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Describing Leadership in MBA Essays When You’re Not the Boss

Leadership in MBA Essays

Ex-Marine Angie Morgan

The MBA essay questions are coming out, and students are already pondering how they can make themselves stand out and show leadership in MBA essays. It’s no secret that admissions readers want to read about an applicant’s personal leadership experience.

But what counts as leadership experience? And what if you’re not the boss?

Many students who are admitted to the best business schools aren’t the boss, but are leaders anyway.  That’s because leaders show themselves in many different ways.  Even in the Marines, for example.  Angie Morgan, a Michigan Ross MBA, spent eight years as a Marine, and in many cases throughout her career, she was not the senior person on the team.  But she learned how to show leadership by prioritizing the needs of others.  That is, by prioritizing the needs of the team.

In the video below, she explains that as an individual, even if you are not leading a project, or do not have direct reports, or are not in charge of an initiative, you can still help build a team among the colleagues around you.  “If you step up an serve those around you, you’re going to build that team.”

Every business school looks for emerging leaders; leaders who can influence outcomes and inspire others.  Harvard Business School’s mission is big and bold, “We edcuate leaders who make a difference in the world.”  But to be accepted into a program like Harvard, you have to make things happen, and if you think back on times when you have well served a team, that might very well be a great example of leadership.

I like to look at Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Leadership Behavior Grid of character traits and competencies.  Some of the categories that they are defining as leadership traits are “results orientation,” ” influence and collaboration,” ” developing others” “change leadership” and “trustworthiness.”  Read through the highest standard and you will see similar themes: it’s about serving others.  For example, they describe the gold standard for “influence and collaboration” as “builds enduring partnerships within and outside of organization to improve effectiveness, even at short-term personal cost.” 

Read through the grid and you will see that the military model of service to the team is a good place to start when thinking about how you can describe your own leadership patterns.  You don’t have to have a fancy title. You can lead by stepping in and making a diffierence, empowering others, or standing up for what you know is right.

More on leadership and the MBA:

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

On Failure and the MBA Essays

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays 

The Classic: Leadership and the MBA Application

What Makes Harvard Business School Different?

Someone on Quora asked: What can you learn at Harvard Business School, Wharton, or any other top-5 business school that you can’t learn anywhere else?

I answered this question and it received more upvotes than any other question I’ve answered,
so I’m going to put it here for everyone to see.  It was true when I was there, and still true now.

(HBS grad) I’m going to answer for Harvard Business School: and that is, the case method.

There is nothing like sitting in a room with 89 other peers who are so smart and so diverse and so interesting — all giving their opinion on how to solve the problem at hand. The case method about finding the ultimate crowdsourced solution with the smartest people on the planet.

The case method puts you in the shoes of the protagonist of the case, where you have the problem and you need the answer. How do you do it? What skills do you need? With a class of experts, by the end of the session you will be amazed at how much you learned that you never even imagined was part of the problem.  One of the things that HBS promises is the opportunity for you to get from your classmates (and from the entire
community) a way of looking a a situation that you had never considered before.

That’s the pedagogy.  The school uses it for almost every class that is in a classroom, so after 2 years of cases, you should be able to articulate solutions to problems that you never thought you could solve.  It gives you confidence to speak when you don’t have perfect answers, and it gives you the social skills to figure out how to participate in an incredibly high-level conversation.

Other schools use the case method here and there, and UVA Darden does have predominantly case studies, but Harvard’s faculty and the quality of students from every walk of life and every place on earth, just enhance the power of the HBS teaching method.

On Failure and the MBA Essays

Α while ago, I entered a competition for the best MBA blog. In my day job, I am a graduate admissions consultant, so I thought I would try to get some attention to my blog through this contest. I didn’t win. I didn’t place. I didn’t even show.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. I tapped all my social media friends and contacts as I looked for votes. But I didn’t get enough. It’s not the end of the world, but it never feels good not to win. This lack of success reminded me of my own rejections from college and graduate school. I was mirroring my students when they put their heart and soul into an application and are then turned down. This contest was small potatoes compared to a college or graduate school application.

Beautiful losers

But being a loser isn’t all that bad. I mean, it’s not the first time it happened, nor is it the last. We say to ourselves, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, sort of.  I’m in good company with losers. The Atlanta Falcons, Hillary Clinton, and famously Michael Jordan on his beautifully watchable Nike ad.

