NUS MBA 16 August 2013

How to Train a Business Leader

We recently organised Management Communication (MC) Camp for the NUS MBA students to help them become effective leaders. As promised, below is a first-hand account of one of the participants:

Readers of this blog will have read earlier in What You Wish You Were Taught in MBA blog post that the School ran before the inaugural Management Communication (or MC) camp from 29 July to 3 August.

As ever-effervescent faculty leader Huijin Kong told me before the camp kicked off, the week was an intensive ‘trial by fire’ in order to instill quickly in new MBA students “the right skills, mindsets, personalities and qualities” to be catapulted onto the C-suite track most are aiming for. Since being an effective leader is only 20 percent knowledge, with the 80 percent lying in how one influences, this will put the new MBAs into the right frame of mind before they launch into their programme.

As if this wasn’t already sounding sufficiently intimidating, one of the highlights of the week was a cocktail session during which the MBA candidates will actually be critiqued on their ability to network with and otherwise make a good impression on invited industry guests. Among them was former McKinsey MD Hsieh Tsun-yan, the brain behind the MC camp and who has himself spoken publicly of his personal journey in leadership.

MC Camp

I don’t know about you, but on the best of days, networking leaves a bad taste in my mouth, no thanks to yawn-inducing encounters with persons who drone on about themselves. If this is networking, I’ve told myself, I’m happy being a wallflower. This explains why I sat in on my first day with Section G — the group I was attached to — quite prepared to brush the camp off. It came as a surprise therefore that at the end of five days, I found myself tossing out some closely-held misconceptions about what effective communication actually is.

Here I highlight three misconceptions:

1) Networking is about talking. Any talking.

As with random groups of folks, Group G comprised of different personalities — confident ones who naturally dominate conversations and reserved ones happy to keep quiet unless spoken to. I mentally casted my votes before the cocktail session on who will emerge as ‘best networker’ (won’t these be the ones who have no qualms telling a stranger all about himself?). Well, what do you know?


When Group G participants were individually assessed at the end of the session, the two students who made the best impressions on guests were…. students who hadn’t for the most part made their presence heard during class. But when the guests gave their appraisal — and these were senior executives – they said the two were memorable precisely because they had made the effort to ask questions of the other party and as importantly, listen. This enabled them to find common ground and therefore sustain a two-way conversation. In fact, while sharing her experience, top ‘networker’ Josie Wu said that it was because she was naturally an introvert that she made herself focus more on asking questions rather than talking.

MBA Class

2) Silence is a no-no

This is linked to the first point, but also repeatedly hammered home through the numerous business negotiation role-playing that was de rigueur. As happened again and again, while the students were called up to play different parts, in one case as senior management negotiating with striking air crew, opposing groups often failed to listen to the other party’s demands as they often couldn’t wait to present their side of their carefully scripted arguments. As a result, both groups often felt the other party wasn’t being sincere – not exactly the best sentiment when trying to influence others.

MBA Group exercise

Similarly in conversations, most of us are uncomfortable with the prattle stalling — ‘awkward silence’ anyone? As it turns out, silence can be a wonderfully powerful tool in business. Facilitator Anna Kiukas-Pedersen, a Finnish finance professional, pointed out that back in her country, silence in conversations is culturally accepted. And this has turned out to be strength for Finnish executives as they often go silent to ponder a point in the midst of important negotiations, and this inadvertently will cause the non-Finnish party at the table to get nervous or make the first concession.



3) Influence is making the other see your point

This really should be self-explanatory, but I believe I’m not the only one who has the mistaken (and unhappy) belief that influencing means merely converting the other over to your viewpoint. Happily, this was also debunked during the camp. Again using the practice of role playing, the MBA students were brought round to the realization that the most effective negotiations are those where both parties are able to find a mutual vested interest in a particular course of action and believe that individually, they will gain from its fruition. The clichéd ‘win-win’ solution really does apply here.

To quote from Prof Hsieh Tsun-yan, “The day you walk out of here, the first thing that’s going to stop you dead in the water is not that you don’t know how to calculate. It’s that you cannot communicate well.” Let’s hope that with this bootcamp, our MBAs find no such traps when they walk out of NUS Business School at the end of 18 months!

Tanny ChiaTanny Chia is the Assistant Director of Web Content & Social Media at NUS Business School. Learn more about her here. Or if you want to know more about the Management Communications module of the NUS MBA programme, please click here