As The New Gen Executives Program, the 10-week entrepreneurial leadership program I designed and now conduct for KMUTT, approaches week 5, there are a lot of key takeaways and important lessons learned I would like to share as I observed my students complete their weekly challenges. Many of these key takeaways and lessons are actually derived from weekly reflections I ask my students to write to reflect on what they have learned about leadership and teamwork, about themselves, and about others.
1. THE EXTRA STEPS
Being a leader takes a lot of courage. You are not only representing the rest of your team, but also carrying the heavy responsibility of getting your team started on the right foot and getting it to where it should or has to be. No doubt about it, it is so much easier and safer to follow. You can easily sit back and relax until your leader calls you up and tells you exactly what to do. However, from the perspective of their instructor, who also role-played as a client and a CEO who gave them briefs and direction, the students I remember are the ones who step up, take charge, show confidence or ask questions. “It is the same situation in the real world,” I told my students. To step up or stand out, you have to put yourself in the position to do so. You have to take the extra steps that others don’t have the courage to. The reason the participation grade in this program is up to 20% or the reason I let the teams pick their own leader is because I wanted to test who would nominate themselves, be nominated by others, nominate others, hesitate, say no before others even nominate them, or simply hide themselves. Already, as the instructor, I have 6 student profiles in the class.
2. I CAN SEE YOUR VOICE
We all have a voice. Team assignments exist because someone up there (e.g. the owner, the CEO or top-level executives) or out there (e.g. the client or the investor) sees the value in what everyone or every department on the team has to say. Therefore, when we work on a team assignment and only one person dominates the conversation or tells everyone else what to do (even if that person is the team leader), the end result shows that there is a lack of teamwork and communication. When teamwork and communication are strong, anyone on the team can speak on behalf of the team or the work being presented. When teamwork and communication are weak, we can only hear the voice and feel the contribution of the person presenting. Even if everyone on the team is also sitting at the meeting table or standing in front of the room with the presenter, we can feel the disconnect between them and the work. When someone lacks a sense of ownership in the organization or in the work, it is pretty obvious.
3. CATALYST FOR A TEAM REACTION
I am very fortunate to have enthusiastic students in the program. They are like the sun. Wherever they are, they radiate a positive can-do energy. They are a catalyst that speeds up teamwork and makes their team “a team” rather than just a group of students who barely know each other (I try to push my students to work in multidisciplinary teams with people from different schools, years, and friendship groups). 1-2 catalysts on each team can make a huge difference. I think it is important for organizations and teams to take this into consideration. Having a talented team is not enough if there is a lack of energy to drive them. The best source of energy comes from within, not from external forces such as deadlines, compensation, or a milestone.
4. CREATIVE TENSION
“Constraints” are usually perceived as negative. We complain, stress out, and feel discouraged when there is not enough time or money and when there are not enough resources or people. However, when I observed how my students worked with constraints (e.g. when they had to interpret a vague and open-ended instruction or when they had so little time to complete design challenges), I realized that constraints can boost energy, encourage teamwork, and build a sense of urgency. Sometimes we can be too passive and undermine the challenge at hand when it is so predictable, straightforward, and well-defined or when we have all the time in the world, all the resources we need, and all the people we have known and worked with before. Having to work with constraints also forces us to be more creative and strategic. When we struggle, we have no choice but to communicate with each other or ask questions. When we run out of time, we have no choice but to speed up, contribute, and help each other. When we overcome constraints, it is an accomplishment in and of itself. Introducing constraints to the assignments we delegate to our team once in a while, therefore, can be beneficial for teamwork. However, we shouldn’t make our team feel that we are being unreasonable and inconsiderate because when that happens they will dread the work in front of them rather than feel challenged by it.
