March 2014 | 

Learning to Lead a Team by Joining One

Learning to Lead a Team by Joining One

David Peterson’s career is in high gear. After leaving an automobile financing company in 2010, he joined Think Finance, the leading developer of technology and analytics platforms for the next generation of short-term credit products, and was promoted from senior manager to director of risk management last year. “In this new role,” says Peterson, “I picked up new responsibilities and six direct reports. It’s the kind of diversified team you want to surround yourself with, but it can be challenging when you have to bring everyone together and they don’t necessarily agree.”

Peterson came to Wharton two months after his promotion to attend Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams. “The program put me in the right place at the right time. It was everything I needed for my professional development. I had to build a high-performing team, and Wharton allowed me to step back and take a different viewpoint on how to do that. I saw first-hand how you need to step in and out of the leadership role, and create conditions where people have to rely on each other.”

By first-hand, Peterson refers to the deliberate effort to make the class of executives into a team. “The program didn’t just teach us about how to lead teams — it created a team. Walls were broken down quickly. We spent all day every day together — the conference center is where our classroom, our hotel rooms, and the dining hall are. We quickly got to know and like one another. When we were on the river [High-Performing Teams includes an experiential session of rowing in crew shells], we had four people in our boat who were afraid to swim. You quickly develop trust and teamwork by putting people in situations out of their comfort zone — a lesson I have already started applying at work. The program showed me that there are subtle things you can do to bring people together and develop camaraderie.”

Peterson was also impressed by Rodrigo Jordan, who honed his leadership and team-building skills climbing the world's most challenging mountains, including Mount Everest, K2, and Lhotse. Jordan’s experiential learning session brings program participants on a virtual climb, focusing on the skills both mountaineering and organizational teams need to reach their goals. Jordan, who holds a PhD in Organizational Administration from Oxford University, notes, “You can’t reach the summit without communication, crisis management, teamwork, optimism, and effective solving of conflicts. And you don’t lead the same way every time. You must be able to move from front to back, depending on the group and situation. You learn that very simple lesson by living it.”

“Rodrigo was fascinating,” says Peterson. “You don’t know who is going to get to the top and you don’t even really know your role until you get there. You have to make calls on the fly, and make sure everyone feels like a valued member of the team. It puts people in unique situations — and they have to trust their leader. I saw that when you do things for the right reasons, even if you fail you still have your team’s support.”

And what about Peterson’s team at Think Finance? “It’s been a tremendous success story. We launched an innovative new product after the program, and within six short months revenue exceeded $65 million. At our quarterly offsite meeting for senior executives, I was given the coveted Bus Driver award. The Bus Driver, one of two accolades awarded every quarter, is given to someone who is able to build consensus around a common idea or goal and achieve results by leading a cross-functional team. I won this award because Wharton gave me a roadmap to be successful.”