Full-time MBA: So what makes a great leader?

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Sachin Tandon, Class of 2016

Sachin Tandon, Class of 2016

Sachin Tandon, Class of 2016 reflects on how the MBA develops leadership skills and the factors that contribute to successful leadership

Aside from building business knowledge and skills, a big focus of the MBA is developing leadership abilities, and there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about, try and practice this discipline.

For example, early on in the programme we attended a comprehensive lecture series on leadership given by Robin Martin. This gave me a much better insight into some of the practices and theories of leadership, e.g.: traits and characteristics of a leader; dimensional models of leadership behaviour – from task to relationship to change-oriented; and different styles of leadership, such as situational, participative and transformational leadership. Just as importantly, we discovered that you can learn a lot from recognizing the hallmarks of poor leadership.

Through the year it was also inspiring to listen to the views of guest speakers on the topic. These included talks from Andy Stewart at HSBC, who emphasized the importance of creating and fostering long term relationships; Emma Fitzgerald from Shell, whose experiences in China stressed the importance of keeping an open mind when working in new environments (where the cultural shifts can be quite stark); and John Lovering, ex-Chairman of Debenhams, who said instead of trying to do things too differently, identify your employees’ key competencies and focus on helping them improve.

Combining these lessons with my own learnings from the opportunities I’ve had to practice leadership (during the UK Consultancy Project, the Mergers & Acquisition project and Summer and Autumn Electives), here are some of my own thoughts on what I think makes a great business leader.

Leadership principles
Firstly, and foremostly, leadership is a selfless act. It comes from doing what you believe is the right thing – not for you, but for others in an organization – to achieve the greater good.

Secondly, true leadership is never about the individual leader, though having the right mindset and attitude is important. Ultimately, it is about enabling and motivating others to perform to the best of their abilities.

Thirdly, the qualities of a strong leader include having an open mind, tenacity, an (insatiable!) desire to learn more, and the unending ability to see how things can always be done better.

In organisations today, can or do people lead or manage?
In some ways people can do both – but how much of either depends. More broadly, in today’s age, because of the sheer size and complexity of some organisations, and the faster pace of change, there is no realistically effective way of managing organisations (certainly not on your own). Rather, a strong leader will lead by setting an example, raising the bar of what is, or what was previously thought, possible.

A leader leads, but what else does a leader need?
A critical part of good leadership is being able to select the right team – people who are enthusiastic and experienced in their own fields, who have become world experts in their own right. We might not be world experts (yet) on the MBA, but we see the beginnings of this in how we select our teams (ensuring there are diverse skill sets and levels of experience).

Just as having the right blend of backgrounds, cultures and intellect is vital, so is having people who are not afraid to challenge the obvious idea or organisational initiative, and who can provide a different, and sometimes controversial perspective.

A second important aspect is having a well-developed value system – one that connects with all employees, not just those at the top. It is a system that should inspire, enthuse and oblige employees and leaders to be more outward-looking. In business, this means making concerted efforts towards truly understanding our customers – having empathy with them, understanding how they make decisions, the pressures they are under, and the constant daily trade-offs they have to make. Only then can you deliver the best products and services to them.

Thirdly, leadership means having a strong commitment to company employees. This means ensuring they have an enjoyable and safe place to work, plenty of opportunities to develop, and a system where they can be fairly remunerated.

Finally, leadership means giving back to the community, in order to earn the right to participate in the business of that community.

All the above aspects need to be imbued into the mindset of everyone. Why? Because when times are tough, and difficult decisions have to be made (encountered plentiful times in our MBA projects), a company guideline, policy, or process may only help get people so far. Everyone – employees and leaders – need to share a genuine belief in a strong value system, backed by a strong commitment and understanding of customers, and the community in which they participate.

Are past credentials important?
This is a question I have sometimes been asked. Should your past credentials really matter if you’re an engineer, a trained classicist, historian, mathematician?

In all honesty, it’s how you use them that really matters. If you want to be a General Manager or Senior Executive, having a blend of many skills, I believe, is important.

Coming from a technical background myself, I had the good fortune of having taken some humanities classes when I was an undergraduate. In my MBA, my prior ‘harder’ skills in engineering, finance and accounting were useful for courses such as Statistics, Corporate Finance, Management and Finance Accounting (by the way, they are still essential skills because they have enabled me to be engaged enough to ask the right questions). However, the most challenging part of my experience has been the application of  ‘softer’ skills – how I can most effectively connect the dots, and most actively engage the people and teams I work with to get the best out of them for the task at hand. These softer skills have, in many ways, been more important to me when taking an idea forward – and they have been one of the most important takeaways for me so far.

Are there any other parallels from my past experience and leadership lessons learnt so far?
I think one of the greatest challenges has been always having a very positive attitude and frame of mind – not in any kind of arrogant or bullish way, but with the self-belief and confidence that any situation, regardless of how overwhelming it might initially seem (like some of the MBA work), can be overcome with effective teamwork and leadership.

Dwelling on problems, or writing beautifully lyrical Power Points is one thing (and important when presentation to the right audience matters), but making actual progress in tough situations, I have learned, depends a lot on being able to engage people.

Related to this, another important personal lesson has been to never confuse education with intelligence.

As I reflect on my own career, I have worked and met with people who many, including myself, would call ‘shockingly smart’. These people never got the chance to go on into further education, and they were often the first in their family to go to high school, but they were well trained, always a delight to work with, very professional and bright in their own special way. At the same time I’ve worked with many people, with a lot of initials after their name, who perhaps cannot always ‘connect the dots’ as quickly as others. So, not confusing the two has been another crucial lesson for me.

Lastly, I have learned that there is an important humility to leadership. That is, before you try to assert any type of leadership, you should at all times be very mindful of others and their own past experiences and ambitions because, again, leadership is never about you, but more about helping others and the organisation in which you work.

So what do you think are important leadership lessons to having a rewarding and successful career?
I have seen, and I believe, that having a customer-facing role is important. It gives you an insight into what is really important to them, and they are one of the most important stakeholders.

The other is how to effectively lead teams. Often, I’ve seen and learned that it is not an ‘intellectual gap’ that inhibits a person’s ability to succeed, but a lack of leadership skills, and their own inability to use their own individual capabilities and skillsets to work with and make the people they work with (their team) even better!

Another is not to be too cautious! A wise person I listened to (a leader in his own right) once said that he often gets the sense that many people, midway through their careers, try to be a little bit too cagey or savvy in trying to make their careers ‘just right’. Instead, he believed that people should try to get as many different experiences as they can, so that they can perform well in both good markets and bad markets, even different geography markets! These are the kind of people who should be running towards turnaround situations, not away from them… I couldn’t agree more!

You might want to walk into a good situation, but if everything is going too well it is tough to ‘rock the boat’. When things are in turmoil, and this is recognized as such by others, you can step in and really make a difference. In good situations, the challenge would be to give greater thrust to make it even better.

The last and final aspect I’ve learned is that people who become leaders in their career must have an unquenchable thirst and desire to learn more. The half-life of information today is so short (about 28 months), that the most important thing is one’s desire and ability to learn! People shouldn’t just accept things for the way they are, but have a continuous ability to change and adapt. That is what brings both happiness and success!

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