In the Classroom
Epiphany on the Ice: Critical Lessons in Creating and Leading Teams
Wharton Professor Mike Useem has studied, written, and taught about leadership and teamwork throughout his career, but it was an epiphany in the midst of a blinding snowstorm that drove home one of the key principles of team leadership. Inspired by Ernest Shackleton and other explorers, Useem journeyed with 25 MBA students, as well as several faculty members and executives, to the glaciers of Antarctica.
The group's mission was to explore lessons in leadership amidst the challenges of the frozen Antarctic landscape. Working in four separate teams, they embarked on one occasion upon an extended hike across a glacier to a distant campsite where they were to regroup. An hour into the trek, snow began to fall. Visibility quickly deteriorated into a whiteout. The teams realized that they were moving in opposite directions. They came together and recognized the problem: While each team had a leader, there was no leader coordinating the overall expedition.
"None of us, including myself, thought to insist on some kind of coordinating mechanism," Useem says. For 45 minutes, the teams debated what to do next. Ultimately they decided to turn back to the first camp and try again the next day. After their whiteout experience, they appointed an overall leader for the day.
The Miracle of Experiential Learning
"Many of us knew the importance of appointing an overall leader," Useem says. "In fact, I teach it. But we didn't do it. That is the miracle of experiential learning. You have moments of insight where the light bulb goes on. It is an 'aha' sensation. For the rest of my career, I will never forget that moment."
Such transformative power of experiential learning is the genesis for Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams, a new Wharton program that Useem is helping to design and lead. The curriculum will integrate classroom sessions with hands-on experiential learning. Sessions will be enhanced by the shared experiences of faculty and senior executives. The hands-on aspect of the program will range from rowing crew sculls to engaging in performing arts. "It is all about converting what people conceptually know into what they do when they are put on the line and have a decision to make," says Useem.
Useem has studied and worked on team building with diverse organizations, including military academies, corporations, and federal agencies fighting wildfires. "It can be hard to appreciate precisely how teams of firefighters, mountaineers, or managers are best led through challenging circumstances. By recreating those moments, experiential learning combines ideas and actions so people walk out of the program with a deeper and more enduring understanding of what is required."
The Need for Teamwork
While Useem teaches about leadership in executive programs such as The Leadership Journey: Creating and Developing Your Leadership and the Advanced Management Program, this is one of the first Wharton executive programs to focus specifically on teams. Useem says teamwork is particularly important in environments of high uncertainty and risk. "Great leadership and great teamwork inherently go together," he notes. "You can't have one without the other. To make anything happen as a leader, it has to happen through direct reports."
To create and lead teams effectively, leaders need specific skills and knowledge, but as you go from individual performance to team action, you invite a new set of challenges," Useem observes. "Groupthink" is a well-known problem of teams. A fairly homogeneous team with little conflict reinforces the beliefs and instincts of the team, even if they are wrong.
"A second problem is a tendency to rest on one's laurels," he says. "If you have had a good quarter or great year, you and the team may take your eye off the ball. You may have private doubts about the next quarter or year, but everyone seems to be saying that you are doing a great job, and by looking backwards you fail to see the emerging problem going forward."
On the other hand, "Teams that are well formed and well governed, with good camaraderie and mutual respect, can outperform individuals," Useem says. "Teams launch products, teams fight fires, teams execute deals. They add energy to the task and contain self-correcting mechanisms. But to bring out their best, teams must be well led and well governed."
Useem has identified several key elements of effective teams. First, team leaders need to build a culture within the team. "You need to create a culture that conveys your values and principles. You also need to define what you want to achieve so that your objectives radiate throughout the organization." Second, clarity of communication is vital to success. "It is amazing how poorly we sometimes communicate about what we want as a team. If team leaders are clear about their intent, then they can avoid micromanaging. One of the defining advantages of teams is to have people around you who are able to do what you cannot do, and if you micromanage them, you can destroy the value of the team."
Finally, team skills do not come naturally to most leaders. "Most of us are not born with the ability to build a culture and communicate intent. We are encouraged from childhood to become great solo performers — achieving good grades in school, becoming an expert in a technical area — but have to acquire a new set of skills to get things done through teams."
Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams will use a variety of classroom and experiential learning experiences to explore key principles of team building and leadership. Beginning with an exploration of team building, participants will develop a team identity and learn about effective team structures by rowing crew sculls. The experience, and debriefing back in the classroom, will explore how teams come together to establish boundaries and expectations.
In the classroom, a panel of senior executives will offer their perspectives on teamwork and leadership. "They will address both why the creation of high-performing teams is important and necessary and the importance of leadership," says Jeff Klein, director of the Graduate Leadership Program and Wharton Leadership Ventures. Klein is working with Useem in designing the new executive education program.
After laying this groundwork in forming teams, the program will next explore team dynamics through the performing arts, with a particular emphasis on creativity and conflict. Small groups, for example, may be charged with creating and acting out a short play. In the process, they will examine how creative ideas are generated and formed by a team without a clear leader. Effective teams need some conflict, but the conflict should be about the task at hand rather than personal issues. Task conflict, which generally has a positive effect on team performance, might be a disagreement over the choice of characters or the plot. Such debates can lead to better work from the team. Personal conflict, such as criticism of other team members, generally detracts from team performance. "We want to encourage as much debate as possible and get the team aligned toward a goal. We want them invested in it," Klein says.
Drawing on insights and case studies from expedition leaders, Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams will also explore the leadership of teams. "Leadership is the responsibility of all team members and not necessarily something that rests with the designated leader," Klein remarks. "You can lead from the front, middle, or behind. Leadership resides more in the actions people take and the relationships that are established between leaders and followers rather than in position. You need to understand the different roles people play on teams. Once you have that understanding, you can identify your preferred place on the team. You next need to know what it takes to move from your preferred place to what the team needs to succeed. You must ask yourself, 'How do I really position myself for the good of the team?'"
Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams is designed to help participants become better team members and team leaders. "The program is about building a greater understanding of what you need to succeed within a team environment and what teams need to succeed," Klein says. "Both of them are very important."