Tag Archives | leadership

Resilience as a leadership trait in MBA Admissions

The 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

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays

MBA leadershipI am not a very good athlete, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when I decided to pick up a new sport. I decided to learn to row – not in a traditional rowboat, but in a long skinny shell with two 10-foot oars. It isn’t that hard, except you’ve got to do a few things right or you end up in the water.

But to really enjoy it, at least for me, I had to accept the fact that I was a novice.  And that meant not expecting myself to get it perfect from the very beginning.  As I found myself cursing my inability to square my blades, I realized that my mind was not allowing me to enjoy what should be a serene, zen-like experience.

Mindset
I was guilty of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset instead of the more constructive “growth” mindset.  Dweck is an authority on things like brain science and learning. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes the growth mindset as a far superior method for transforming effort into success.  The growth mindset allows you to focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility for results.  A growth mindset keeps you from saying, “I’m a natural-born loser,” and instead saying, “I need to work harder at this.”  In a growth mindset, people are not afraid to make an error, look silly, or show a deficiency.

The growth mindset represents a key leadership characteristic.  It’s no surprise that since 2015, Kellogg’s MBA program has this preface to one of the application questions: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? 

Dweck’s decades of research are particularly relevant for people aiming for business school.  The growth mindset resonates on a strategic level, considering the personal leadership attributes sought by admissions officers of most business schools. It also resonates on a tactical level, in studying for the GMAT or GRE.

 

The Strategic: Leading
Business schools seek out people with attributes that will make them leaders who will change the world for the better. They are looking for people who don’t give up and see hurdles as a challenge. They want people who can learn from others to improve themselves and their environment.  I worked with one student, now on his way to Wharton, who appeared on the surface to be an all-or-nothing high achiever. At first, he looked like the “typical MBA,” never a good sign. But later, in his application and interview, he mentioned something both disarming and revealing: he never learned to swim. So as an adult, he decided to jump in.  When discussing his recent lessons in swimming, he said “It is never too late for a fervent beginner.” That’s the growth mindset.

The Tactical: Testing
Standardized tests demand a growth mindset. The computer-adapted tests, which give you harder questions if you answer right and easier questions if you score wrong, can send the fixed-mindset student into a failure spiral that will ruin any chances of a decent score.  The growth mindset, however, allows the student to work toward mastery. To put the time and the effort into learning the material and the process.   The growth mindset allows the student to embrace the possibility that skills can be learned (they can), and that sustained effort (and a good coach) leads to accomplishment.  The person with a growth mindset loves to conquer a challenge, while the person with the fixed mindset demands perfection right away.

There may have been a time when business schools were looking only for people with natural-born talent.  But as the world has changed and management science has evolved, MBA  programs want growth-mindset types in their classes. They want people who are willing to try new things, and are prepared to not be perfect the first time out.  They want people who think of themselves as works in progress.

And that’s why learning a new sport (or skill, or technique, or trick) isn’t so bad. I know I was clumsy and got it all wrong with my first attempt at rowing. But no harm done.  I’ll just keep trying until I get it right.

Whenever that may be.

Some Introspection in Advance of Your Application Essays

The business school essays can be intimidating. The questions, ranging from open ended –Stanford’s “What is

mime mirror crop

most important to you, and why?” to specific “What are your short and long term goals?”  These essays are hard because admissions officers are looking for the story behind your story. They are looking for ways to determine your character and your personal leadership style – stuff that isn’t quite so obvious from your transcript or your GMAT scores.

I’m writing this blog post at the end of May, when the spring is full of warm weather promise and lengthening days.  Many deadlines for business school applications aren’t even released yet, not to mention essays.  To be honest, with three months until the first school’s first round (HBS, Sept 7, 2016), you really want to do some brainstorming with yourself.

This introspection and brainstorming will help reveal the real you. Not the person you think admissions officers want to see. I recently worked with a student, let’s call her Dora, who had a very strong profile, and in her first drafts of essays, presented a perfect, business oriented go-getter.  I had a long question-and-answer session with her before this draft, and I felt like there was a really interesting person inside.  She made me laugh, made me think about things in a different way, and impressed me with her knowledge of arcane subjects.  But guess what? None of those characteristics showed up in her essays. She was all business in her essays. Miss Perfect Applicant. But no.

Be Authentic. Not Perfect.

