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Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

resilience as a leadership traitThe essays and recommendations play a big role in MBA admissions, mostly because admissions committees are trying to gauge the candidate’s leadership potential.  When preparing your essays or your briefing sheet for your recommenders, you want to address very specific leadership traits.

Many prospective students ask me what leadership means in MBA admissions.  I completely understand the confusion! The reality is that there is no real textbook definition of leadership, and if there is, but it’s very mushy.  But one element most people agree on as a measurement of a good leader is RESILIENCE.

Executive leadership expert Rebecca Zucker, founder of Next Step Partners, wrote an excellent article on ways to identify and improve your resilience, strategies which “help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen.”   Here they are in brief; check to see if these are your normal behaviors, or you need a little practice:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: A growth mindset looks at setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Don’t over-ruminate: Reflecting and acting is positive. But morosely wondering “what if”?  leads to unproductive wallowing. Especially stuff that is outside of your control.
  3. Take care of yourself: Be healthy in mind and spirit. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
  4. Seek inspiration: seek out stories of people who have overcome failure. They are everywhere, not just on TED. Or Michael Jordan Nike commercials.

The Resilience Checklist

Rebecca Zucker’s article also includes a resilience checklist – which comes close to helping us define leadership in specific terms that prospective and current MBA students can think about and model. Many of these attributes are similar to those that you will find as part of the MBA recommendations forms.

The full worksheet has 18 behaviors, most of which would work quite well in an essay describing personal leadership in the MBA application.  The first, “I have good knowledge of myself” is probably one of the most important – self-awareness is a particularly useful trait for leaders of all levels, particularly young professionals on a rapid trajectory.

“I am flexible and can adapt to changing situations” might be easier to write about. Businesses are unpredictable. For internal or exogenous reasons, stuff always happens at work, and it’s an asset if you can deal with uncertainty.  If you can incorporate a story of your own personal flexibility in the face of a changing work environment, you’ll be demonstrating resilience and maturity.

“I am able to see multiple perspectives on a situation” is useful for your personal growth; for example, it keeps you from ruminating or getting stuck in a doom loop. But it is also useful for working in teams; small or large there are bound to be as many perspectives on a problem as there are members of the group.

“I am able to ask for help” is a definite statement of strength rather than what looks like a sign of weakness. Digging your way out alone is never pretty (or efficient). You might think that puzzling over a knotty problem and finding the aha moment shows your brilliance, but often the opposite is true.  If you are really in trouble, not asking for help just makes things worse.  At work, if you see that your project is falling apart, get resourceful and find someone who can help you solve your problem.  You might break down a few silos in the process.

It’s Not About You

But sometimes things are just awful, and that’s when personal resilience is about not taking it personally. Lost your job? Had a project taken away? Get a rejection letter from the business school of your dreams?  In all these cases, it’s not necessary that you just put on a happy face. That’s not realistic. But look at contingency plans, your support picture and the longer-term perspective.  The universe hasn’t singled you out of bad news, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Setbacks, failures, defeats—they are all part of life.  But resilience with grace, humor and grit, that’s what makes a leader.

Read more on leadership and MBA learning:

Some Introspection in Advance of Your MBA Essays

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Leadership and the MBA Application

Leadership and the MBA Application

Guess what.  Six months from now we will be at the beginning of October. Shocking, isn’t it, that those of you who are thinking of applying to business school in the first round have only six months to figure it all out. You’ve got a lot of tactical moves ahead of you, like the GMAT and visiting potential schools while they are still in session (I recommend spring; everyone is happier), and impressing your recommenders with your leadership skills.

How Admissions Officers View Leadership

Your biggest goal in the MBA admissions process is to demonstrate leadership. Business schools may have leadership classes, workshops, or what Stanford calls “Leadership Labs,” but the schools are not working with blank slates. Admissions committees want to see candidates with great leadership potential. This potential can be demonstrated through a record of traditional leadership activities, such as president of your undergraduate student body or manager of your unit at work. Or just a team leader on a visible project. But then there’s another kind of leadership, and its a lot more nuanced than just a title on a resume.

