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Teamwork, Listening Skills Essential for MBAs – and Prospective Applicants

Team assignments have become de rigeur as part of the MBA curriculum at many leading business schools, with some schools assigning students to teams when they first arrive and requiring them to work together in multiple classes and others having students shift between several different teams as part of a single course or semester.

Why such a focus on teamwork? Experts believe that learning to work in small groups will pay off when the students graduate and look for jobs, according to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report.

MBA students are likely to find themselves in a work environment where reaching common goals will require a group effort – whether it’s launching a product in a new market or designing a strategy for a hospital to reduce the cost of its services while also improving quality, Paula Caproni, who teaches about creating high-performing teams to MBAs at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan, told U.S. News.

“Many problems are far too complex for any one person to resolve. They need to learn how to depend on others,” she says.

MBA students who work in teams as part of business school will be much better prepared for the work world that awaits them upon graduation than peers who completed most of their projects solo, experts say. There are several important steps involved in working in a group, which students who have worked as teams will learn. At the University of Miami, MBA students doing consulting projects are asked to put together a charter laying out ground rules and roles right from the start, Dean Gene Anderson of the School of Business Administration told U.S. News.

Assigning roles – who will do what, when and how – is one of the first things taught by professors who specialize in teamwork strategies. At the University of Miami, MBA students are sometimes put in groups to act as consultants and work as a team, says Gene Anderson, dean of the School of Business Administration. One of the first things they’re asked to do is put together a charter, which lays out ground rules and roles.

“Who’s going to act as the team leader. Who’s going to be the scribe. Who’s going to be the communications liaison to people outside the team,” he says.

Next, a team needs to focus on establishing a process – how often the team will meet, for how long, what records will be kept.

Here enters another key skill MBA students must develop as part of working in a team: the ability to listen. Gregory Patton, who teaches communication skills at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, reminds students that what they say sometimes is less important than what they hear.

“We say listening to understand versus listening to argue,” Patton told U.S. News, reminding students that understanding another group member’s ideas can actually advance their own thinking.

Prospective applicants to business school have great opportunities to practice their listening skills before even starting their MBA program – any time they meet someone new, Patton says. “Ask them three follow-up questions to learn about them. Don’t interrupt. Don’t focus on yourself,” he told U.S. News. This approach will create a deeper relationship and also allow you to learn more, he adds.

Another way prospective applicants can prepare for student team projects as part of the MBA is to seek out group or team-based assignments at work or while volunteering, looking for ways to learn from the experience.

“While you’re on those teams, be very mindful of your own behavior in that team, of what you want to learn, of how you personally are helping and hurting the team,” Michigan’s Caproni told U.S. News. “Learn as much as you can about team dynamics.”