By Claire Stewart ’20
The idea for this blog post came to me as I was driving up Interstate 81 North toward Syracuse. While passing a double-hitched semitruck, I looked at the letters on the side of the truck as I always do (business students tend to be curious about big trucks and what merchandise they’re carrying) and smiled when I realized the truck was a Dollar General semi. Dollar General holds a warm place in my heart, and every time I see a truck or a store, I get a peaceful sense of nostalgia.
Now, you may think it’s a touch odd that I have fuzzy, happy feelings toward Dollar General. But this all stems from my sophomore year, when I took a class called Practitioner’s Overview of Securities Markets and Asset Management (AEM 3060). Upon arrival in this class, my four sophomore peers and I promptly realized we were outgunned—we were in a class full of juniors and seniors who already had their investment banking jobs lined up at Goldman and Lazard.
We were asked to form groups, and of course, rather than diversifying away our risk and pairing with our more experienced upper-level peers, the four sophomores and I decidedly flocked together. Early on in the class, we were tasked with completing a case study on—you guessed it—Dollar General, which we would ultimately present to the entire class. As we sat in the front row throughout the semester, we watched as the future Goldman and Lazard employees did their respective case study presentations. Their command of subjects such as complicated DCF analyses, comps methods, and industry assumptions just further emphasized that we were way over our heads.
Despite this, in the weeks preceding our time to present, our group set deadlines, met often, and ultimately finished far enough in advance to send a rough draft to our professor for feedback. We incorporated his advice into our final presentation, and, after practicing a few times, we presented our case to those accomplished, confident, upper-level peers. Because of our hard work and the synergies we had as a team, we were shocked when the typical hypercritics refrained from asking our group any probing questions. Even the professor threw us a lob-ball question that was very easy to answer. We ended that class giving each other fist bumps and smiles. Against all odds, our presentation had actually gone really well.
From this ideal group and many others, I have learned several tips and tricks for working successfully on group projects. These are not the be-all, end-all, but hopefully can serve as a point of reference for other students working in the ever-prevalent (and often turbulent) waters known as group projects.
1. Meet in person, and always practice beforehand
My biggest group project failures have always been when the group delegates over text, never agreeing to meet in person to set guidelines and expectations. When I look back at the Dollar General group, a key point of our success was that we met in person immediately after we read the case study. That way, we could come into the assignment as equals while giving our individual perspectives and collaborate as a group to come up with the best recommendation. Although we mostly already knew each other, meeting in person allowed the group to create real human connections and banter, which made working on the project actually fun.
This also ties in to practicing in advance if you are responsible for presenting the group project. It is too easy to shrug this off as unimportant—after all, we are all business students who should be well-seasoned in the art of presenting. However, practicing beforehand allows the group to go through transitions and listen critically to each other’s speeches. This is especially important when you are presenting material that someone else created.
By meeting in person and practicing beforehand, you give your group the building blocks to create a successful presentation.
2. Set and agree on internal deadlines
This is often the most difficult, because you are likely balancing a group that’s comprised of a student athlete, a club president of multiple organizations, and a person who has five-hour work shifts over multiple days in a week (or someone who, no one understands how, is all three of these things). However, it is essential that your group sets internal deadlines before the actual project is due.
For me, setting internal deadlines was most important in another accomplished group that I worked with, Big Red Shipping and Storage. My co-general manager and I knew months in advance that we were preparing for Cornell’s move-out day on May 23. We set weekly deadlines for our five assistant managers, giving them specific tasks they would complete each week in anticipation of the big day. This alleviated a lot of stress for my co-manager and me, and also allowed the assistant managers to feel they were contributing in a big way.
By setting expectations and deadlines, you allow for greater accountability and create an environment for success.
3. Specialize in what you’re good at
Let’s face it, as much as we have projected ourselves as jack-of-all-trades, Ivy League-educated go-getters, there are certain skills in which we excel as individuals. When you are doing that first in-person group meeting, ask questions that allow people to take on roles in which they feel they are a comparative expert. That way, each person can make valuable contributions in the areas where they feel most accomplished.
For the Dollar General group, two of our group members who were interested in banking expressed interest in understanding the overall valuation. Another group member joined them on their quest. My friend, pursuing a marketing career, and I immediately dove into the presentation formatting and company background. This was the ideal scenario. We each were comfortable taking on a role where we felt we had a comparative advantage, which made the project not a burden for any one person.
Through understanding each other’s comparative strengths and interests, we were able to finish the project in the most efficient and rewarding way possible.
4. If you disagree with a point being made, offer constructive criticism
Disagreements are absolutely inevitable in a group project setting. After all, if everyone agreed, the homogeneity of ideas would likely lead to a subpar final product. However, the tact by which you approach your disagreement is imperative.
I once worked in a group where the project was to study a Fortune 500 company, and it became clear that one of our group members had a particularly strong personality. When he saw something he didn’t like, he said so. However, he approached his peers with an abrasive attitude, saying things like “You need to do x, y, and z.” Or, “Your slide looks off. Fix it.” As a result, even if he was offering legitimate criticism, the group ultimately labeled him as hard to work with. Instead, he could have offered his criticism constructively with words like “Let’s explore this together. Tell me a little more about …” Or, “That’s a valid point, and …” (It is much less abrasive to say “and” instead of “but.”)
By using constructive criticism in times of disagreement, you create a group that is amenable to new ideas, honest in their perspectives, and happy with the end result.
5. If there’s a “slacker,” help them add value
One of the most frequent complaints I hear around the halls of Warren is “I’m working on a group project, and I’m so frustrated. I’m doing all the work. Ugh! I really want to complain to the professor.” And to be quite honest, even though I have also said this same phrase many times, these types of reactions do not show empathy or leadership.
The mark of a true leader is to build up the group around them. So, instead of snidely degrading the “slacker,” consider talking to them in private to discuss why they haven’t contributed and what they can do to add value. Often, the individual wants to help but has been made to feel like the work has already been done by others. Asking questions and carefully listening to answers is always a much better approach than assuming they don’t want to put in the work.
Through a genuine understanding and effort to exercise empathy with your peers, you help develop your leadership skills and make everyone feel that they are adding value.
Group project takeaways
Whether you loath group projects or consider them the highlight of your semester, their omnipresence in Dyson is indicative of the business world. Through the tips in this blog post, I hope you remember these five key elements and approach group projects in a new way — whether that’s understanding your role, offering constructive criticism, or showing the mark of a true leader by making everyone feel that they’re adding value.
If you would like to talk more about group projects, Dyson, or just want to chat, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
About Claire Stewart ’20
Claire is a current junior studying applied economics in management with concentrations in finance and strategy. On campus, she is involved in Student Agencies, Forté Campus @ Cornell, Dyson Inclusion and Diversity, Cornell Women’s Club Lacrosse, and is a TA for AEM 2200. She enjoys watching sunsets at Stewart Park, seeing the view from the top of the clock tower, and is still trying to figure out how to save enough BRBs so she doesn’t starve the last two weeks of the semester.