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Columbia Business Monthly

A Case for Adaptability: How Leaders Get the Most from their MBA

Jul 05, 2018 12:06PM ● By Kathleen Maris
By M. Audrey Korsgaard

In past columns, my colleague Robert Ployhart has written about our Leadership Transitions Model. This framework identifies the competencies necessary for different levels of leadership and how to effectively transition to new leadership roles. Drawing on our framework and experience with many companies, we have developed tools for assessing emerging leaders and assisting them through these transitions. In this article, I want to share our experiences using these tools to accelerate the career progression of our Professional MBA students.

Individuals generally progress through three broad roles in their leadership journey. Each of these broad roles requires a different constellation of competencies. First is the individual contributor role, which involves performing effectively in the job role and requires technical and/or professional competence as well as the ability to manage one’s job and career. Second is the team leader role, which involves delivering results through the team. This requires interpersonal skills to influence and inspire, as well as the team-management strategies that include clarifying expectations, creating accountability, and developing team members. Third is the enterprise leader, which involves achieving outcomes for the business by leading individuals who themselves are leaders. This level of leadership requires strategic thinking, vision, change management skills, and managing multiple stakeholders. Such roles require the development of a broad business and strategic knowledge base, sophisticated problem solving skills, and unique interpersonal skills. 

The Professional MBA program at the Darla Moore School of Business serves professionals who seek to take their careers to the next level. While a variety of occupations are represented, most students have yet to be in a leadership role or are relatively new to team leadership roles. The leadership competencies described above are addressed throughout the MBA curriculum, laying the groundwork of future role transitions. However, what is unique about our approach is that we take it a step further by fostering the adaptability needed to make these transitions.

We see three key ingredients to adaptability: self-awareness, developmental readiness, and resilience. Self-awareness involves understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses, which is essential to anticipating and meeting the demands of future transitions. Self-awareness also involves understanding how one comes across to others, which is fundamental to being an influential and credible leader. Developmental readiness involves seizing opportunities to grow, particularly when there is risk and uncertainty. It also entails being open to feedback and willing to change. Finally, resilience involves the ability to weather the challenges of role transitions and bounce back from setbacks. These qualities enable emerging leaders to anticipate and develop new competencies as they progress. 

We offer a course when students first enter the Professional MBA program in which we provide assessments of the leadership competencies. We also guide them in a personal development planning process to build on what they learned from these assessments and to leverage their MBA to the fullest. We also provide guidance on cultivating adaptability, focusing on self-awareness, developmental readiness, and resilience. 

We recently surveyed students who participated in this program over the last three years and found evidence of the power of these qualities in fostering career progression. We found four out of 10 participants changed jobs in the last three years. Among these, 30 percent moved to a role with significantly more responsibility, shifting from an individual contributor role to a team leader or enterprise leader role. We asked participants to indicate how much they were investing in various activities to facilitate these changes. The top reasons for role changers were seeking feedback from others, seeking challenging work, and leveraging their MBA. These activities underscore the importance of self-awareness and developmental readiness. In a testament to their resilience, role changers did not report higher levels of stress, despite taking on new challenges while continuing their MBA studies. In short, role changers engaged in activities that foster adaptability. 

Developing the core competencies of team and enterprise leadership are essential for career progression. Moreover, adaptability has the potential to accelerate the success of emerging leaders. We at the Moore School of Business are committed to building the next generation of senior leaders by delivering a curriculum that builds on these competencies. Fostering the agility of students helps them leverage their education as they make substantial role transitions. 

Our work with professional MBA students suggests that employees can and should take responsibility for their careers by cultivating their own adaptability. This can be accomplished through a few key tactics:

- Actively seek candid and constructive feedback. Employees should not be content to passively wait for formal performance reviews to get feedback.
- Step up to challenges. Take on challenging assignments and roles, even when you are not fully prepared for the role. 
- Adopt a learning mindset. People with a learning mindset bounce back faster and go farther. Rather than viewing setbacks as signs of inadequacy, view them as opportunities to learn and change. 

Business are facing a pressing need to develop the next generation of leaders and, as a result, invest increasing amounts into training and development. Organizations can maximize the impact of these efforts by assuring their future leaders are ready to face the challenges of transition into new roles.