There was a focused atmosphere as I joined the new Executive MBA cohort at the Performance Simulator on the second day of their induction. The cohort had been split into teams of five to six students and the day designed so the teams, who come from a range of professional and cultural backgrounds, learn how to work together. Going forward, these teams will be working together across several projects for the duration of the 23 month part-time programme.
The students were preparing for their first challenge together as a team: the Performance Simulator. The brief? The team must pitch themselves as a team to a panel of three “judges” and present their take on success.
The Performance Simulator is hosted by the Centre for Performance Science, a cross disciplinary partnership between Imperial College and the Royal College of Music.
The state-of-the-art facility creates a realistic virtual panel of “judges” that students pitch to. The aim is to increase candidate’s awareness of their communication and presenting skills. Feedback is then given on behavioural and psychological aspects of their performance, and also stress management.
I joined the team I was shadowing for the afternoon as they huddled in a close knit circle in one of our lecture theatres on the Imperial College Business School campus in South Kensington. I could hear extracts of conversation: “is there a beginning, middle and end to the presentation?”
The team are just getting to know each other and work together. With their different backgrounds, there are different styles of talking and different ideas to share. In this team there is an oil & gas industry lawyer, a crisis communications expert and a nuclear research scientist.
The Royal College of Music is a grand, 135 year old building and, as we climbed the steps to the top floor, the sound of a student cellist playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude no.1 in C major drifted through the hallway where we waited to be escorted into a dark room.
On the left, as we entered the antechamber to the Performance Simulator, there was a screen where a panel of three expressionless “judges” sat behind a table. Dr Terry Clark, Research Fellow in Performance Science at the Royal College of Music and an honorary Research Fellow at Imperial, asked the students what they want to achieve from the Simulator. The students agree: get the message across, be relatable and invite conversation.
Throughout the short presentation, where the students chose to take it in turns to pitch themselves before coming together to give their take on success, the expressions on the judges’ faces shifted from focused engagement to eye shuffling, looking away and feigned interest.
When the presentation finished, an enthusiastic “excellent presentation” from one member of the panel was followed by a non-committal “that was lovely” from another. It’s enough to throw anyone off their game and it’s a great test for how our students respond to neutral or negative feedback (here’s a secret: the judges aren’t real!).
Claire, the crisis communications expert in the group, told me, “It was challenging. My heart was racing during the performance but it made us think on our feet. It was a great example of team work. It got us thinking really critically about how we perform.”
Executive Coaching Session
Following the Performance Simulator, I joined the team over tea and coffee at their first coaching session with Julie Horne, Director and Lead Coach at Cambridge Leadership Coaching. Leadership Coaching is a core part of our executive coaching programme.
Julie explained the importance of coaching, “Coaching helps students to reflect and be more self-aware. They listen to a lot of things in lectures but it’s also important to spend time reflecting about what that means to them and how that shows up at work or in their teams. Coaching allows them to have that time to reflect and to really think about it.”
Students had already received a personalised MBTI report to help understand each other’s types as they learn to work together. The aim of this session was for the team to set the rules or make a contract about what they can expect from each other and how to deal with conflict.
There’s a practical nature to the discussion: how will information and expertise be shared? What’s expected when giving or receiving feedback on ideas? How will leadership roles be shared? What happens when one candidate has a busy week?
“We’ve got a framework to build on,” Dominic, a student in the group, told me after the session, “Without the coaching session and someone to help us have that discussion we wouldn’t have reached a firm set of conclusions.”
Communication is key to success on students’ group project work, and the team set up a WhatsApp group to keep in touch. Important also, they said, was doing something social as a team regularly, and even getting their families involved.
There was a definite buzz and energy in the team, with a good dose of humour. Each candidate had a different set of skills to contribute to the group dynamic, and a positive attitude to sharing skills and knowledge to work together as a team to everyone’s advantage.
“It was our first day as a team. You’re thrown into quite a stressful environment but at the same time you’re able to work out what people are like and how we will be able to work together,” Claire says.
“They’re such a fun group,” Julie adds, “The team were very lively, happy to be here, and full of energy. That was great to see.”
The session was followed by a well-deserved break and a drinks reception. Julie told me afterwards, “The coaching can help them get a fantastic MBA from Imperial but to also enjoy doing it and leave as friends. That’s the result we aim for.”