“Leadership encompasses much more than managing people,” wrote Rosemaria Martinelli, former director of Admissions at the University Of Chicago Booth School of Business in a blog post.  Business schools now equate leadership with influence, or the ability to motivate others toward a shared goal. Stanford Graduate School of Business’ recommendation form includes a “Leadership Behavior Grid” with traits such as initiative, influence and collaboration, developing others, and trustworthiness. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business defines leadership as “the ability to
inspire others to strive and enable them to accomplish great things.”

Leadership can mean anything from running a classroom to being the idea person in your work team, from standing up for an unpopular position to organizing a clothing drive. In a nutshell, leadership is about finding the passion inside you and acting on it.

The Essence of Leadership

Business schools are actively searching for students with high emotional intelligence. In a seminal 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader,” Daniel Goleman attempted to answer the question with specific attributes of effective leaders. Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence with his book of the same name, wrote in the HBR article, “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant….They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities.’ But…emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.”

Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence has dramatically improved the global discussion of leadership. In his research of nearly 200 large, global companies, Goleman found that

while the qualities traditionally associated with leadership – such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision – are required for success, they are insufficient. Truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

I’ll be writing more about these five components in the coming weeks. Indeed, these traits are a little touchy-feely.  But then, so is business school admissions.

Some Common Answers to MBA Questions

Now that most of the MBA application questions are out, I thought it might be timely to go back to basics for a little Q&A about the admissions process. This was just published in on a website called Varsity Tutors under the Ask an MBA Expert banner, and wanted to share it here on the GettyImages_91805592blog

VT: How much time should be set aside to adequately prepare for and complete the application for an MBA program?

Betsy: Applicants should start as early as possible to wrap their brains around the fact that they are competing for a spot at a top business school. There’s a lot to do! You have to study months for the GMAT, spend time and energy figuring out which programs appeal most, travel to see campuses, cold-call alumni, and corral at least two, maybe three people senior to you to write thoughtful, specific recommendations about your excellence.

To add to the indignity of it all, you have to write a set of personal, soul-wrenching essays that inspire admissions directors to pick you over the other potential Nobel Prize winners vying for your spot. It’s a head trip.

Having said this, I just learned today about a student who got into MIT Sloan off the waiting list who literally threw an application together in a few weeks. Stranger things have happened, but I don’t recommend her high-risk strategy.

VT: What would you say is the single most important thing to focus on for this kind of application?

Betsy: Take the process seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously.

VT: What do MBA admissions officers look for most in the essay questions? 

Betsy: MBA schools look for authenticity. That means being yourself. Not the person you think the committee wants to read about – that person is nowhere near as interesting as the real you. Admissions officers want to read about your successes and foibles. They want you to present your case with maturity, humility, and humanity.

Admissions officers act as proxies for your future classmates. Those classmates want to sit next to, or work on a learning team with, someone who can really contribute to the party. They want people who know how to pull their own weight, compete on a very big stage, and make a difference in the world.  And also people who are talented, fun and funny.

You may be thinking, oh, I am just another cookie-cutter engineer/investment analyst/consultant/IT specialist.  But you aren’t. You are you, the real you. The more authentic “you” that shows in your application, the better your chances.

VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on this application?

Betsy: The biggest single mistake is to bore the reader to death through platitudes and unsubstantiated claims.  If an application sounds like it was downloaded from a collection of “Essays that Succeeded,” it’s all over.

VT: Is there anything that automatically disqualifies an applicant from being considered for an MBA program (i.e. low GPA, lack of particular work experience, etc.)?

Betsy: Like in tennis, you have to get the ball over the net. Almost every business school publishes a “class profile” which gives a range of stats about grades, test scores, years of work experience, and more. Students should fall within that range—which is a bit of a dotted line—it’s not hard and fast, depending on your profile.  Still, I do hear about people thinking they can get in on guts alone, and that’s a bit delusional.

