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Leadership Development and The High Performing Team: The Wharton Leadership Program

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By Jeff Klein

One thing that I’ve never needed to convince an incoming Wharton MBA student is that they should become a leader.

By now, our students have contributed their considerable talents to businesses, governments, and nonprofits around the world.  They have founded start-ups, conducted orchestras, and succeeded at the highest level of athletic competition.  They have been a part of a high performing team, or many high performing teams.  As one student recently put it, “We have leadership in our DNA”.

As they enter Wharton, though, they are sometimes unsure as to how to learn leadership.  Don’t worry, I say, join a team.  In fact, join 15 teams!  And mine these teams for insights and lessons that you can transfer to the next team.  Use your team experiences to learn what you need to be successful on a team.  Learn what teams need to be successful.

For the work that we do in the world is done by teams, and the way that we work in the world is defined by teams.  For managers and executives, the success of their organizations – and indeed their own success – is dependent upon the effectiveness of the teams they join, create, and lead.  These teams span and transcend the private, public, and civil society sectors, just as they span and transcend geography, scope, and organizational boundaries.

Yet, what work does a team best accomplish, and how do we train and educate tomorrow’s leaders to create and lead high performing teams?

According to leadership expert Ron Heifetz, teams are best situated to solve problems to which no known answer exists – or, at the very least, to solve problems to which known answers are not readily available.  His research divides problems into two categories: technical problems and adaptive problems.  Technical problems have known solutions, and these problems are best solved by individuals with the requisite technical knowledge, skills, and abilities.  Adaptive problems without known answers are best solved by teams.1

“For managers and executives, the success of their organizations – and their own success – is dependent upon the effectiveness of the teams they join, create, and lead.”

Teams play another important role for managers and executives.  Our simultaneous membership in multiple teams helps to create and communicate our individual identities, and these multiple memberships can present interesting collaborative and competitive tensions.  In learning to manage membership in multiple teams, leaders  develop their own ability to prioritize and refine their values and, ultimately, the ways in which they invest their energy and talent.2

How, then, can we train and educate MBA students to create and lead high performing teams?  At the Wharton School, we use a simple test for high-performing teams that is adapted from the work of Rodrigo Jordan of the Vertical Institute.  First, did the team accomplish its goal?  Second, did the individual learn and develop as part of their membership in the team?  Finally, if given the chance, would the individual choose to join this team again?3

high performing team test

At The Wharton School, our approach to leadership development begins with teams.  MBA students can expect to join  at least 15 teams throughout their 21 month tenure as graduate students.  Course teams, Wharton Leadership Program teams, fellowship teams, club teams, conference teams, intramural sports team – teams permeate the MBA experience in the same way that teams are a dominant social structure for businesses and organizations.

“At The Wharton School, our approach to leadership development begins with teams. MBA students can expect to join at least 15 teams throughout their 21 month tenure as graduate students.”

While the tasks that teams perform vary greatly – the challenges which a student faces leading a mountaineering summit in the Wharton Leadership Ventures differ greatly in context from the challenges a Non Profit Board Fellow faces in influencing standing board members with greater experience and power – the lessons that emerge are applicable across situations and contexts.

J. Richard Hackman, in his seminal book Leading Teams, describes five conditions necessary for team success.  According to Hackman, a team must; (1) be a real team, i.e. they do real work together collectively; (2) have a compelling direction; (3) be supported by an enabling team structure; (4) exist within a supportive organizational context; and (5) have ready access to competent coaching.4

Hackman’s framework is introduced through the learning team – a required co-curricular structure for 1st year MBA students that also serves as their first team within the Wharton MBA program.  The learning team is structured specifically to provide the opportunity to address the three questions within the High Performing Team Test.  First, they have specific collective goals in the form of course assignments within the fixed core curriculum.  Teams are intact throughout the fixed core, and must complete a range of assignments spanning management, economics, marketing, and operations management.  These assignments are the team’s opportunity to do real work together in the context of a compelling direction, a direction they set during their formation.

The learning team also provides each Wharton MBA student with the opportunity to learn and develop as an individual student.  This learning opportunity spans both technical expertise in important business discipline and leadership and teamwork expertise that focuses on roles, norms, evolution, and team development.  This aspect of high performance is facilitated through regular two-way feedback loops and reflection sessions, aspects of the enabling team structure and supportive organizational context discussed above.

