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What To Read Now

It’s been a long time since I have written here — it’s March 1 and surely time  to pull out the always appropriate blog post on MBA admission chances for Round 3.  The basic tenets still hold true:  the chances are much slimmer, but if your time is right, your time is right.

The Leadership Component in Admissions

1024px-Bouquin_électronique_iLiad_sur_une_pile_de_livre_dehors_au_soleilMeanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership. Partly because I’ve been honored to be helping out at the Stanford GSB on what they call L.O.W. Keynote speeches. (“LOW” stands for Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World.  These are like student TED talks for the students and are a combination of personal and professional.) I’ve also been thinking about leadership because I’ve been reading a lot.

A Pre-MBA Reading List

My reading list is always eclectic, but I am concentrating on books that I think will help pre-MBA candidates think about their future prospects, help potential applicants start on the self-reflection that is required to submit a good application, and indeed, be a great business school student.  One book that gets you in the mood for thinking about your future is Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life.  Clayton Christensen is a senior professor at Harvard Business School and the author of some famous books on innovation. Here’s his TED talk. The book was interesting in that it encouraged the reader to look at her life as a strategic plan, using the competitive strategy model as a blueprint for life decisions. It mostly works, and got me thinking.

Climbing High

At the same time, a friend of mine, Alison Levine, (picture to the right) published a great, funny, irreverent book on leadership that deserves to be read everyone, including outdoor enthusiasts. Take a look at On the Edge: the Art of High Impact Leadership.  Alison is no standard trekker, she is climber who has done the “Explorers Grand Slam,” which includes the highest peak on each continent, skiing across both poles, performing some of these feats while ditching her derivatives final at Fuqua, others while on leave of absence from Goldman Sachs, and still others in between her lectures at West Point and on behalf of charitable organizations. The thing that gets me about Alison, is that she is so alive and funny. I will be writing up an interview with her for Poets and Quants but meanwhile, check out her book of leadership tips, which include things like, “get used to being sleep deprived,”  “assume everyone on your team is in a leadership position” and “sometimes the weakest link on the team can be you.”   Bad pun but, she rocks.

Articles on Leadership

I can also recommend reading articles on leadership from publications like the Harvard Business Review.  To prepare for the self-exploration that is required for not only a great business school application, but a great experience when you get there, take a look at articles that discuss emotional intelligence and authentic leadership. I’ve written quite a bit on emotional IQ, one of the top characteristics business schools are looking for. (Yale School of Management is thinking of incorporating an emotional intelligence test into the admissions process.)   Take a look at Daniel Goleman’s classic article on “What Makes a Leader” to get a better understanding of the major characteristics business schools include under the leadership umbrella.

Try looking at articles on “authentic leadership” as well. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and leadership thought leader has written a book on the subject, but you can find a quicker read at the Harvard Business Review.  Many people do think that being authentic gives you license to say or do whatever you want. That’s a misunderstanding of the concept of “authentic leadership.” In fact, it means to understand what’s in your heart as well as your head. To figure out who you are at your core and what you stand for, and to learn from mistakes, failures and weaknesses in the quest for self-awareness.

You could get lost in a wonderful vortex or reading and educating yourself, and as I sit here on a rainy afternoon, I think to myself. What other way to spend the day?

Do I Have to Work at Goldman Sachs to Get Into Business School?

To get into one of the best business schools in the world, most people I talk to worry that their work experience isn’t good enough. Even those who have worked for the top names in  goldman sachs mugtheir industries: Goldman, McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, or Bain Capital, worry that they would do better to have experience from a completely different firm such as Facebook, Google, or Wired magazine’s newest darling. (Tumblr? Waze? Hulu?).

What if you’ve worked for a company that is not a household word? Will that keep you from getting into Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton?

The answer is, of course not.

Small Companies, but Brand-Name Schools
Lots of students go to and succeed at brand-name business schools who have worked for small companies, growing companies, or even companies that failed. Have you ever heard of NextBio, Keystone Consulting, GenScript, or Astor Pacific? All are based in the U.S., and all produced students who recently attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business and are doing just fine.

If you work for a small organization, you are probably gaining experience and wearing many different hats – opportunities unavailable to people in larger, more siloed firms.  If your firm is relatively young, and fast moving, you’ll be learning a lot and will have lots to teach your classmates.  Or if you work for a company that failed, you’ll also have plenty of stories (and battle scars).  Failure is a leadership lesson!

