Good leadership skills are integral to the success of any business, but they don't always come naturally. So, how can these traits be cultivated in a person, especially one pursing a master's degree as an adult? As an MBA student at the Washington State University Carson College of Business, you may learn some tricks of the trade throughout your education, especially in the strategic leadership courses that are part of both WSU’s online Master of Business Administration and online Executive Master of Business Administration programs. Still, as you may have learned in a professional working environment, while it is important to learn the theory and strategies of conducting business, there's no substitute for real-world experience. Going the extra mile in work, school and life is always beneficial.
In short, the experience you can obtain outside of the classroom setting can build upon your MBA education at WSU, allowing you to become a more capable leader. Keep the following five tips in mind throughout your education, and you can leave school ready for what the business world may throw at you:
1. Be proactive.
Effective leaders attack an issue before it arises, hoping to prevent a catastrophe rather than spend excessive amounts of time, money and energy fixing it.
What does this mean? Leaders must guide their teams, making sure they're adequately supported and equipped with the right resources. The latter idea is exceptionally important. Providing your team with the tools they need - for example, upgraded equipment - paints you as an effective leader in your team’s eyes. Waiting until the outdated equipment fails or productivity falls behind your competition may make your employees feel like you are incompetent and compromises your company's output.
To use another example, AccountingWEB described how many firms still use email to collaborate on documents, despite the fact that it was never intended for this purpose. This often leads to inefficiencies at every level - a survey cited by the website found 55 percent of respondents at various accounting firms worked on files too large for email, forcing them to spend time finding other ways to share these documents with co-workers. Furthermore, 51 percent ended up working on the wrong version of a document. A simple solution a leader could have implemented would have been to use project management software from the beginning. Doing so could have saved the time and energy employees wasted using inefficient methods.
While most companies now use more efficient project management software, the point remains that business leaders must preemptively determine what tools their employees would benefit from the most. This type of forward thinking must extend to all aspects of a business. For example, if your company suddenly has an influx of new, long-term clients, then as a leader, you will need to look beyond hiring more people to handle the increased workloads. If these clients will be clients of yours for years to come and your growth is expected to increase, it could be beneficial to start surveying the market for a new building that accommodates your extra staff and stands as a more accessible location to which clients can travel for in-person meetings.
As a leader within your MBA program, you can start adopting a proactive mindset by thoroughly reviewing the syllabus for each course during the beginning of the semester. Look over what you are scheduled to study and the listed assignments, then start brainstorming the tools and allotted time you’ll need to complete them. Another way to be a leader during your Master of Business Administration program is to take the lead position of group projects. Defining the project’s timelines and delegating tasks early in the process is a good way to ensure you proactively identify minor issues before they become large problems.
2. Lead outside the curriculum.
MBA coursework is designed to give you a strong foundation of leadership skills. Even though you'll graduate with more knowledge and insight than before, the Graduate Management Admission Council, creator of the GMAT exam, believes it's best to add to your studies with extracurricular leadership activities. Participating in these endeavors gives you the opportunity to practice the communication and management theories you've studied in the classroom. Furthermore, while you can study these theories, in order to master the concepts, you need to practice them.
The GMAC released a white paper observing the ways various extracurricular options increased a graduate student's ability to lead. Titled "Improving Communication and Leadership Skills: The Impact of Extracurricular Activities on MBA Students," the study monitored 11 different extracurricular activities:
2. Student career/professional clubs
3. Work projects
4. Volunteer activities
5. Diversity/multicultural events
6. Academic competitions
7. Mentor programs
8. Leadership programs
9. Study-abroad programs
10. Community service organizations
11. Student government
The study then detailed which of these activities lead to statistically observable improvements in the leadership skills below:
• Managing human capital
• Managing decision-making process
• Managing task environment
• Knowledge of human behavior
• Knowledge of general business functions
• Knowledge of media communications and delivery
• Interpersonal skills
• Foundation skills
All of the extracurricular activities improved one or more of the observed skills - in fact, nine of the 11 activities improved every single one. Student government improved seven out of eight skills, and study abroad opportunities improved one of the most significant skills: knowledge of general business functions.
Finding extracurricular opportunities is easier for online students than you might think. For instance, volunteer opportunities and community service organizations are available in nearly every city and town, whether through publicly funded groups, private institutions or religious organizations. In addition, students enrolled in the Carson College of Business' online Executive MBA program are invited to our annual three-day Leadership Conference. This is a chance for you to meet your classmates and network with them as well as alumni, and gain additional leadership insights from industry experts.