VT: What kind of work experiences should be highlighted in the MBA application?

Betsy: You don’t have that much room in applications these days, so you should highlight work experiences that demonstrate your emotional intelligence, such as teamwork or ability to influence a group. Other emotional IQ characteristics might include flexibility, resiliency, and empathy.

VT: What advice do you have regarding GMAT prep?

Betsy: Invest the time and money to take a course or get a tutor who works for your learning style.

VT: Is it absolutely necessary to have work experience prior to starting an MBA degree?

Betsy: Yes.

VT: What are the characteristics of a great MBA program?

Betsy: Almost every top business school offers the following great characteristics:  incredibly smart, talented, international students and faculty, a great alumni network, good job placement, and wonderful facilities.

The more important question is, what is great for you? You might want to live on a rural campus and I might want to live in the heart of a big city. You might want to work in London after graduation and I might want to work in Silicon Valley… You might have gone to a small undergraduate school and want a big university environment for graduate school and I might want the opposite. There are so many variables! The important thing is to figure out what is important to you, not your parents, boyfriend/girlfriend, second-grade teacher, Mark Zuckerberg, or some guy who publishes ranking statistics. It’s about knowing yourself and what works for you. Otherwise, why spend the $150,000?

Inserting Emotional IQ into Your MBA Essays

Look at any business school’s website and you will see that the school’s primary goal is to teach leaders.  “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” proclaims Harvard Business School’s mission page. Stanford’s leaders are “innovative, insightful, and principled.”  Wharton says its leadership programs are “the heart of MBA life.”

Business schools want leaders coming in, and even better leaders coming out.
The good news for students applying for a business degree–and particularly for those who are struggling with their essays right now—is that the definition of leadership is extremely broad. And while there is some debate over what types of leaders are more effective, you can bet that admissions officers are looking for individuals that demonstrate many of the characteristics described in Daniel Goleman’s classic 1998 Harvard Business Review article,  What Makes a Leader?

Daniel Goleman, of Emotional Intelligence fame, attempted to answer the question with research into the attributes of effective leaders.  “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant,” he says. “They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities.’ But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.”

The Five Components
Goleman’s five components of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill— comprise a useful framework to use when writing admissions essays. A candidate need not show all of these five components, (nor all of the more specific subcomponents), but should be able to demonstrate a healthy number of these characteristics in her application.

I believe admissions committees consider self-awareness one of the most important characteristics of a mature candidate.  According to Goleman, hallmarks of self-awareness include “self-confidence and realistic self-assessment.”   Business schools want their students to know who they are, and to understand their own foibles.  They recognize that a 27-year old still has a lot to learn, but is still an adult who knows who she is inside as well as the effect she has on others.

Goleman identifies “comfort with ambiguity” and “openness to change,” as hallmarks of the “self-regulation” component of emotional intelligence.  Self-regulation separates the good candidates from great candidates.  Business life is filled with unpredictable events. The leaders who will excel are the ones who will be able to roll with change, not in a detached way, but realistically.  Stuff happens.  Sometimes it is good for the bottom line, sometimes not.  And sometimes it’s just not clear. If a candidate has an example of achievement in spite of ambiguity, I encourage her to write about it.

The third characteristic is motivation. Most MBA candidates are well-motivated; anyone who has gone through the GMAT ordeal has a strong drive to achieve.  According to Goleman, motivation also encompasses, “optimism, even in the face of failure.”  Motivation complements the essay questions  that ask you to describe your learning from a mistake or failure: not only is a leader to stay motivated when things aren’t going her way, she is also open to learning from her mistakes.

The fourth concept, empathy, was in the news a few months ago when President Obama nominated now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  She was said to bring a “quality of empathy” to the office. Goleman makes clear that empathy isn’t about people-pleasing.  Rather, he says, it’s about “thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.” This could show itself as cross-cultural sensitivity or outstanding service to clients and customers.  And for managers, empathy will show up as expertise in building and retaining talent.

