From the schoolyard to the boardroom: Learning to play well with others

By Richard Mayo, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

R.MayoMost of us work in teams.  Teams at work, teams at home, teams on the sporting field – and have done so most of our lives.

Up until recently I hadn’t given any real thought to what this meant in terms of productivity and happiness.

So it came as a shock to me when I started my MBA and found that the foundation leadership subject (which every student completes) was focused on improving how we work in teams.

My undergraduate qualifications in law and journalism had not prepared me for this. But as I continued my MBA journey, I started asking myself ‘Why in the world am I only just learning this stuff now?’

My experience with teams in the legal profession was not pretty. Say I have a problem. I should know how to solve that problem on my own. If I don’t have the answer, I will have to ask my boss. Expect him or her to be angry at me for not having the answer. Expect them to tell me what the answer is and to get out of their office. If a less senior employee has a problem, expect the same thing to occur, except this time I’m the irritated one telling them the answer and to shut the door on the way out. ‘Team’ meetings involve the bosses telling the rest of us what we were doing wrong.

To all those people who I told to shut the door on the way out, I’m genuinely sorry.

The lessons I’ve now learnt are deceptively simple but surprisingly nuanced. I needed to learn to listen, communicate more effectively, set expectations, appreciate, and then manage difference, and conduct an honest appraisal of my own strengths and areas for development. And they were just the lessons from the first weekend of the first subject!  As with so many things in leadership, the devil is in the detail and will take a long time to master.

Fortunately, working in teams is not a side note to the MBA; it is part of every aspect of the MBA, including subsequent subjects. The MBA becoms a microcosm of life – we work in teams all the time. Every subject, every assignment becomes an opportunity to further master these incredibly important skills.

Why are they important? For me, I am happier. I feel more engaged by team tasks. I feel better understood and appreciated and my stress levels have gone down. I hope and believe that my team mates (in any particular team I’m in) also experience this benefit. The bottom line is increased productivity with less work.

The beauty of knowing, practising and perfecting the skills of working well in teams is that it is so transferrable. A fellow team member of mine in the course has taken these lessons to an elite sporting team with success. I have taken these skills back to my workplace and even to my home environment, improving my relationships as I go.

I have learned a lot about working well in teams and the benefits involved. There is still a long way to go and I look forward to continuing my learning for the rest of my MBA and beyond.

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