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Six weeks into my MBA at Insead, I am beginning to understand how demanding and rewarding it will be. Of course there are the readings, the case work, and getting my rusty maths skills back to where they were last time I studied. However, one of the most interesting challenges is working with my study group in the process of self-discovery that we are undertaking.

Lest anyone get me wrong as I share my thoughts on the perils and pleasures of group work during an MBA, let me be clear from the outset: it is a positive experience. Like many positive experiences, however, it requires personal effort and a willingness to go beyond what is comfortable. Sometimes this happens naturally, and sometimes we are pushed by our coursework, notably in leadership, under the able guidance of psychiatrist Gianpiero Petriglieri, affiliate professor of organisational behaviour. We are challenged to think clinically about the people we are, the types of leaders we want to be, the cultures we will be contributing to creating in our organisations, and the emotions that we will face as managers.

So let me introduce my study group. All are bright, creative people from whom I am learning a great deal. And all are becoming close friends as we try to meet the demands of the coursework, but also, to examine ourselves and each other in the group context.

First, there is Wriju, an Indian who most recently worked for the IT industry in Malaysia, and who energizes us with his enthusiasm. Raluca, a Romanian whose last job was in the shipbuilding industry, is the youngest of our group, although in many ways I am convinced she is the wisest amongst us, with an uncanny ability to define a consensus we are all dancing around. Federico is an Italian management consultant from a leading global consultancy, whose outstanding analysis not only helps us solve the businesses cases we address, but also guides our thinking during the psychological exercises we must perform. And, last but not least, is Corinne, a Brazilian with a background in marketing, whose influence in the group stems from her intelligence, her emotional maturity and her warmth. Corinne also reminds us not to forget to have fun.

These are the people that I spend more time with than perhaps anybody else at Insead. Nearly every class has a group work component, and through the first 12 core course over the first three terms, they are the people with whom I have to produce assignments, analyse cases, and sometimes even be tested. So the relationship had better work.

Fortunately, it does, which does not mean that our path has not been without some bumps along the way, although this has meant there is more to learn from the experience.

Corinne, Wriju, Federico, Raluca and I have had what may end up being a much more enriching experience than some other groups, due to an early conflict that required us to get to a place of mutually beneficial co-operation.

The Insead MBA starts with a day in the Fontainebleau forest with your study group, a second study group, and an Outward Bound facilitator. This is the usual team-building stuff: getting everyone up and over a rock face, tightrope walking, etc, all designed to expose our personalities in challenging situations and open up communication.

In our group, it was kind of a disaster. This is not to say that it wasn’t a useful learning experience, or that we didn’t emerge from the forest knowing each other a lot better. However, the Outward Bound technique of putting us under just enough stress to expose raw nerves, combined with the normal stress of starting an MBA, worked its magic, and I lost my cool (as did a few others).

Fortunately, the conflict that ensued immediately opened a constructive dialogue between us about our quite different expectations from the MBA, and each other, and made clear the need for us to work to accommodate each other in the best way possible and keep our lines of communication wide open.

I think that by exposing our raw nerves early, my group mates and I have developed a more interesting form of co-operation than othewise.

This was brought home to me during an exercise we were asked to perform, during which we each had to come up with a couple of positive and negative characteristics on our group mates to which we would give non-judgmental feedback. Rarely have I received such useful feedback from anyone. Each person in the group was able to give me a fresh perspective on myself, was able to underscore strengths and weaknesses, and yet I never felt criticised. For example, I was reminded of my tendency to be pushy with my high standards, but was also told that the group was worried that, in order to please the group, I would choose to become too moderate and therefore they would no longer be able to count on my passion for excellence. I am grateful for their honesty and for reminding me that people around me – even people whom I have just met – can be a source of learning about myself and not just judgment as I often fear.

Of course, I have come to Insead to become better at the tools of modern management, to gain technical skills and new knowledge, and these are things I can do on my own with my books and my spreadsheet. But also, studying for me is about becoming a better person on many levels, and for that I need to work with others.

Part 1: Optimistic ideas to suit an idyllic setting

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