Fortunately, she changed it up so that she talked about choices she had made in her life – some easy, and some harder. Admissions committee members want you to understand what makes you tick, which does require going back into your personal history.  Harvard Business School professor and leadership guru Bill George has written at length about authentic leadership, which is based on your own life story. According to George, authentic leaders incorporate their own personal stories. That means talking about where you come from and showing some vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that you need to hang out all your personal secrets, but it does mean that you don’t want to be bulletproof.

It does mean doing the work to get to the honest part, which entails answering tough questions. Those questions are daunting because they ask what makes you tick – for example: What are some of the most challenging choices you have had to make in your life so far? Or, What was one of the biggest things that happened that was out of your control?  These are questions you want to brainstorm on that will help you peel away the layers of who you “should be” to who you are.

It’s hard to be objective about ourselves. Ask friends and family to help you explore your patterns. It’s a process from which most of us shy away; we don’t really want to know the deep dark secrets and we may fear reaching too high.

It’s a risk. But so what? In the words of Talal Khan, HBS 2016, don’t let self-doubt get the better of you.

This is that gnawing feeling inside you, saying ‘But I’m not good enough for this..’ This is all those times when you tried extremely hard and failed miserably, in plain public view. ..On an emotional level, think of the inverse situations – where you had major doubts about your ability to do well, but you went ahead and aced whatever it was you were doing. That arts class. That debating competition. That heroic on sports day. That eternally-un-impressable boss. And add to that, testimony from countless successful candidates, saying that they’ve all felt something similar, at many points, in the application process. So have faith and take the leap!

The Warriors Have Something to Teach You About Leadership

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I make no secret about being a Golden State Warriors fan. This is my home town team, and I am proud to admit that I am not just a bandwagon fan.  Sports fan or not, you’ve probably heard about their history-making skill.  You’ll see effusive descriptions about the players’ brilliance – individually and collectively.  And there are hundreds of articles about their gamesmanship.

But I haven’t seen too much about their brand of unselfish leadership.   And that’s something that all emerging leaders – whether in business school or just applying – can learn from.

Leaders who are playing from strength

Here are the things that jump out, and what students of leadership, at all levels, can learn.  Each one of these items are true of the superstars (Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Andre Igoudala), as well as the team as a whole.

* They are masters of their skill
* They work hard, really hard
* They help each other out – all the time
* They don’t showboat (much)
* They play with joy

Each one of those traits can be true of emerging business and organizational leaders.  When thinking about demonstrating leadership in a business school application, most prospective students feel like they are embarking on a competition as fierce as the NBA playoffs.  Most other candidates are already masters of their skill. Let’s assume that you, too, are at the elite level of skill.  And I bet you work really, really hard.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a statistic for assists in your day job?

The Warriors have already made basketball history because they play like a team. Teams have taken on enhanced importance in business school and management practices.  Look up “teams” at the Harvard Business Review website and you’ll find 4,700 articles. Kellogg’s first essay question begins with the statement, “Leadership and teamwork are integral parts of the Kellogg experience.”  Wharton, for example, has pioneered the team-based admissions interview, largely because the “team-based nature is fundamental to Wharton’s identity,” writes Hannah Zheng, WG15 in the blog “Wharton Journal.” Fuqua’s dedication to teamwork is so strong that it defines its culture as Team Fuqua with an underlying culture of supportive ambition.

The Warriors have made basketball so much more fun to watch because of the assist: they’ve taken passing the ball around the perimeter, to a high art.  They aren’t focusing on muscling their way to get under the basket – most of them are too small to win at that game. Instead, they play a kind of poetic, unselfish ball, and handily lead the NBA in number of assists per game. Yes, you hear of stars – Stephen Curry is not of this world. And he too is a great passer—especially when there is another player in a better position to score.

Showboating is the opposite of acting with humility

Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of seven books on leadership, describes humility as one of the most important characteristics of great leaders.  “They  exhibit humility in their actions and interactions, yet are passionately committed to the success of their enterprises,” he wrote in March 2016 on his website. Despite amazing competitiveness on the court – embodying Berkeley Haas’ defining principle of “confidence without attitude,” the Warriors are no prima donnas.

Off the court, the Warriors act about as humble as a bunch of regular guys. Steph Curry, is almost reserved in his demeanor, and at 6’3”, almost looks like a normal-sized human being.  He’s quiet and private and brings his two-year-old daughter to press conferences.  Draymond Green, the loudest and most passionate of the team, makes a big noise, but even he is not overly impressed with himself.  A lot of that gracious off-court attitude comes down from the top, Coach Steve Kerr. A gracious man, Kerr appears to have an even temper and a wry sense of humor. The dynamics of his organization are so strong that when he was out for back surgery for the first 43 games of the 2015 season, assistant coach Luke Walton oversaw a team that won 39 of them.  And typically, Kerr and Walton credit each other for the team’s success.