3. Communicate effectively.
Part of being a strong leader requires effective communication with your staff. This soft skill can be vastly underappreciated, yet it's crucial for the success of a business. Bad communication creates confusion and is proven to be detrimental to your bottom line; research from Cognisco found businesses in the U.S. and U.K. lose an average of $37 billion annually from misunderstandings. Furthermore, companies with over 100,000 workers lose $62 million annually from miscommunications, an average cost of $624 per person.
As the amount of money lost through poor communication varies based on industry, so do the negative effects. For example, businesses in the financial field are most at risk of losing money due to poor communication, while those in transportation are at the least risk. However, transportation companies face one danger most other industries don’t: fatalities. Within a year of their survey, Cognisco found 36 percent of transportation businesses risked death to employees or the public due to faulty instructions. In addition, petrochemical companies said poor communication potentially leads to health and safety compliance issues. Such rules are established to keep employees and the public safe, and violating them increases the chances of an accident, injury or death.
Despite the fact that proper communication keeps businesses profitable and employees safe, its importance is often underestimated by MBA graduates. It's often mentioned as an asset by educators and leading business professionals, but according to research from HayGroup, 69 percent of graduates believe soft skills "get in the way of getting the job done." However, 92 percent of human resources directors said such emotional and social skills are important, especially as businesses grow increasingly global. In addition, 83 percent of directors noted that graduates who didn't quickly develop these skills upon employment never became high performers.
Thankfully, the majority of the extracurricular activities identified by the GMAC help students increase their interpersonal skills, including communication. By working on such attributes during your during your MBA program, you can graduate with a skillset above your competition. For example, extracurricular activities that put you in a group setting - such as volunteer projects, internships and community service organizations - give you the opportunity to work on your communication before you graduate.
4. Be transparent, even when it's frightening.
Transparency isn't just a buzzword in the world of business today. Leaders fearless enough to be truly straightforward with both customers and employees see measurable, positive results in engagement and increased brand loyalty. If you're determined to withhold information from your employees and your customers, they may take their skills and money to a company that is more candid with them.
A TINYpulse survey found transparency does more to influence employee happiness than any other work environment factor, including views toward co-workers and direct supervisors, responses to feedback and opinion of the company culture.
When employees are happy and engaged, their productivity increases significantly. Research from Gallup found people who fell in the top 50 percent in terms of engagement were almost twice as successful on average as those in the bottom percentile. In addition, those in the 99th percentile of engagement were four times as productive as those in the first.
Higher engagement also leads to higher profits. Also according to Gallup, businesses with approximately nine engaged workers per single disengaged worker saw 147 percent higher earnings per share than their competition.
Furthermore, poor transparency can go hand-in-hand with a lack of communication, which as aforementioned, can lead to confusion and lost productivity. This concept also applies to your educational experience. For instance, poor communication during a group project can lead to delays and varying participation among your team. Clearly establishing deadlines and outlining expectations helps ensure everyone is on the same page.
Proper communication can also benefit you as a student in a one-on-one setting. For example, if you’re confused about a lecture, being transparent with the professor can open a line of communication that can better help you learn the material.
5. Develop your emotional intelligence.
Businesses are built on relationships - with customers, clients, employees, investors and the public as a whole. As such, it is important for business leaders to know how to create and maintain connections with other people. This requires a high amount of emotional intelligence: the ability to understand and manage both your emotions and those of the people around you.
Developing this characteristic can lead to a very lucrative career. The Center for Creative Leadership identified several ways you can strengthen your emotional intelligence outside of your studies. The first is to increase your self-awareness by asking for ongoing feedback from co-workers, supervisors, professors and even family members. If you’re tasked with completing any group projects, for example, ask your group members how your contributions influenced their studies. The insights provided can help you grow more aware of your strengths and weaknesses.
You can also take on tasks that place you in charge of students who are inexperienced or reluctant to work. Don't allow yourself to become frustrated in this position. Instead, look for creative ways to connect with them and thereby motivate your team.
It might be possible to develop the skills of a strong leader based on your Master of Business Administration studies alone, but you can grow to be an even better leader by focusing on skills not taught in the classroom as well. Use these aforementioned five leadership tips to supplement your education and prepare yourself for a top-notch leadership position upon graduation.