By Jose Gutierrez ’14
Whether you consider yourself a leader, a follower, a motivator, or a role player, you can learn a lot about yourself when you are part of a team. Before I started college, my group work experience was limited to my high school’s Jeopardy! team in Honduras, where I grew up.
When we were battling, I rallied the troops. I refused to believe we would lose and that eventually carried our team to victory, and five hard-found national championships. Little did I know how well that experience would serve me in college.
As soon as I began my freshman year at Bentley University, working in teams both inside and outside the classroom became a huge part of my world. My professors used group projects as a way to simulate real-life work environments. And, as part of a team working on an anti-bullying program through the campus Service–Learning Center, I found myself working with a large group of passionate people with very different personalities.
I learned early on that you can’t always pick who you work with. And, just like in the workplace, there were both pros (developing collaboration and leadership skills) and cons (dealing with difficult personalities and people not pulling their own weight) of working in a group.
The completion of a project, a good grade, or positive feedback from my peers and professors weren’t my biggest takeaways from my group work experiences. Rather, what I found most beneficial was what I learned about myself and the realization that the skills I gained will help me throughout my entire professional career. Studies show that employers today are looking for employees who possess not only hard technical skills that are obtained through courses and internships, but critical soft skills — like communication and collaboration — as well. I cultivated both at Bentley and I firmly believe that this helped me become a successful graduate with a job waiting for me after commencement.
Here are the four soft skills that group projects and teamwork taught me:
- Self-awareness. We all think we know our strengths and weaknesses, but nothing shines a brighter light on them than working in a group setting and putting them on display. As part of the anti-bullying program, we organized rallies in schools. I found I was most comfortable interacting with and engaging crowds, and not handling logistics and planning. This initially caused friction among the team until we all settled into our natural roles, capitalizing on each other’s strengths.
- Leadership. Group projects helped sharpen my leadership skills. I realized my leadership style is based on encouraging others and motivating them to realize their full potential. This became clear during a group interview I participated in for a summer internship. I was assigned to a project with seven other applicants. The group started out with pretty low energy and its members were introverted. I engaged the others by asking questions and cracking jokes to break the initial tension. This helped the team members connect with one another and better address the task at hand. At the end of the process the recruiter asked everyone in the group to pick the one person they would want to work with again. All seven in the group picked me and, yes, I got the internship.
- Collaboration. Great leaders recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates and understand how to use them to the advantage of the group. I learned that some people are motivated by encouragement and constant feedback on how they are performing, while others prefer to put their heads down and get the job done. Recognizing how others work best and adapting to their styles strengthens the team and allows you to work more effectively.
- Critical thinking skills. Working in a group exposes you to the ideas and perspectives of others and forces you to look at things through a different lens. It gives you the opportunity to question what you know and try new approaches.
Group projects also allowed me to hone my presentation skills, which I was able to apply to job interviews. I walked into each interview feeling sure that the best version of me was on display, something that I refer to as Beyoncé mode — sharp, poised and free of self-doubt. Because of my group project and internship experiences, I learned to speak confidently about all the skills I bring to the table.
So the next time you’re assigned a group project, don’t groan. Go into it with an open mind. Take the challenge. You’ll be surprised by what you can learn about yourself.
Jose Gutierrez graduated from Bentley in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance. He’s now a technology associate at Morgan Stanley in New York City.