5. SYSTEMATIC PROBLEM SOLVING
When I give my students assignments (I call assignments “Challenges”), there are usually a list of steps involved. For example, they have to get the brief, interpret the brief, brainstorm, delegate tasks, design, communicate, put things together, and prepare for a presentation within 30-45 minutes. Most of the challenges are also very new to students. For example, I asked them to resolve conflicts within the workplace from the perspective of a group of top-level executives and asked them to complete a task where only one member of the team knew the brief and had to communicate what he/she interpreted to be the brief to the rest of the team to complete. The students learned through Chinese Whispers from the first session to break down the big, complex, and seemingly impossible task at hand into smaller, easily digestible tasks. They also learned through the modified App War challenge—where team members divided themselves into 3 departments to design a mobile application to solve a pain point KMUTT students face—to delegate roles to different team members. Delegation not only makes the task at hand easier and less complex, but also ensures everyone on the team is on board and pulling his/her weight. Some teams learned it the hard way that constant communication plays a huge role in the success of teamwork. Communication at the beginning or at the end of the project alone isn’t enough. It is important to always keep each other updated on the work in progress throughout the completion of the project to ensure everyone is on the same page, doing what they are supposed to do, and moving in the same direction.
6. POWER TO CAPTIVATE
It is important to make a good first impression. For instance, when you are presenting, the tone you set at the very beginning makes a huge difference to the kind of reaction you get from the audience (imagine that the audience aren’t just your friends. What if they are your bosses or customers?). When we watch a YouTube video, for instance, if the first 1-2 minutes or the first two chapters are boring, we will keep skipping or lose our interest completely. Leaders should be able to make people want to listen to what they have to say and follow them where they want them to go. Leaders should have the power to captivate. If you cannot captivate people right off the bat, you already lose the magic.
7. BATTLE BETWEEN THE HEAD AND THE HEART
I asked my students to resolve some conflicts that often arise in the workplace (e.g. which person to promote and send to work with important clients: someone who works fast and gets things done, but overly confident and independent OR someone who is well-liked and a good listener, but is a slow decision-maker and takes time to learn). What I found was, people value and prioritize different things. Some people value people and relationships over anything else, while others prioritize professionalism, getting things done, and getting it right. There is no right or wrong. As leaders, however, we have to know how to keep the right balance for ourselves (what we can control because it is about our mindset and responses) and in our workforce (what we cannot control, but must address when conflicts arise). There are times when people and relationships come first. There are times when work and business must come first. There are times when we have to sacrifice one thing we treasure for the sake of what's more important in the long run (e.g. survival of the business, business relationships, or a strong workforce)
8. EFFORT AND CONTRIBUTION: SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT?
Some people see their “contribution” as just being present, working hard, supporting the team, and helping other people out. While it is totally fine to contribute to teamwork this way (after all, people are different and there is more than one way to do things), most people see “contribution” as providing direction, generating lots of ideas, being vocal, stepping up, or putting structure and order in the team. Quieter contributions are often taken as “good/great effort” rather than “contribution” or “value” to the team, at least from how the students evaluated themselves and their peers. In reality, people can contribute to their teams in different ways. It is a good idea, however, to set a standard or shared expectations for teamwork before we start working with people. This can help avoid potential conflicts or undervalued effort.
9. KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND WHO YOU ARE NOT
It is easy to get carried away with non-value adding tasks of a big project when the work or our role is not well-defined and clear-cut from the get-go. As a big team, team members usually have their shared end goal. It is equally important to have individual goals for individuals or sub-teams. What we don’t want is people working so hard and spending so much time on things that add little to no value to the final product.
10. NATURAL LEADERS
Some students really stand out to me, after having witnessed all of them for 5 weeks, as natural leaders. They seem at ease and confident. They have everything I have listed so far: courage, their own voice, enthusiasm, a can-do attitude in the face of constraints, a systematic problem solving approach, a great first impression when they step up and speak up, a thorough consideration of different values, and their eyes set on the big picture. These natural leaders thrive wherever they go. Even when I put them with a new group of people to discuss or work together, they still shine and stand out. They can control yet adapt to a wide range of situations and assignments. My goal for the remaining 5 sessions is to further support these natural leaders and help them unleash their fullest potential, while also trying to help the other students realize their unrealized potential as leaders and simulate situations for them to experiment and develop important leadership and teamwork skills.
Considering these key takeaways and lessons learned, I think it is safe to assume that both my students and I are on the right track in hopes of building and shaping new-gen leaders. Look forward to the remaining 5 weeks and more reflections as we go!