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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.

“Feeder Schools” and the MBA

I have seen a lot of discussion around the internet about the right “feeder schools” to top MBA programs. Some websites, such as Poets & Quants, back into an aggregation of the top feeder schools, but even before discussing them, you want to be aware of false correlations, and of assuming causation when there really is none.

Harvard Business School has done us all a favor by publishing a list of schools where students from the HBS Class of 2014 come from. It’s encouraging to see the incredible range of schools. The international scope takes your breath away; who knew there were students from the University of Macau? Aalto University in Helsinki, Southeast University, Universidad Pontificia de Comillas?

That just speaks to the exciting diversity of an MBA education, especially at a school that has a worldwide draw such as Harvard Business School. The other kind of diversity is in type of school. Of course Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford and other brand names populate the list (more on that later), but what about a school that is about as free-form as Bard? Or a brand-new school such as the Franklin W. Olin College, or a specialized schools such as Kettering University. I mean, who knew?

Undergraduate institutions represented at the Harvard Business School Class of 2014.

This should cheer a lot of people up, figuring that if they didn’t go to an “Ivy” or a state-school Ivy like Michigan or North Carolina, that all is lost. Good Lord, that’s not true.

So I posted this link on a forum in which I participate called Wall Street Oasis. It’s for young folks who are either trying to break into Wall Street or a similar job. It’s a very humorous venue. In any case, the first comment I got after posting was, “ha ha if your school isn’t on it!.” Well, again, that doesn’t hold water. I work as a resume coach at the Stanford Business School, and get to see people’s backgrounds. I’ve seen students from UC Davis, a terrific California state school which is not represented this year at HBS, Portland State, University of Ulster, my goodness, there’s no one in the HBS class of 2014 from the University of Nebraska? What would Warren Buffet (who was rejected from HBS, by the way)

So if you are worried that your undergraduate school puts you at a disadvantage, as long as you did well there, you should be fine.

Now, a quick note about “feeder schools.” You’ll see on the web that a lot of students did come from schools such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale. But that’s partly a function of the number of students that applied, and partly a function of what people are “expected to do.” In short, if you went to Dartmouth, does it mean you will automatically get into HBS? No. Does it help? Maybe. If you went to University of Nebraska, does it mean you won’t get in? Nope. If you got a 2.5 GPA at Penn, will you be looked at more than someone who got a 3.5 at Arizona State?
Probably not. But it depends on what you took, what that other student took, and on and on.

There’s a rhyme and a reason, and most of it makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense to game your past. If you are unhappy with your previous school or previous GPA, you can take a course an get an alternative transcript. I’ll write more about courses that work for an alternative transcript in another blog post, or if you’ve got a specific question, just email me.

Are you a Non-Traditional MBA Candidate? Then Read This.

Just about everyone, that is, other than McKinsey consultants and Goldman analysts, call themselves non-traditional candidates for business school. Why? Because they think that everyone who will populate the next MBA class comes

Defraying the cost of business school

from management consulting or finance.

We all of know a few consultants, investment banking types, and more than a few engineers at business school. And indeed, if you look at the profiles of many business schools (here’s a link to the Wharton MBA site, where you will see a combination of 42% for those in investment banking, private equity, or other finance). But thousands of others from backgrounds in the arts, social enterprise, hard science, start-ups, and the military will make their way to MBA program of their choice in the next intake class. Really.

It’s a Master of Business Administration

Here’s something that most people don’t understand: business school is about business. More and more students come from non-profits, and more and more will go into social enterprise (otherwise, why else would Stanford Graduate School of Business’s motto be “Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World?” Of course schools are looking for leadership. But they also want students to appreciate what makes a business enterprise work. Dee Leopold, the heralded director of admissions at Harvard Business School, calls this business acumen “bizability.”

The term bizability reminds students that they are (nearly always) applying to a school of business. The degree is called a Master of Business Administration. The Yale School of Management had tried for two decades to sell its Master of Public and Private Management (MPPM) degree, but the school officially changed the name to the MBA in 2000. Business is about commerce, about enterprise, and even in the case of non-profits, it’s about the bottom line. Dee Leopold described it as being “grounded in the language of business.”

Bizability means that students have to, at some level, grasp business. You can still be part of the 99%, that’s fine (many of us are). I once met a student who wanted a joint degree in education and business to fund a school, but she hated the concept of business. She didn’t see the value in finance; she just thought it was all evil. That is not a great admissions strategy. You have to like business well enough to have been exposed to what makes a company tick and want to learn more.

So what if you have worked in a government or non-profit organization. You don’t have to think too hard about where you have used “business skills” to succeed:

1. Have you run – or do you work with — the budget for your department?
2. Have you allocated resources (e.g., people, systems, programs?)
2. Have you raised money, either from investors or organizations giving grants?
4. Have you ever had your own business, like a lemonade stand, a neighborhood newspaper, or an Etsy store?
5. Do you follow business news, the financial press or the stock market? Do you know how your IRA works?
You don’t have to answer “yes” to all of these questions, but they probably shouldn’t scare you if you are thinking about an MBA.

So think about what business school is about and what having a career with a business degree means. Think about words like management, enterprise, company, operations, market, trade, and finance. Do you have an affinity for any of these ideas? If so, you are on your way, and are perhaps not so scarily non-traditional after all.