This is not what we think of when we think of famous basketball players. But the Warriors seem to bring the best out in each other. And that’s leadership.

Working hard and having fun

The biggest leadership trait this team brings to the table is joy. Their fast pace, their small stature, their theatrical shots, make you think they are having the time of their lives.  In fact, of the four core values, the first one is joy. (The rest are mindfulness, compassion and competition.)  This is a team that has a “silly fine” for team members who do really dumb things. This is a team where Curry laughs with delight when he’s on the bench –and it’s infectious enough to make you laugh too.

That’s the essence of being a true leader– to take it seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. Oh, they’re competitors, and but boy are they fun to watch. As one sportswriter for ESPN writes, “Joy? Sports aren’t supposed to be about joy. They’re supposed to be about proving yourself through a grueling slog of self-sacrifice. …To the Warriors, though, joy is a weapon, an essential aspect of winning.”

Final lessons

I could write more about learning from failure (see Michael Jordan’s Nike commercial), or about defying expectations (see Steph Curry’s original draft report video – with Drake’s lyrics “know yourself, know your worth”).  But I won’t. Watch a game. Enjoy yourself. And then, go out and break some records. The possibilities are endless.

 

 

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Many aspiring business school applicants wonder how to present themselves as authentic leaders before an admissions committee. They worry they don’t have a fancy title, they don’t have direct reports, or they haven’t thrown themselves in front of a land mine to save their fellow soldiers. Those are great examples, but there are thousands of students who are admitted to top programs who have none of those attributes, and easily viewed as leaders by their communities.

I’ve encouraged people to look at Daniel Goleman’s classic article about emotional intelligence, “What Makes a Leader;”  it is a helpful framework. In so many words, MBA admissions officers are coming out and saying that they look for emotional intelligence in a candidate.

Leadership guru Bill GeorgeStill, it’s hard to apply the principles directly. It’s not that believable to say, “I’m a great leader because of my empathy.”   Bill George, professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, focuses on “authentic leadership,” has been writing about this topic for over a decade, and articulately revisited the basic tenets in a recent article,  “Authentic Leadership Rediscovered.”

Here are my takeaways from that article that will help you with interviews, and writing your essays or personal statement

  1. Authentic leadership is based on your own life story. According to George, authentic leaders incorporate their personal stories. That means talking about where you come from and showing some vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that you need to hang out all your personal secrets, but it does mean that you don’t want to be bulletproof, for example, in the answers to Stanford’s “What is Most Important to You and Why,” the HBS “Introduce Yourself” prompt, and Columbia’s “Pleasantly Surprised” essay (specifically referring to CBS Matters).
  1. Authentic leaders embrace failure. Bill George calls it a “crucible moment,” and we’ve all had them. Business school essay prompts aren’t focusing on failure as much as they used to, but they are looking for change and growth from being tested.  Kellogg, for example, in one essay asks you about challenges you faced, and in another asked you how you have grown in the past.  Again, this doesn’t mean you have to write only about how you’ve crashed and burned, and risen like a phoenix, but it does mean that you want to show some resilience as well as a sense of humor about yourself.
  1. Authentic leaders are not perfect. Nor do they know everything. One of the things business school teaches us is how to make better decisions.  One of the ways to do that is to ask for help. In most business school essays which ask for an accomplishment, such as MIT Sloan’s “Tell us about a recent success,” because you can’t know or do everything, it’s likely you asked for support, and in doing so, you had to convince others to join your cause.
  1. Authentic leaders support and develop others. Look at the principles of Team Fuqua, in particular, “supportive ambition… because your success is my success.”  This is wedded into Tuck’s definition of leadership,  “helping others achieve great things.” And UCLA Anderson’s focus on shared success gets at the same idea. To quote Bill George from his book, True North.  Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders”

Bill George is not the only management guru who focuses on character-driven leadership. Wharton’s Adam Grant, also takes a broad view of leadership, in his book “Give and Take” he shows that those who elevate others are more effective leaders than “takers.”  Just look at the subtitle of his book, “Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.” 

As you look for ways to illustrate your leadership, take a look at the current best-practice thinking on leadership. It’s surprisingly personal, and as a result, shouldn’t require you do gymnastics in your interviews or essays to demonstrate your leadership character.