Imagine going into a room full of strangers and sitting at a table with three other people. Politely, you introduce yourself and make small talk. You find out the people you're sitting with are all working on amazing things – the economics of tropical deforestation, emerging electronics for broad applications, and engineering new cervical care diagnostics, for example – all totally different from your own research.
Then we get the news. "The people you're sitting with are your team members," Melissa Bostrom, one of the facilitators of the Emerging Leaders Institute, told us. “You have the next five weeks to come up with a project – specifically, something that enriches the graduate and postdoctoral experience at Duke University – and implement it."
I gave my team members a quick smile and glanced at their name tags again, repeating their names in my head a few times. "I hope this goes well..." I remember thinking nervously.
As a graduate student I'm lucky to be surrounded by other students and professionals who share my goals and interests. And yes, as a social psychologist I work with other people all the time. But being forced into a group with three other strangers – who had very different interests than I did – seemed intense.
And it was.
Given our time constraints we had to get to know each other quickly and work as efficiently as possible. We had to learn how to come to a consensus and how to delegate and manage tasks. And we had to communicate effectively and work as a unit.
All team members agreed that students’ and postdocs’ relationships with their advisers and PIs can make or break the academic experience. We realized that we wouldn’t be able to change advisers’ behavior or attitudes within the timeframe of our project, but perhaps we could help students and postdocs get the most out of their existing advisor-advisee relationships.
We delegated tasks and got to work. Five weeks later, all team members were proud to present the resulting website: The (Unofficial) Advisee Guide. To go with it, we created a handy one-page summary for physical distribution. To our delight, we saw our products go immediately into use: Graduate School staff incorporated the flyer into a mentoring workshop held the following week.
The ELI project experience got me out of my comfort zone and got me to think more deeply about how to be a part of a successful team. We were all highly competent and had knowledge across varied domains, but we had to learn how to leverage each other’s strengths in the context of our project. After completing several assessments about our leadership qualities, we were able to have a discussion about how to use our individual strengths as a group. For example, on the StrengthsFinder assessment I scored high in qualities about focus and discipline while some of my teammates scored high in strategic thinking and relationship building. Perfect! I’d help keep our team focused on tasks and deadlines, while my teammates would focus on project implementation strategy and keeping group morale high. By understanding each other’s strengths we were able to have a well-rounded, highly productive team.
Leadership isn't just about one person having power and authority, it's about recognizing the value and worth of each team member and being able to use everyone's strengths toward a shared goal.
I won't say I "lucked out" with my team because it wasn't luck that made us work so well together and create these amazing deliverables. It was careful thought, reflection, and understanding that made this team experience one of the best I've had so far.
I couldn’t have written this post without the help and support of my ELI group members:
David Kaczan, PhD student in Environmental Policy
Changyong Cao, Postdoc in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Denali Dahl, Master’s student in Global Health
Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology and Neuroscience
Professional Development Tag
- Emerging Leaders Institute