MBA Interviews 2010 #6: Leadership vs. Teamwork

One question I ask my interview clients a lot is, “Are you a better leader or team player?” Most everyone says they are both, depending on the circumstances (good answer!), at which point I ask them for an example of both. Explaining leadership is never a problem. It seems hardwired into MBA applicants. Teamwork, however, seems much more difficult to explain. While there is certainly overlap between the two and both leadership and teamwork examples should end in a “win”, the challenges of the former are often external (e.g., persuading a boss, client or partner to take a chance), while those of the latter are internal. By that, I mean the impediments to success in a teamwork example are often your own team – poor communication, lack of clear goals, leadership, or organization, selfishness or ego, personality clashes, wavering commitment, etc. (Interestingly, I’ve found that bad teams are uniquely bad, while good teams are usually good for the same reasons.)

So, one approach is to describe:

1)    How you fixed a broken team 2)    How you established a good team from the beginning

Hopefully you have such a story among your essays, but if not, a very simple outline might look like this:

1)    Explain the team project or situation 2)    Explain the internal problems the team was facing 3)    Explain in detail the steps you took to reduce or eliminate the problems, and how doing so contributed significantly to success 4)    Explain the universal teamwork lessons from the experience. For bonus points, explain how those lessons will make you a great team player at your MBA.

Some interview questions that might lead to this kind of example (remember, you should provide an example whenever possible):

1)    Describe your role on a team 2)    How do you contribute to your teams? 3)    Are you a better leader or team player? 4)    How would your teammates describe your leadership and/or teamwork ability? 5)    What’s the best/worst team you’ve ever been on? What role did you play on it? 6)    What is your secret for building a good team? 7)    Describe an impact you had on a team when you were not the leader.

Regarding 7) above, another approach would be to describe a supporting role you played on a team, something important to the successful outcome, but not necessarily the pivotal role that is usually part of a leadership example.

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