Social skill, the fifth characteristic of emotional intelligence, is related to empathy, but shows itself as “a knack for building rapport,” in persuasiveness, and in “effectiveness in leading change.”   The words “social skill” can sometimes be misinterpreted, but they are truly important in what makes a leader more than just a manager.  Leaders can be diplomatic, and know how to give and receive feedback, and know that that people need to work together to achieve a goal.  Social skill helps things work together better.

All five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill, are important attributes of the kind of person who will succeed in a rigorous MBA program. If you are writing or reviewing your essays now, see if you can stress-test your responses against emotional intelligence characteristics.  If they are aligned, you are well on your way.  If not, it’s back to the drawing board, but you’ve still got four weeks to go.

What Admissions Officers Tell Us

The admissions process to business school is getting increasingly transparent. As a result, more students are focused on applying to the right school, rather than a scatter-shot of programs in the top rankings.

That’s a good thing – for you, the applicant, and for the school, that wants to attract a student that will be happy and thrive in its environment. Last week I had the privilege of learning this first-hand from admissions professionals from about 15 business schools, including MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School, our hosts.

The Real You
One thing all admissions officers agreed upon was authenticity. They wanted to see candidates who presented their authentic selves –not someone that can be found in a book of sample essays. The top programs look for work success, or as Rod Garcia from MIT’s Sloan School said, “Not work experience, but success, and where you are relative to your peer group.” Additionally, admissions officers were key in on emotional intelligence, particularly self-awareness. (I’ve blogged on emotional intelligence and admissions in the past; here’s a link to a post regarding Daniel Goleman’s five components of EQ.)

Emotional intelligence shows up everywhere – in every interaction with the school; admissions officers use your interactions all along the process as a proxy for how you will act at school, and in the real world with employers. This is all consistent with the 85 Broads Jam Session: 10 Tips to Make Your Application Rock.

A Worldly View
Many of the admissions officers were looking for students that can adapt to multicultural organizations – that goes beyond coming from a country different from the MBA program’s location. Peter Johnson of Berkeley’s Haas program told us that recruiters are looking for adaptability, and someone who “has the ability to move beyond what they already know.”
Admissions officers from INSEAD, Columbia, and Harvard Business School all referred to a global outlook.

And here’s an easy tip: every one of the admissions officers agreed that one-page resume trumped a two-pager. “Less is more,” they said.

The Sloan School
MIT Sloan impressed us with a wonderful description of all their programs – not just the MBA program, but a new executive MBA program, the Master in Finance Program, and the Leaders for Global Operations program, a Global Operations MBA & Masters in Engineering joint degree. We were lucky enough to see two faculty presentations, both of which underscored that MIT Sloan believes in “action-based learning.” I became a huge fan of Professor Steven Eppinger’sProduct Design and Development Course – oh how I wish I could go back and do my MBA all over again!

Harvard Business School
The final day was at my alma mater, Harvard Business School. I was surprised and delighted to see that facilities don’t seem to have changed since I was last there, but have just gotten better and better. In Aldrich Hall, where first-year classes are held, HBS director of admissions Dee Leopold told us why the school is different – largely due to the case study method, where students “build muscles around judgment.” I was delighted by her reference to the Wizard of Oz in terms of a successful applicant’s qualities: HBS is looking for students with a combination of “brains, heart, and courage.” Dee also talked about different leadership styles (I’ve seen her talk about this in her presentations to prospective HBS applicants), and the rigor of the program. “It’s hard,” she said. You won’t get an argument from me on that one.

So keep doing your research on the programs. Ask yourself the hard questions: do I want to go to business school? Is it right for me? Is this program right for me or something that will impress my employer (Or my parents? Or my ex?). Think like a Harvard MBA student, where, as they say, self-examination is a varsity sport.

And what you learn from this process is yours to keep.

Taken while at the HBS library, June 2010