For some, leadership is the culmination of the 3 C’s: control, communication, and charisma. Forget the 20th century notion of business leaders as detached, iron-fisted, and all-knowing. These days, a Howard Schultz or Jeff Bezos would use a term like “bridge builder” or “cultural gatekeeper” to describe their roles. They focus on surveying landscapes and harnessing talent, viewing employee buy-in and brand equity as the truest measures of power.
In surveying this year’s “Best & Brightest Business Majors,” we asked an important question: What were the most important lessons you learned in business school. Their answers were broad and varied, and much of what they took away from their experience had to do with leadership. Today’s students admire example and message over title and authority. Many came away with a very different understanding of what true leadership entails. For one, leadership isn’t restricted to being the one calling the shots, says Ohio State’s Michael Inman. “A leader is someone who rallies people to work toward a collective goal and invests in the development and success of the people around them. A good leader enables the work of a team to surpass what is possible from the sum of its individual members.”
BUSINESS IS ALL ABOUT “PEOPLE”
In fact, some business graduates regard good leadership as the ability to delegate decision-making and act as a team player. That doesn’t mean that the Class of 2017 is looking for leaders to step back and become figure heads. Instead, argues Wake Forest’s Jake Teitelbaum, leadership is about setting the tone and personifying company values through word and deed. “Everything starts with you,” he emphasizes. “As a leader of an organization, your influence on everything about your company from strategy to culture is paramount. Every decision and action creates precedent for your employees.”
Leadership wasn’t the only area where the “Best & Brightest” broadened their way of thinking during business school. Although Paige Kugelman studied management at the College of New Jersey, she quickly discovered that being knowledgeable in such areas as marketing and accounting would make her more effective. Michigan State’s Kari Jurewicz took it a step further, focusing on the “people” part of business.
“People are the most important asset to any organization,” she observes. “Their creativity, critical thinking, and belief in a purpose are the foundation for success. To understand business, I must first understand people.”
A SMILE CAN DO WONDERS
That makes the ability to effectively communicate so important to business. At the University of Missouri, for example, Katelyn Entzeroth experienced the importance of persuasive speaking and messaging first-hand by watching entrepreneurs pitch their startup ideas to them. “I quickly realized that it doesn’t just matter what is in your pitch deck—if you can’t present the information in a compelling way, your business will never get the funding it needs to grow. Communication is key.”
Structured arguments are just the tip of the iceberg. For William & Mary’s Kevin Andrews, effective communication also involves deploying simple yet powerful tools like showing interest in others and even smiling. Such tools carry exponential value in business school, which reflects the team-driven ethos of most employers. That was a big adjustment for the University of Illinois’ Olivia Bounadere, who admits that she preferred “studying alone and loathed working in groups” in high school. Fast forward four years and she has undergone a 180 degree turn, understanding how teamwork often trumps technical knowledge.
“I have discovered that I learn best when I study with others because we are able to teach each other concepts and talk through our ideas,” she admits. “When I work with those who are like-minded and driven towards the same goal, it makes working in groups that much more meaningful.”
Such collaborations enable students better understand each other. This habit naturally translates into identifying what drives customers to buy and employees to give their best. Even more, teamwork reminded the 2017 Class that every member can play a role and bring value. “The biggest lesson I learned from studying business is not to underestimate anyone,” points out Rutgers’ Jorge Paneque. “Each student has a different set of skills that set him or her apart.”
UNDERSTAND HOW YOUR DECISIONS IMPACT OTHERS
Boston College’s Angela Jin enjoyed a similar epiphany during business school. By taking a holistic look at a business operation, she gained respect for employees at all levels of an organization — and a greater appreciation for her responsibilities to them. “So many people look down on labor-intensive jobs such as factory work,” Jin admits. “However, these labor-intensive jobs are the backbone of the business industry and often the least compensated. As businesswomen and men, it’s our duty to fight for the ethics and rights of these workers as well – not just our peers sitting in the next cubicle.”
This interest stretched well beyond the org chart. As a Quantitative Finance and Economics major at James Madison, Michael Habib became increasingly aware of how interconnected the world was. This spurred him to reflect on how events can ripple across borders and industries. At the same time, such insights forced Georgetown’s Bserat Ghebremicael to look at how she would make decisions— and the impact they would have on others.
“With an advancing technological world, more people will most likely lose their jobs to technology,” she notes. “With big companies coming into new areas, it could result in more gentrification. I don’t have answers to these huge social issues, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to understand my impact, especially as someone who grew up low income, someone who was affected by these social issues, and someone who will soon be in the middle class.”
DON’T TAKE THEIR WORD FOR IT — DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE
Of course, decisions can be hard to understand if you’re not versed in the overarching strategy and variables behind it. That’s why Romanna Romaniv, a University of Connecticut Finance grad, probes beyond what she is told and seeks to truly understand a business and the model it follows. Alexander Bucshon gained a similar lesson from his time at Southern Methodist University.
“There is often much more behind certain decisions and events than we may think,” he cautions. “From an external perspective, a company’s decision sometimes does not make sense, but when you look deeper at the internal factors at play, the reasoning is obvious.”
Sometimes, the reasoning cannot be clear. There is a degree of uncertainty in any decision, whether that involves projecting economic growth or the impact of a new product launch. Chinasa Gift Nwokocha knows all about uncertainty. The Villanova graduate confesses that she would overestimate sales early in her startup, assuming “they would automatically work.” The result, of course, was early failure, which taught her to be cautious and underestimate. The University of Denver’s Ronan McIntosh learned the opposite lesson. Early on, he tended to be risk-averse, “always inclined to take the safest path.” After business school, he has adopted a more entrepreneurial mindset that embraces risk as a key ingredient in success.
And uncertainty sits at the center of such risk. “The world is a lot more gray than black and white,” asserts the University of Maryland’s Mimi Verdonk, who starts at McKinsey this fall. “In business, chances are there is more than one right answer or way to do things. Studying business has taught me to get comfortable with the uncomfortable or unclear and to navigate the gray both in the context of business and in the grander scheme of life.”