Questrom School of Business | Groups

Pushing the Millennial Generation

Pushing the Millennial Generation


For grad business students not used to working on teams, or forever looking for a way to differentiate themselves from classmates, participating in case competitions is a great way to optimize an MBA experience. They’ll also show prospective employers what value they might bring to their firms. Winning teams earn their honors from teamwork, practice and resilience; but many of these traits aren’t always natural ones for Millennials. We find analytical competitions are the perfect venue to help students succeed, serving as a great antidote for so many in a generation defined by 8-second attention spans and whose cell phones double as body appendages.


Case competitions are team-based exercises, which might involve pitching a new idea, analyzing a company or allocating funding, all in a timed format. The best ones force the creation of cross functional teams, successively winnowing out teams as they move into the semi and final rounds, and employ rigorous Q&A by industry expert judging panels. An inter-school contest, where each MBA team solely represents a different program, further provides some friendly esprit de corps.


Beyond nearly twenty years of running my own company and teaching in business schools, I’ve been fortunate enough to also coach teams across multiple disciplines like entrepreneurship, venture capital, healthcare and general business. I like to win as much as the next person but performance rank isn’t my primary motivation. And our planning team all agrees. This challenge instead provides us all with a huge sense of satisfaction, watching the grads apply everything they’re learning in an MBA track, and seeing their painstaking preparation come to fruition when they present their findings. It many cases it’s a transformative process that often serves as some of their best grad school memories, especially for MBAs who aren’t usually active in-class participants.


Here are some best practices we’ve developed and share with eager, first-time participants:


Team Diversity Matters


Our best groups are formed when we assemble strongly performing, specialized students. Regardless of the competition format you’ll need a quant jock, marketing guru and research expert, just for starters. But not a single team ever progresses beyond the first round unless they regularly communicate together. Case competitions are the epitome of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, since multiple heads solving the same problem does lead to a better result! The minute a team registers we encourage them to get together socially… and to do so frequently. You can’t work with people you don’t know well. In the final hours before a submission is due or in the heat of battle during Q&A, groups that feel comfortable with one another consistently perform better.


From the planning team’s chair, getting to know the students well also decreases the probability of a team degenerating into the dysfunctional category. When you call someone out who exhibits the poor behavior everyone already knows about, it’s more difficult to for him or her to feign ignorance, ignore you, or deflect criticism through a flippant response.


Proper Context for Pushing Students to their Limits


Corporate management practices have rarely been scrutinized more than so then they are currently. Whether inside or outside the office, or via social media, most firms strictly enforce a no tolerance policy for even the most minor of infractions. Academia closely follows suit, especially when faculty have sole grading authority over a student’s work. So we try to choose teams with students who aren’t in classes we’re currently teaching. This provides far more freedom to give students honest feedback, and continue to keep pushing them to complete their best work. When the context is right, everyone feels comfortable and motivated.


But students forget that effort doesn’t automatically translate into solid results. To be fair, I fell into the same trap while I was getting my own degree and I’m sure I’m not alone. Over time, though, the best supervisors have taught all of us the importance of working efficiently, and motivating us to be more results focused. Hard work often correlates with both, of course, but investing countless hours in a vacuum usually doesn’t get a student much else than zoning out during classes the following day due to exhaustion.



Schedule Timely Debriefing Sessions


Regardless of our teams’ positive or negative outcomes, we keep detailed notes on each competition they prep for, and openly discuss them afterwards. Not only will these be helpful for future editions of the same competition, but often the same students also enroll in multiple contests each academic year. Even when a team earns a top 5 finish, no one likes being put on the hot seat and having every word, mannerism or slide critiqued. But there’s a reason professional sport teams carefully study video between games. Closely working with students in this regard is also a benefit from case competitions not usually possible in traditional, for-credit graded courses. It’s fun watching them internalize our feedback and grow into better executives over time.


Additionally, employment recruiters are quietly attending case competitions more so than students realize. Watching individuals work with their team, and observing how someone handles the pressure from tough Q&A or a poorly presented slide deck, gives hiring managers unique insight not possible during routine summer internship or full-time job interviews.



In conclusion, these days MBA programs are becoming stronger and stronger. Nearly every school focuses on quality of the student experience, recruiting top faculty and building solid employer connections. The administration’s work translates into impressive cadres of students annually graduating at top quality levels. Unfortunately, this means no longer can a newly minted MBA celebrate her strong GPA, unique class-work or his school’s stellar reputation to land a top job. There are going to be 20 people with similar recruitment profiles, just in the 1st half of the graduating class’ resume list.


While increasing in popularity, still only a small percentage of students participate in case competitions. For us this represents true opportunity. Because for the students who do take the plunge, time and time again, they’ll get out of it exactly what they put into it: perspective. It takes an inordinate amount of extra curricular time, but the results speak for themselves. With so much experience from pitch competitions, MBA grads do better actually building the start-ups they join, or they can land coveted jobs in finance or consulting, having built a well earned resume of bona fide analytical fieldwork. And, from a long-term career planning approach, rarely do those teams ever wonder if they had been pushed enough to do their best work.


Authored by Greg Stoller. Greg Stoller is an entrepreneur and a senior lecturer on entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.