ notice!) on “how to lead change in prisoner recidivism.”
We were already knee deep in a high-pressure situation.
The powerful experience of meeting prisoners in an open environment shattered our prejudices, and, combined with a problem solving exercise, we learnt how effective leadership can break down barriers and bring about change.
With the shock therapy from day one over, we turned to explore our own leadership traits. It was time for some radical character assassination. To be a good leader, we needed to understand our own gaps however uncomfortable, discuss them openly with others and adjust to our “allergies.” Professional external leadership coaching on the Tuesday morning was enlightening, but the afternoon practical application of it, as well as the Belbin team model exercise, was enthralling. It was to provide the basis for our group success and the leadership award at the end of the week.
Each of us poured our hearts out over our “core quality” character quadrants with the utmost transparency. In our Organisational Behaviour lectures, we had studied the theory of balanced teams empowering the individual and in turn producing the bedrock of high-powered teams, such as witnessed in F1 pit stops. But this was for real; our aim was to become that high-powered team.
On Wednesday we were tasked with applying our leadership skills to a new task: to deliver a presentation to an invited public audience in the Business School’s auditorium! Again, with very limited time!
In our teams, within the 8 Belbin characteristics we soon identified character overlaps, meaning potential flash points and therefore an urgent need for speedy resolution. With most of the required team characteristics present, we agreed and understood each of our functions within the team. The recipe for success was structural balance and flexibility, through a collegiate culture of shared values. Making the most of our team ‘plants’, ‘shapers’ and ‘coordinators’ we generated an innovative solution for our presentation and a clear strategy for delivery. From there the underlying processes were highly disciplined, encompassing a tightly coordinated structure of consensus underpinned by assertive decisions at junctures, clear project scheduling and decisive implementation.
The goal of the presentation was to influence with high impact. The content was succinct and built on a major public consumer survey that we organized at short notice. Notwithstanding two thirds of our speakers being non-native English speakers, we were proud of our final delivery. We could have developed the content further given more time, but the end result was our win, as per photograph.
A number of other teams faced more challenging times. In some, conflict slowed down decision-making. In others, the leaders were unwilling to listen, a cardinal sin in effective leadership. Some teams struggled to manage multiple ‘shapers’ – too many bosses! Sometimes leaders need to know when to follow as well as lead. Perhaps we can reason that MBA’s tend to have strong alpha characteristics, more so than average. But in the end, leadership for us was to challenge and to be challenged, even by our own kind.