Small is Beautiful
Even if your place of employment isn’t going to be featured in Fast Company any time soon, you will still have had a chance to lead and influence others. I know someone who single-handedly changed the culture of his medium-sized company simply by insisting that his group start regular brown-bag lunchtime classes.  Furthermore, fewer layers mean you might be able to more directly solve client problems.  It’s what you do with the organization you are in, rather than what the organization does for you.  That’s the way business schools look at leadership.

The real issue is not whether you came from a big firm or not – think about it from an admissions perspective: would they want everyone to come from one firm or one type of firm? How boring!  Says Dee Leopold in her HBS Blog: “Our promise to our faculty and to every student is to deliver the most diverse class – on multiple dimensions – as we possibly can. I’ve never heard an HBS student say: I wish there were more students just like me in my section.’ ”

Myth of the Feeder
You don’t have to come from one type of employer and more than you have to come from an Ivy League school to get into business school. Yes, some firms and undergraduate schools are considered “feeder-schools” but don’t look at these numbers too narrowly.  You could be making the classic mistake of causation vs. correlation, or even worse: selling yourself short.  You bring plenty to the table.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

 

 

 

 

Aiming for a Business Career: A How-To for College Students and Recent Grads

May the odds be ever in your favor

My day job is helping people get into the business schools in the world, and most of my paying clients are a few months away from filling out their applications. In most cases, I wish I had met them years earlier. That’s because young professionals-to-be could have taken advantage of opportunities that make it just plain easier to jump into a great enterprise after graduating.

Solid skills, leadership potential, global awareness
The MBA is not a requirement for a business career. And I don’t recommend that people set their sights on it simply because it’s another hoop to jump through.  But some of the things that admissions officers are looking for are some of the same things that recruiters are looking for, which are the same things that your hiring manager and teammate wants from you:  a combination of solid skills, leadership potential, and global awareness.

Harvard Business School presents essentially the same three attributes as its admissions criteria. And if you know up front that’s what everyone is looking for, you have a good chance to work on them now.

Skills=quantitative ability
I’m leading with the math stuff because many exciting post-college jobs need you to crunch numbers and use excel.  It may not be inspiring work right away, but businesses make decisions on analytics, and if you can figure your way around basic math and logic problems, you will add value to your team.  Look at the job description for the analyst position at any of the consulting or investment firms, and you’ll see they are looking for candidates with strong analytic (=math/quant skills).

If you are thinking of going a less formal route, but are still considering business or professional graduate school, you should take one math course now and nail it. If calculus scares you, take business statistics (not social science stats). It’s incredibly relevant; I’ve used the tools of probability and regression time and time again in my own finance career, and never had to calculate the area under a curve.

Finally, grades matter. People talk all about the GPA, but the quality of the school, the challenge of courses and the trend are more important. Everyone forgives a weak freshman year if you turn it around by your junior year and really focus.

Patterns of leadership
Harvard Business School calls it a “habit of leadership,” There are thousands of definitions of leadership, and it doesn’t mean you have to be president of the student body or be the next Mark Zuckerberg. You should be actively involved in a select number of activities during college. Investment firms like athletes, not just because of the competition, but sports requires working hard, discipline and being part of a team.  Sports show opportunities for leadership, not just for the captain, but through collaboration and helping teammates do better.

You can also start your own a club or lead an initiative. One student I worked with from Vassar (my undergrad alma mater) started two different clubs – snowboarding, electronic music, and now is spearheading an entrepreneurial effort within the alumni community.

Emerging leadership shows in the words of a student newspaper editorial or production of a college comedy troupe. You can find leadership in teaching – especially if it means getting up in front of a room, encouraging a discussion, motivating others, giving and receiving feedback.  The college campus is filled with opportunities to spread your wings and make something happen.  That’s how leaders begin.

Go Global
I once asked Derrick Bolton, head of admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, if having overseas experience was a “check the box” requirement to get admitted. He demurred, but did say that he would encourage college students to become fluent in another language. MBA programs are training global leaders.  Look at the single essay University of Virginia’s Darden School requires of applicants:

Share your perspective on leadership in the workplace and describe how it has been shaped by the increasing influence of globalization.

For those of you who are already bi-lingual or bi-cultural, you have a leg up on the competition. It’s no secret that business is global; it could mean living abroad or it could mean working in an international virtual team.  This cross-border outlook is essential for those who want to be leaders in business or social enterprises. Having worked in Asia for 10 years, I personally believe that a cross-cultural experience should be a requirement for tomorrow’s business leaders.

Take a breath
You don’t have to race toward your career goal by doing everything perfectly, or even in a straight line. Take advantage of all the opportunities you have now.

Aim high. You’ve got nothing to lose.