Losing is part of learning about leadership. It builds resilience, propels you forward, and teaches humility. Here are a few ways how that works: Losing helps build resilience. It means being able to build muscle around not always getting your own way. One of the things that Harvard Business School looks for in prospective MBA students is the ability to handle things when they don’t work out. A few years ago, alongside the required accomplishment essays, the admissions committee asked applicants to describe three setbacks. Nowadays the HBS essay is more open ended, but if you don’t include some setback, they may think you are just trying to impress, and not tell the real story.

The F Word: Failure

That’s why admissions officers often say they are looking for both awareness and maturity. A key factor in high achievement is bouncing back from low points,” writes management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Harvard Business Review’s “Failure Issue.” Losing means you’ve taken risks. You really cannot live without taking risks. As

Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

J.K. Rowling told the Harvard graduating class of 2008, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.“

Talk to most entrepreneurs, and you’ll hear the same theme: you cannot innovate without taking risks. And taking risks often means falling on your face. “Failure is not a badge of shame, it’s a rite of passage,” says Tony Hsieh, Zappo.com CEO and author of the inspirational book, Delivering Happiness.

Learning Humility

Humility is one of the not­ so­ obvious components of great leadership. The real leaders aren’t arrogant bombasts, but people who are gracious and, humble. Just ask Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball, and the force behind Duke University’s Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, shows and teaches humility, in the face of great wins and embarrassing losses. Many leaders already have ego, and that’s ok, but, as Coach K writes in The Gold Standard, “Ego and humility are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. You should have both.”

When you think about it, losing does not always have to have a bad ending. Sometimes losing is simply a matter of the way you look at things. Sure, I didn’t win the best blog award, but when I went back and looked at the numbers, I came in fifth. That meant that I was in the “Top 5.” In my business, that is, the business of MBA admissions, the top five includes Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, and Columbia. Not bad company, I think.

 

More on leadership and the MBA:

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays 

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

The Classic: Leadership and the MBA Application

Apply Now or Later? Business School Age Range

“When should I apply?”  “Am I too old to apply to business school?” Those are often the first things students ask when planning their MBA application process.  The highly personal answer depends on both strategic and tactical considerations.

The Decision is Part of Your Career Strategy

 

The “when” question is strategic because an MBA application requires asking yourself big questions about your career and where you want to go next. Often these decisions depend on the experience you already have. If you are looking at full-time programs, that means you have to figure out whether you have enough experience to convince an admissions committee that this is the right time to leave your current job and take on the hard-core leadership and managerial training to set you up for the next phase.  Remember, the admissions committee is trying to determine your value added to your future stakeholders: classmates, faculty, and alumni.

But I Hate My Job!

That’s among the worst reasons to apply to business school. It’s really better to apply from a position of strength. Sometimes you just need one more year to gain more work autonomy, or you might want to switch functions to round out your experience, or even push yourself in a completely different direction. If you are not sure now is the time , then you are probably not ready.

Is there a target number of years? Not exactly. Most schools publish their average age and years of experience on the class profile page.

HBS histogram

HBS range of years of experience

You’ll see that over the past 10 years, Harvard Business School’s students matriculated with a range of 41-54 months of full time experience.  And there’s a standard deviation of a about year  around that, giving you a plenty to work with.

If you are on the young side, think hard about the quality of the challenges and emotional intelligence you’ve demonstrated to influence outcomes. Remember, your teammate may be an astronaut, a West Point-educated Tesla employee,  a prize-winning athlete,   or just a high-performing consultant. Do you bring enough maturity, self-awareness, and resilience   to add to your teammate’s experience? It’s quite a tall order, and that’s why admission to the top schools is so competitive.

You’ll note that I’m not writing too much about someone with many years of experience. In that case, your question is not “when?” but “if?” If you think you are on the “more experienced” side, then don’t wait.  For a good, balanced perspective on the “too old” question, take a look at  Wharton’s (now defunct) Student2Student forum (answers saved at the link).

Round 1, 2, or 3?

The decision about Round 1, 2, or 3, is more of a tactical one. I’m writing this article in the first week of January, so chances are, if you are reading it in early 2017, you probably have already missed Round 2. However, if you are thinking of next year, all things being equal (and they never are) I recommend Round 1. You’d rather have an admissions reader who is fresh and not looking to fill a gap in a class that’s already half-full. Furthermore, as a practical matter, Round 1 lets you enjoy the holiday season more, and your family with thank you for that.

This does not mean that Round 2 is an overly-tough round. Thousands of students apply and are admitted in the second round. Many have skipped on the first round because they haven’t done enough personal reflection to make sure their story and purpose are clear. Others wanted to take the GMAT score again, and for others, life got in the way. All of these are great reasons to postpone to Round 2.

