Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Did business school make me a better leader?
The short answer is yes. The combination of the learning team experience, consulting to a technology firm in Israel, working in multiple consulting teams over summer and the recent experience working on a private equity study have brought home many lessons on leadership and teamwork. I had similar leadership and team experiences at Cisco, with one major difference - I did not have the formal frameworks to reflect on my experiences as well as I have had at Wharton, and that has made all the difference.
So, where did the frameworks come from? This term, I made it an explicit goal to read my bulkpack (set of readings) for my leadership and teamwork core class, and reflect on my experiences at business school and before. This was one of my goals from my last quarter at Wharton. Next, I will discuss some of my recent reflections.
(1) Using the right sources of power/influence: I have found that in a team of mostly peers, 3 things bestow influence and power on a leader - (a) a wider view of the problem at hand, (b) expertise and (c) referent power. (a) is having a wider view, understanding the broad picture more than anyone else on the team. In turn, this results from an ability to break down large problems in a socratic top-down fashion, drilling down to the level of tasks. (more on this later). (b) is the power that results from domain expertise, which leads people to naturally defer to the leader. In formal literature, this is referred to as expert power. (c) is the power to influence based on personal characteristics, which causes people to aspire to work with the leader. People tend to want to work with, and be held in esteem, by people with they admire. Some characteristics that lend referent power are self-awareness, motivation, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. Similar to my BITSConnect leadership posting, this really relies on the leader becoming something of a role model.
An interesting corollary is how little MBAs know of (or are experienced in using) coercive power, which is almost considered "dirty" at business schools. The bias is rooted in service industry (consulting, banking) demographics, where most employees are extremely motivated and need little coercion to perform. The same is not true outside the service industry, and some of us will find we will need to learn to exercise coercive power the hard way.
(2) Choosing task-oriented vs. Problem oriented management: A leader can assign a problem or a set of tasks to solve the problem to a member of the team. I have found the latter is preferred as it affords much clearer communication. The only time I find assigning a problem is better is when you are grooming a team-member to be a leader (which is not always the case).
A related tool is agenda control and deadline assignment. Trivial as it may sound (I worked in an engineering heavy company where the techies hated running meetings), the person who owns an agenda or project plan naturally acquires a leadership position. So, if you are in a team of equals and need to assert leadership, taking control of the agenda or plan is a good idea.
(3) Choosing top-down vs. bottom-up problem solving: This is key to team situations with an analytical problem at hand - should you start breaking the problem down from the top and then assign small pieces or should you work on pieces independently and then integrate them to solve the high level problem. I am a strong believer in the former (notice how consulting firms use some form of a storyboard), but the key takeway here is that even if you choose the latter, make sure you (the leader) provide an integrative framework so people understand how their pieces fit into the overall picture.


Blogger Aanand said...


Your thoughts on leadership are quite astute. I also think that the ability to run a meeting or discussion is key to leadership. I know this personally from work experience. When the team is stuck on a decision either because there is risk or uncertainty, it is critical for the leadership to step in, take responsibility and ownership for a decision and goad the team to move forward.

The other aspect of leadership that will feed into referent power is this - when you delegate tasks to your peers or reports, it is important to perform a top-down (or bottom-up) analysis and explain their role as it fits into the entire solution. But I think an additional key is to ensure that you are providing them with the tools needed to complete their tasks. In other words, instead of just telling people what they should do, also enable them.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Sanjay said...

Hi Mukul,

I came across your blog while I was your name on a common LinkedIn contact. Having spend the last few years with some very prolific leaders, I have to agree to most of your thoughts and rationale you present. A couple of comments though.

I think the coercive power process has not been specific to certain industries- I have experience in Manufacturing, Consulting, Insurance and Technology industries and experience thus far has suggested an element of coercive power used by MBAs across all these industries. What I agree is that the new-age leaders (call them Internet-age leaders, if you will), are more sensitive to the use of force/coercion to get work done by the teams. It is clear that they want to command respect and not demand it because of their leadership positions. Thus, I believe, coercive power is gradually waning away with generations.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Satish said...

Mukul, great blog. I envy your ability to take time out and blog your thoughts:). I had a comment on the top-down/bottom up approaches. I think there is one oft-overlooked step to this process.. The best solutions are iterative in nature. You need space in your framework for intermediate solutions, wherein you put everything together, see how it fits, get feedback and then repeat the process.

However most clients/consultants are uncomfortable with the concept of intermediate work products.

12:07 PM  

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