MBAs: Creating a team

Nic Paton
Wednesday 16 April 2008 18:26 BST

Business schools are adding team building exercises to their induction programmes.

When you start an MBA you expect there’s going to be a lot of reading, a lot of debate, a lot of essay writing. What you probably don’t expect is to be standing in a raging torrent plugging holes in a sinking ship. But that’s just how Cass Business School student Paul Stockford got his MBA off to an intense, if wet, start. The event, actually on a sinking ship simulator rather than the real thing, was part of a team-building exercise at the end of the school’s induction fortnight. “It lasted about 20 minutes but felt like five; you were just so focused. All the lights started flashing, the PA said there was an aircraft attacking us and the water started being sprayed in,” recalls former printing industry senior manager Stockford, 35, who began a one year MBA last September.

“The water wasn’t too cold but you were rocking backwards and forwards. It was pretty hard but we were the only team over the weekend that managed to get the whole task done. “The experience was amazing, a real adrenalin rush. Over the year you work in different groups in different ways but there is always this shared experience. It really was a short cut to getting to know people and building up trust and rapport, and it was excellent fun,” he adds. Stockford’s experience, while novel, is by no means unusual these days.

With MBA courses designed to be short and intensive, and with a vast range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds invariably represented, most business schools now spend a good deal of time and effort helping students (and often their partners and families) feel at home, involved and, crucially, on top of their course from day one. The induction period, which usually lasts between a week and a fortnight, will normally have two aims. First it will be a breathing space before everything kicks off to give students time to sort out all any practical stuff such as finding their way around, joining the library, sourcing accommodation or, for overseas students, arranging their alien registration or other appropriate residency certification. But it will also be an opportunity for the school to explain its learning methods, get students used to new ways of thinking and bond them as a team, as Durham Business School MBA student Andy Nicklin discovered.

The school runs a 10-day induction programme, at the end of which there is a team-building weekend in the Lake District. “It had been 13 years since I had last written an essay so there was definitely an element of needing to get back into the mindset,” says former chemical engineer Nicklin , 36, who started his part-time MBA in January. “The tasks were designed to push you outside your comfort zone. There was, for example, a night exercise when we rowed boats across Windermere looking for various checkpoints,” he explains. “The biggest challenge for me was climbing a 10m pole to stand on a half metre square platform. You have ropes on but I am not that good with heights. There was no pressure to do it; I had originally decided not to but didn’t want to regret it later. You hold hands and bend backwards over the edge so everyone is holding everyone else on; it was very much about learning about each other and building up trust,” he adds.

But don’t worry, it won’t all be sweat and tears, emphasises Inger Seiferheld, MBA programme director at Edinburgh University Management School. Social activities are normally a big part of the induction too. “We have a ceilidh with highland dancing, which the students really enjoy,” she says. “We also have an induction for partners and a lunch where they can all meet and which gives them an instant network. We tell them about the programme and what they can expect, things like when the exams are and when the students will be under the most pressure. “We help with things such as where to find language courses and activities with which to occupy themselves if they do not have a work permit. There are courses they can take even if they are not a fully matriculated student.”

Many business schools will offer overseas students pre-course English language and maths courses, if they feel they need them. There will also normally be an overseas students’ office to help with any practical issues or pastoral support. Many, such as Manchester Business School, run family support programmes. Meanwhile, Cranfield School of Management offers “partner days” where partners can take part in some of the MBA sessions to get a flavour of the programme. And at Saïd Business School there is the Oxford University Newcomers Club, an organisation run by volunteers with the aim of helping people get to know others through a range of activities, such as book clubs.

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