This week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had when I was working at the university. I was having lunch with the director of a center on campus, a nationally recognized researcher whose intellect and character I respected immensely. We were talking about how our courses of study — hers toward a PhD, mine toward an MBA — had prepared us differently for the task of collaboration.
She told me that as she advanced in academics she was expected to isolate herself more and more. Focusing on narrow research questions and specializing in unique areas, she became an island of one. Occasionally, it had been incredibly competitive to see who could get to the best answer quickest — only one person could win.
I shared with her that in my academic preparation, nearly every activity required group engagement. In fact, I was assigned to a 40-person cohort and a six-person team for my entire first year. I took every class with the same people and I completed nearly every assignment with them.
At the time, I can tell you it wasn’t easy and I didn’t like it much. My team was composed of a diverse group of people. We had two women and four men, four Americans and two international students, two people with technical degrees, three business degrees and a liberal arts major. But, the most challenging issue was that we had significantly different goals for being in the program in the first place.
I was laser-focused on proving that I could be a business leader — I was going to soak in and learn everything I could. I knew I needed to get a 4.0 to start my career without having to apologize for either my liberal arts degree or my two years working as an administrative assistant. I was pivoting and I knew what was at stake; I was more driven during those two years than I had been in any time before or even since.
My team was not.
I struggled, honestly, to build shared goals. I was so new to collaboration that I didn’t always go about it the right way. I talked too much and asked too few questions. I didn’t always embrace people where they were because I was so focused on where I was going. I asserted my own point so strongly that I broke relationships. I definitely overcompensated.
When I started grad school most people assumed I would be a weak link. There is a general perception that anyone capable of analytical thinking goes into either the STEM or business fields as an undergraduate. Only individuals without capability would select the liberal arts, right? That was where I started, writing papers and creating PowerPoint slides. Until I aced statistics.
By the time we started second semester and our core finance courses I had become the team go-to. Free rider syndrome got worse and I reacted poorly. I was so young that I just tried to do more and more, filling in every gap that got created because I honestly didn’t feel that I could afford to let any grade slip. Finally, when I was tapped out and couldn’t figure out how to manufacture any more time in the day I got desperate. I decided to show up late for a team meeting to see what they would do without me.
When I got there fifteen minutes late, I asked how they had decided to approach the case we had been assigned. There was a bit of looking around and then someone said, “Well, we’ve been talking and none of us has a good idea of how to tackle this one. So, we think it makes sense for you to do it on your own and we’ll handle the next one. You can sit that one out.”
Just typing it now it sounds fake, like I’m making that up. I remember being stunned. I remember making a spontaneous decision not to argue about it, not to try to convince them that they should contribute. Of all the things that I had considered might happen, that was not it. I’m not proud to admit it, but all I did was say, “Ok.”
I was just so tired that I retreated.
It was a hard case, probably one of the hardest I did during my time in grad school. There weren’t easy answers, the analysis was complicated and there was significant judgement involved. I struggled, but I was determined. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder or felt I had something to prove, but at the bottom of it all was my knowledge that I needed to do well so I could get a good internship, get a good job and blaze my trail. In the end, I turned in my best answer on time, with everyone’s name on it. I never told the professor that it was my individual work — it was a team assignment and the fact that we made a team decision to single source it didn’t matter.
We got the best grade in the class. All of us.
I tell that story a lot, especially to individuals early in their career. I tell it because I learned so much from it. I learned about the importance of building shared goals early on. I learned that collaboration isn’t easy and you have to invest in it as much or more than building skills. I learned that sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I would get it wrong. And, most importantly, I learned that when I got it wrong I would have to be willing to deal with the consequences to get results I wanted. I learned the consequences might not be fair.
At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.
It’s a good thing I learned what not to do when I was young.