When I joined MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) in January 2009, I knew that the program had recently revised its curriculum to place an increased emphasis on “leadership.” But I’ll confess I didn’t really know what that meant. How do you teach leadership?
What I’ve discovered is that SDM does not depend solely on theory, but emphasizes practical leadership skills through case studies, role playing, guest lectures, worldclass professional coaching, and a variety of self assessment tools combined with guided self-reflection. Unlike the conventional MBA program I completed previously, SDM’s practical focus on leadership can make an immediate impact on students’ academic, personal, and professional lives.
During my time in the program, I particularly benefited from a tool known as a 360-degree feedback assessment. This provides feedback on an individual’s performance from information gathered from a representative sampling of managers, peers, and direct reports at his or her workplace—using web-enabled surveys. Confiden-tiality is maintained throughout the process, as feedback is elicited by an MIT-sponsored assessment provider and responses are combined into feedback categories for each student.
At SDM, a professional coach reviews the assessor feedback and then shares this feedback with the student in a private coaching session. The coach helps the student to interpret the feedback and determine a development plan that will enhance the student’s professional performance. This process is completed during SDM’s intensive, month-long SDM boot camp in January—the starting point for each SDM cohort. Therefore, it helps to establish an important baseline for student performance. It is also a good example of the way in which leadership activities are firmly embedded within the context of SDM’s principal objectives—a unique aspect of the program.
For me, the 360-degree assessment was an awakening. I arrived at MIT after two and a half years at Harley- Davidson where I had been promoted twice and reached the position of Master Black Belt for the company’s Six Sigma program. I felt like I was on top of the world.
What I learned in the 360-degree assessment is that my personal feeling was apparent to everyone in the workplace. Consequently, I rated poorly in my ability to work with and influence others. While I had thought I was very influential (I always got my way, didn’t I?), I learned that I was really a bully. I was pushing my initiatives and ideas with little regard for the thoughts and concerns of others, while fueling resentment among my team members.
Because I had always thought of myself as personable and well-liked, this feedback was extremely valuable in helping me see how those I worked with perceived me. I understood that though our team was achieving results in the short term, if my teammates did not truly buy in to what we were doing, these results would not be sustainable.
I was able to apply my learnings on the job immediately because at the time that I joined SDM, I was also starting a new career. I was working as a senior manager of quality assurance at Boston-Power, a lithium ion battery producer, and viewed my new position as an opportunity to improve my collaborative skills and become a true leader. I began constantly seeking input from others, brokering agreements between multiple stakeholders, and proposing mutually beneficial solutions rather than pushing through my own agenda or ignoring opposing viewpoints. (The criticality of stakeholder alignment is a principle that occurs repeatedly in the SDM program and one that is intimately linked to the effectiveness of SDM’s leadership development activities.)
The change has been reflected in the next 360-degree assessment I took as part of SDM’s course, Leadership: The Missing Link, taught this past fall. I was able to compare and contrast the feedback and measure my growth. Not only did feedback from the second assessment indicate a more collaborative working style, it also showed clearly that one of my skills that Boston-Power values most is collaboration.
Because our business is global, I am constantly balancing the needs of diverse stakeholder groups in the quality services that my team provides. The second 360-degree assessment highlighted my ability to align stakeholders and subsequently develop systems that met all stakeholder needs. This behavior would not have been part of my working style had I not received the feedback from my original 360-degree assessment nearly a year earlier and the support given to me by the coach, the SDM faculty, and my fellow students.
Of course, the 360-degree assessment is just one of the tools SDM uses to build better leaders. In addition, SDM provides multiple opportunities to exercise the leadership skills that we are learning through the team projects that are assigned throughout the program. After many of these activities, we receive confidential feedback from our team members about our performance. This helps us to understand what role we played in the group and to make changes, if necessary, before taking on the next group activity.
SDM students also have the opportunity to take a leadership role in the program itself, through committees that range in scope from organizing social activities to facilitating better relations with the program’s industry partners. We even have intramural sports teams, giving us a chance to exercise our leadership skills in a completely different environment.
It appears that, when linked to concrete efforts to deal with real business problems, leadership skills can be developed in an academic environment. While the teaching of leadership skills is certainly a major value added component of the SDM program, I think the wealth of opportunities for practical application of these skills is what truly sets SDM apart.