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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

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Best MBA Resume Advice Ever

resume typewriter smallYou can find countless articles on general resumes all over the web, but very little on the perfect MBA resume. I did write about it,

walking through a template I’ve crafted after working with Stanford GSB first year students. But my colleague Candy LaBalle, who runs mbaSpain, came out with an outstanding article this morning. She has given me permission to reprint the article here — and I guarantee you will find it specific and helpful.

It originally appeared on Magoosh‘s website, but in my version, I’ve highlighted the parts that deserve mention

Six Steps to a Stellar MBA Resume

If you are applying to an MBA this year, you’ve probably noticed that top b-schools are not asking for many essays. Tuck requires two, Booth asks for a presentation only and Harvard has made its one essay optional. This reduced application content makes your MBA Application Resume more valuable than ever. In fact, HBS and Columbia even allow resumes that go beyond the “one-page” standard.

But, whether you prepare one or two pages, you need to follow some guidelines. Beyond using action verbs, avoiding “I” and having standard fonts no smaller than 10-point, to make your MBA Application Resume truly stellar, follow these six tips:

1: Focus on YOU

If your resume reads like a job description then it is not about you—it is about your job. Instead of focusing on tasks, highlight your achievements, and include details on team size, cultural exposure and quantifiable results.

  • Participate in M&A transactions
  • Advise clients on business strategy

becomes

  • Led teams of up to three, on four M&A deals in the energy, telecom and retail sectors, valued up to $5bn
  • Created a cost-analysis model for Chile’s largest telecom identifying 12% in savings; presented model directly to client senior managers

2: Skip the jargon

Adcoms are looking for leadership potential, collaborative mindset and interpersonal skills. Even if you are an aeronautical engineer, focus on your MBA qualities.

  • Coordinated advanced ABC testing to reduce drag on the XYZ series fuselage.

becomes

  • Led six engineers from three countries to improve performance on our best-selling plane by 21%.

3: Go beyond your daily tasks

Do you handle recruiting for your firm at your old university? Did you create a new work process that improves team efficiency? Do you organize birthday dinners, basketball games or other activities that encourage socializing outside of the office? These show initiative, impact and interpersonal skills and should be included.

  • Created company soccer team, recruiting players from various departments; team now competes weekly against other company teams

4: Show progression

If you were the only one out of 1,000 applicants to get the position, or you moved from a six-month internship to full-time employment in just 3 months, then say it!

  • Hired as Associate in September 2013 and fast-tracked to Senior Associate 13 months later (average promotion time is 18 months)

5: Highlight leadership

Leadership goes beyond supervising people. If you do lead a group, definitely include that on your resume, but if you don’t, highlight other examples of leadership: managing a project, coordinating client teams, mentoring interns.

  • Created my department’s first online “data warehouse,” reducing research time for projects
  • Trained 14 senior clients to use a new CRM, resulting in higher sales team efficiency

6: Don’t forget the fun stuff

If you play viola, were regional champion in judo, run 10Ks or enjoy juggling, include it!  Hobbies help you stand out from the crowd as well as show commitment, passion and leadership.

  • Founded a dining club that now has 42 members; organize monthly dinners at gourmet restaurants for up to 15
  • Began waterskiing as a child, advanced to national competitions in university, currently teach waterskiing to children
  • Travel constantly, have visited 46 countries on six continents, traveled from Europe to Asia by land only, created a travel blog