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Classes for the 2021–22 school year don’t formally begin until September 27, but 40 second-year, Full-Time MBA students arrived on campus shortly after Labor Day to prepare for their role as LEAD facilitators. One of the first experiential MBA leadership development courses at a major business school, LEAD is an integral component of all MBA programs at Booth, with varied formats for Full-Time, Evening, Weekend, and Executive MBA cohorts. All first-year Booth students participate in LEAD, but only a select group of them come back as facilitators their second year to help mentor incoming students.

Traditionally, LEAD is conducted entirely in-person, and even includes an overnight trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where students participate in ropes courses, improv, scavenger hunts, ultimate frisbee, and other activities that foster collaboration, creativity, and camaraderie. Last year’s programming faced the challenge of moving online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even virtually, many first-year students gained valuable experience through the LEAD program, and were inspired to come back as LEAD facilitators this year. That includes Peter McNally, who recently completed a summer internship with the Boston Consulting Group. Prior to Booth, he built a research and consulting organization at the University of Pennsylvania focused on social issues around the globe.

“Last year’s LEAD facilitators did a good job making it feel welcoming. They brought a lot of enthusiasm and made it feel like this is a warm, positive space,” McNally says of his eight-person squad of other first-year students. “That’s easier said than done on Zoom.” He refers to each squad as “this little family.” He continues, “I’m not sure if this is something unique to Booth, but there’s a positive sense of competition: we want our cohort to be the happiest, the most welcoming.”

His fellow LEAD facilitator, Stephanie Lee, AB ’16, a joint-degree student in the MBA/Masters Program in Computer Science, found last year’s lessons on relationship building to be especially relevant for her 10-week analytics internship at Nike. “Making good first impressions and figuring out how to get feedback in an effective way was reinforced throughout LEAD,” she says.

“The LEAD approach is to lead with your strengths. You’ll have weaknesses, but at the end of the day, let’s lean into the things that make you, you.”

— Erin Ibarra

For current student Erin Ibarra, the LEAD facilitators helped push her out of her comfort zone. Ibarra came to Booth from Shell, where she worked as an electrical engineer. She’s now completing a consulting internship in the energy and utilities practice at West Monroe in Chicago. “I’m a very positive, bubbly person, but I wasn’t normally somebody who spoke up a lot or took charge,” she says. “I thought I would have to change parts of me to be a manager or to be a leader. But the LEAD approach is to lead with your strengths. You’ll have weaknesses, but at the end of the day, let’s lean into the things that make you, you.” LEAD helped Ibarra learn what kind of a leader she wants to be, and that’s something she’d like to pay forward to new students. As a facilitator, she plans to advise her cohort to think critically about what they take on, so they don’t get too burned out.

Alexandre Lin, a former startup operator for the New York–based home renovation platform Block Renovation, reflects that the soft skills required to lead can be much more difficult to acquire than hard skills, but they’re so important to professional growth. In his first year at Booth, Lin cofounded the egg freezing service Ollipsis Fertility in Chicago. “When you come out of the MBA program, having these skills is a huge asset on top of the friendships that you’ve made at school,” he notes. “The best way to learn is to actually teach the stuff that you learned, and that’s why I thought being a facilitator would be the best way to practice.” He says he looks forward to forging the special bond that often imbues a LEAD cohort. “You get to know people at a deeper level.”

Facilitator Bhavana Karnik is excited to help guide her cohort to the best business school experience possible. Bhavana came to Booth with a background in consulting and analytics. She previously worked for UnitedHealth Group and McKinsey & Company and interned at Amazon this summer. She has experience getting people excited and working together from an appearance on the game show Family Feud. Her family didn’t win, “but we had a lot of fun with it,” she says. Unsurprisingly, she looks forward to bonding her cohort with games and get togethers in the city. “Nobody envisions coming into school with the uncertainty that the pandemic has caused, but I hope everybody can make the most of it and grow.”

“Empathy, flexibility, and adaptability are key for successful leaders.”

— Bhavana Karnik

Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, this year’s facilitators will have the chance to be with fellow students as Booth returns to in-person meetings. “We’re trying to bring in some COVID-19-friendly, in-person components,” McNally explains. That includes boat rides, neighborhood tours, and other outdoor events in Chicago—things that McNally says are fun while still being mindful of health risks.

When these LEAD facilitators reflect on the way COVID-19 is changing the leadership culture at Booth, they predict future leaders will prioritize empathy and flexibility in the workplace. “I had teammates this year at Amazon whose small kids were going back to school without the vaccine,” says Karnik, who’s currently an intern for Amazon’s leadership development program. “Empathy, flexibility, and adaptability are key for successful leaders.”

“It’s going to be different from expecting people to be in the office from nine to five every day,” Lee adds. “Deeper understanding of people’s circumstances is probably going to be more of a trend.”

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