An Indian children's TV host, a Chinese dentist, a Venezuelan armored truck manager, a Lebanese-American father, a trilingual Pennsylvanian and a hockey player from New York are sitting in a room together.
Sounds like the set-up to a joke, but it’s an example of a consequential leadership team at Fuqua, known around the school as C-Lead teams. MBA students are sorted into teams that become an essential element of their first year experience. And they’re organized to be as diverse as possible.
“You get to solutions you wouldn’t have individually have come to by working with these teammates with a diversity of experience and backgrounds,” said Russ Morgan, Fuqua’s senior associate dean for full-time programs.
Morgan remembers an emphasis on collaboration back when he did his MBA at Fuqua in the 1980s and says the school’s commitment to teamwork has deepened over the years.
“Collaborative leadership is critical, so it’s a skill we’ve intentionally tried to develop with students,” Morgan said. “Recruiters say it’s a critical skill; the leaders on our board of visitors tell us universally that what they need are highly competent people who can function well in team environments and get the most out of each other. It’s critical to us because it’s been reflected by the market as something that should be an outcome of business school education.”
Almost every class at Fuqua has a team component. C-Lead teams reflect the idea that students learn better in teams, but they also teach students how to be better team members.
“That itself is a skill to learn,” Morgan said. “How to operate in a team, how to lead a team of peers, how to follow in a team of peers – and how that can be fluid even within one activity. We want students to have lots of practice at that, because it’s not always easy. We want them to get good at this and to understand what their obstacles are.”
“It’s not just about going to class and studying and learning. It’s about thinking within a team environment how you’re going to produce something."
The C-Lead team is a proving ground for those skills, as well as a teaching tool to show students the value of teams in general. Mentored by a second-year student, the teams tackle class projects and are given other tasks to complete.
“We get to signal to them that they can’t just go it alone,” Morgan said. “It’s not just about going to class and studying and learning. It’s about thinking within a team environment how you’re going to produce something. That’s why assigning the teams across different classes is essential -- within the same team you’re both an expert and a non-expert. There are times when you’re expected to share and teach everyone else, and times you have the opportunity to learn from those same teammates.”
The idea is to maximize the strengths of every member, making use of the differences.
“My interaction with my C-Lead team, where I am not the expert on the subjects we're covering, has allowed me to take a step back and find different and more effective ways for me to contribute and provide guidance,” said Thomas Payne of the class of 2018. “I’m a firm believer that diversity and humility are cornerstones of what makes Fuqua a transformational experience.”
Lucas Chaya del Pino of the class of 2018 said he had worked only in homogenous environments before coming to Fuqua. He said his C-Lead team showed him “the advantages and richness that diversity in work environments adds to any organization."
C-Lead activities are designed to build trust and relationships. Teams spend enough time together that members can’t just coast and not get involved.
“The amount of time you spend with this team is enough that you can’t just fake it to get along,” Morgan said, “You’ve got to address any real conflict or issues about how you’re going to interact. We have them talk about their goals and how you reconcile the individual goals with the needs of the team.”
“As leaders, we are fair, open to the ideas of others, and always converge after a vigorous exchange of thought."
There can be tension, but a productive kind, said J.P. Liss, another 2018 classman.
“It happens when we get passionate about the topic and the best way to approach and solve the assignment,” he said. “As leaders, we are fair, open to the ideas of others, and always converge after a vigorous exchange of thought. It's a perfect training ground to sharpen communication skills, advancing team work, and strengthen our leadership abilities.”
Liss said he chose Fuqua for its collaborative approach. His C-Lead team included a venture capitalist who worked in Korea, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, a data scientist, a Chinese tech consultant and a marketer who worked in sports and multi-cultural branding.
“Like many of my classmates, I've worked with teams in the past,” he said. “One of the main differences at Duke is the diversity of background and thought on our teams. It creates an atmosphere of learning and deep brainstorming.”
Trista Szocs said his team differed in everything from background to preferred pizza toppings.
“The seven of us represented five countries of origin and a combined 40 years of work experience,” he said. “Some of us spent our breaks solo-travelling and others had quality time with their spouse and children. At a team potluck, we had buffalo chicken dip next to kimchi and kimbap. Everyone had such a unique perspective and taste. It enriched my experience inside and outside of the classroom.”
Szocs, a 2017 graduate, said he learned the importance of not simply having diverse teams, but of understanding the perspectives each member can bring.
“Not only do I appreciate those perspectives, but I cultivate them to capitalize on their strengths,” he said. “Through my teammates, I was able to understand situations through a different lens. I was able to add extra layers of analysis to cases and learn from my teammates' strengths.”
In their second year, students are placed in different teams. They don’t spend as much time together as a C-Lead team, but it’s an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned.
“It’s a team for life.”
“The experience they have with that one team should prepare them to be in a myriad of different teams,” Morgan said. “They should know how to be a good teammate, how to set a charter and expectations.”
They also come out with a bond. C-Lead teams tend to stick together long after their formal time together is done. Reunions dinners are common.
“It’s a team for life,” Morgan said. “They count on each other. Some of the strongest bonds students form here are with their first-year team.”
Nancy Abramowitz, a member of the class of 2018 and the trilingual Pennsylvanian in the group that introduced this story, said her team ended up sharing birthday celebrations from their different cultures.
“We have all learned so much from each other,” she said.
Lauren Vick, another 2018 class member, calls her C-Lead team her Mötley Crüe, the hellraising rock band from the ‘80s.
“I feel very lucky,” Vick said, “to experience all this with such a fun, light hearted, but hard-working team.”