Wrangling Recommenders

Recommendations are often overlooked when considering your tactical timing. I call this wrangling recommenders. You’ll need to brief and rally your recommenders to make sure they do the very best job for you. It is your job as project manager of your application to take this part of the application seriously. You will want them fully on your side, and the whole process WILL cost you some political capital. And no, you cannot write your own recommendations and just have them tweak and sign. That’s wrong.

Am I Crazy to Apply Round 3?

Finally, it’s come to this: the Round 3 question.  I personally know or have worked with students who have gotten into every top school in the country that has a third round. (MIT does not). The odds are against you, but if your tactical timing is right, then it may just work. As Dee Leopold, head of Harvard Business School admissions says,

“We like Round 3 enough to keep it as an option. Although we have admitted about 90% of the class by this time, we always – ALWAYS – see enough interesting Round 3 applicants to want to do it again.”

Yes, it is a little on the late side, and if you are just starting to think about taking your GMAT, you probably should delay until next year. But! If you are already in the process, and ready to go, you may not be as crazy as you think.

The choice is always yours. Whenever you decide to apply, make sure you execute well. That probably means you shouldn’t rush. Business school is a big decision and a bigger commitment, so you should apply when you feel you are presenting your best, true self.

This prompt is partly about your ability to plan logically and partly about your ability to envision a wild future.

Best of the Web: MBA Recommendations

As we come up to the business school application deadlines, thousands of aspiring MBA students are asking their bosses, former bosses, senior colleagues, and even clients for recommendations to business school. It’s tough to navigate, but there are resources out there, and most of them are on the web. Below are some excerpts and links to some excellent, easy-to-follow guidance on how to manage the entire process, from picking recommenders to putting together their briefing packages. If you click and read through all the links, particularly the link to Palo Alto for Awhile, you’ll find actionable advice to that can help you get stronger and ultimately, more helpful recommendations.

Take Admissions Officers at their Word
You can find many opinions about how to strategize MBA recommendations all over the web. But why go for conjecture when you can find real answers from the schools themselves? Admissions officers have come right out on their websites and told students what they are looking for in a recommendation, and I encourage you to take them at their word.

A classic article on this subject can be found on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website. Kirsten Moss, the GSB’s former Director of MBA admissions, offered clear advice for all applicants, not just Stanford. She purports that the recommendation is “about about bringing this person alive. How, if they left tomorrow, would [the] organization have been touched in a unique way.“

Note too, that admission committee members reading your letters of recommendation don’t want everything to be stellar. If all the recommenders say that the applicant is wonderful for the same reasons, or if the student looks like a demi-god, “it loses its authenticity.” says Stanford’s Moss.

Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford’s MBA program also guides students with ideas to make the letters specific:

You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.

And from Harvard Business School…
Dee Leopold, the very experienced and candid ex-Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific. Furthermore, “Many recommendations are well-written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples,” she explains. “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Her blog is not indexed, so I recommend searching for her posts of August 13, 2012, Aug. 24, 2009 and June 17, 2008.

The always articulate Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, allays fears that your recommenders must write perfect prose. “We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and … the impact you had within your organization.” She also offers the following four specific tips

1. Choose substance over title (in other words, don’t ask your CEO)
2. Go with professional relationships
3. Make it easy for your recommender (For example, remind them of examples, in context)
4. Provide ample lead time

I’m a fan of Julia Campbell, from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, who highlights an important point: make sure the recommender likes you.

Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many candidates have letters of recommendation submitted by people who write just a few words (“She’s really great.”), come up with poor examples (“One time we had a problem with a client, and she handled it well”, or clearly just don’t think that highly of you (“She performs equally well when compared to her peers at a similar level.”  You might as well have asked a perfect stranger to write it and it probably would have come out better.

Really Useful and Excellent Resources: 
Several students and former students have chimed in on the MBA recommendations process. One of my favorite applicant blogs, Palo Alto For Awhile, thoughtfully offered a very specific step-by-step guideline for the recommendation process. [One caveat to her recommendations — use first person always when writing a memo for a recommender.  If you write suggested anecdotes in third-person, then it might look like you wrote the recommendation.]

Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who was on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and graduated from the JD-MBA program. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, “Highlight Why You Picked Them.”

Indeed, organizing and managing the recommendation process can be a challenge, especially if you are applying to a number of different schools. But it’s a lot like managing a project at work: you’ve got to get buy-in and meet the deadlines.

Ready? Now let’s go and get some professional love letters.

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