Finally, the learning team provides each student the chance to evaluate the way in which this team approached these collective and individual goals.  To answer the question of “would I do it again?”, students must assess both what they have learned and how they have learned it.  The choice to do it again is influenced by both task accomplishment and the socio-emotional experience of how the task was accomplished.  This latter factor has been described as positive team relationships and productive group problem-solving by Carl LaFasto, and as mutual performance monitoring and a team orientation by Eduardo Salas.5

MBA students meet their learning teams during our pre-term orientation at annual Learning Team Retreat, held offsite at a rural camp.  The Retreat kicks off a week of team development activities, culminating with The Big Idea (a learning team exercise in which students formulate an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing a compelling business or social issue – in other words, an adaptive problem formulation).

The Wharton curriculum begins with Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership, an immersive and innovative course that features the Wharton Teamwork and Leadership Simulation.  Designed by Wharton faculty Sigal Barsade and Nancy Rothbard, the course features a multi-round computer-based simulation in which learning teams assume the senior leadership roles on an electric car company over a number of rounds (simulated years).  The course provides an evidence-based framework in which students learn cognitively and experientially about emotional intelligence, influence, organizational awareness, communication, diplomacy… and, of course, leadership and teamwork.

“The Wharton Executive Coaching and Feedback Program will provide executive coaching to every Wharton MBA student in order to augment their experiential learning processes and leadership development plans.”

The course concludes with a simulation debrief which provides daily feedback on individual leadership and team performance.  Facilitated by Leadership Fellows – 2nd year MBA students serving as facilitators and coaches for 1st year learning teams – the simulation debrief provides students the opportunities to analyze self and peer performance ratings and link course concepts to team processes.  This year, we are excited to announce the launch of the Wharton Executive Coaching and Feedback Program, a two-year initiative that will provide executive coaching to every Wharton MBA student in order to augment their experiential learning processes and leadership development plans.

Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership is required of every Wharton MBA student, and it provides the platform for the Wharton Leadership Program portfolio of experiential leadership development opportunities.  By early September, every Wharton student has completed two weeks of intensive learning team work.  The next two years are rife with opportunities for learning and growth as students join teams to complete adaptive work within the curriculum, the Wharton Leadership Program, and the broad set of extracurricular student-run clubs and conferences.

In the January-February 2012 issue of The European Business Review, Wharton faculty member and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management Michael Useem presented the essential “learning avenues” that guide our approach to leadership development.  We focus upon three of these essential pillars within the Wharton Leadership Development Framework:  (1) Be a Student of Leadership, (2) Surround Yourself with Trusted Peers, Coaches, and Mentors, and (3) Seek and Accept Stretch Experiences.6

“Wharton MBA students have the opportunity to grow in an environment that encourages them to expose themselves to cutting-edge research, engage in feedback and reflection and find their own leadership moments within the stretch experiences available throughout the school.”

For the Wharton MBA student, these avenues are presented within the learning team and then made available in a variety of co-curricular and extracurricular programs.  Through flagship programs such as the Wharton Leadership Ventures, the Leadership Fellows Program, and the just-launched Executive Coaching and Feedback Program, to name a few, Wharton MBA students have the opportunity to continue their own leadership development journey in an environment that encourages them to expose themselves to foundational and cutting-edge research, engage in feedback and reflection with peers and coaches, and find their own leadership moments within the stretch experiences available throughout the Wharton School.


About the Author
Jeff Klein is the Director of the Wharton Leadership Program and a Lecturer at The Wharton School and the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is responsible for the portfolio of curricular and co-curricular leadership development programs available to Wharton MBA students.  His research and teaching focuses on collaboration within and across boundaries.  He designs and delivers leadership workshops and courses for executive clients through Wharton Executive Education.  As an Academic Director, Jeff leads two weeklong executive courses, Creating and Leading High Performing Teams and The Leadership Edge.  Jeff serves as a Strategic Advisor to the Global Partnerships Forum and on the Leadership Development Committee of the Pig Iron Theatre Company.  He can be reached at kleinja@wharton.upenn.edu

Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard University Press, 1994.
Kenwyn K. Smith and David Berg, Paradoxes of Group Life:  Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics, Jossey-Bass, 1997.
Rodrigo Jordan, Lecture delivered in Creating and Leading High Performing Teams, Wharton Executive Education,  2012.
J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams:  Setting the Stage for Great Performances, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Carl LaFasto and Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best:  6000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed, Sage Publication, 2001.  Eduardo Salas, Dana E. Sims, and C. Shawn Burke, “Is there a ‘Big Five’ in Teamwork?,” Small Group Research 36, 2005, 555-592.
Michael Useem, “The Leader’s Checklist,” The European Business Review, January-February 2012, 7-10.

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