Category Archives: Ethics & Community

What does the “MBA Oath” mean for MBA admissions? Ways to broaden your ethical platform, for a start

There are many aspects of success in a competitive MBA admissions process that don’t change whether we are in a boom or a bust, whether Wall Street is loved or hated, whether globalization is in vogue or not. For example, evidence of senior leadership responsibility successfully handled will never go out of style in a MBA essay.

But there are also more transient social or business attitudes “in the air” in any year which the applicant should be aware of and ready to address in MBA application essays or interviews, in order to maximize chances of success. These may change every few years. In previous times times, key applicant success attributes have been pointers to future business success, or new venture creation, or raising shareholder value.

This year, in the wake of the financial meltdown and global recession, much of which (rightly or wrongly) is blamed on MBAs, the accent is squarely on business ethics and long-term sustainability of decisions. These issues have been on the rise for a while, but their sudden prominence is demonstrated in the emergence and rapid spread of the “MBA Oath.”

The oath is the brainchild of a few HBS students, but has since been pledged by current and graduating MBAs from most major institutions and has garnered heavy media exposure, for example this story in Business Week and this audio clip in the Economist.

What does it mean for this year’s applicant? First let’s look at the oath

THE MBA OATH http://mbaoath.org

“As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term. I recognize my decisions can have far-reaching consequences that affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and in the future. As I reconcile the interests of different constituencies, I will face choices that are not easy for me and others.

Therefore I promise:

  • I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner.
  • I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.
  • I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.
  • I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.
  • I will take responsibility for my actions, and I will represent the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
  • I will develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society.
  • I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.
  • I will be accountable to my peers and they will be accountable to me for living by this oath.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.”

**

MBA applicants should take all this on board very carefully, and look for past experiences that resonate. Adcoms won’t be looking for these words and phrases exactly (to use them verbatim would be an amateurish mistake) but it’s certain that they closely agree with these statements in general, and will be looking harder than ever for people who appear to understand this side of business administration and who will stand up to ethical tests through their careers. Remember Adcoms have taken plenty of stick too for filling classes with greedy self-profiteers, and are under more pressure than ever to pick a better kind of person.

Some of the Oath is just the usual good-citizen catechism: serving the greater good, demonstrating integrity, pursuing work in an ethical manner, balancing interests of shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society (triple or quadruple bottom line), not advancing ones own narrow ambitions, upholding the law, reporting accurately, and being accountable.

At a minimum it is important for MBA applicants to endorse this framework, or not seem to run foul of it. But this is common stuff. Other attributes of business and management ethics are perhaps less well known or defined, and here an MBA applicant can really score using the principles revealed in the Oath. Note that the Oath also sets these ethical goals:

  • bringing people and resources together to create value no single individual can create alone
  • creating value for society (not just self or company)
  • developing other managers under your supervision
  • appreciating the far-reaching and long-term consequences of decisions, and acting accordingly
  • pursuing sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity (not just fast or big prosperity)
  • distributing benefits of prosperity worldwide

This is a good starter list of ethical attributes that many applicants will miss, but which provide subtlety and differentiation for applicants who understand them, and who can find evidence of them in their personal and professional history.

Key points of advice for MBA admissions applicants, including some surprises

Continuing the process of moving stuff off the static site to this new blog format, this in an interview I did with About.com . The questions allowed me to say some perhaps slightly less-than-usual things. The original is here.
.
How soon should potential MBA students start preparing for the admissions process?
About 9 months to a year prior to submission deadline – giving time to research the process, research schools, line up recommenders, do the GMAT etc. Earlier start good, but it’s not a simple case of the earlier the better…
the candidate needs to get immersed in the application process. Certainly s/he doesn’t want to dilute the process over years and years. That’s a recipe for a lukewarm application. Generally applicants should be wary of spending too much time on their application research and production – some do – at the risk of having their career stall and missing the key workplace award or promotion that would help them shine in front of Adcom.

Should prospective MBA students submit applications to several schools or are they better of concentrating their efforts on one or two favorites?
Both really. Favorites should be carefully targeted, no holds-barred. But the applicant should also be street-smart in recognizing that competition for top schools is intense, and any one favorite school acceptance may not emerge. In my experience the ideal number of applications is 4-5. Less means the randomness of random dings is not taken out the equation. More starts to dilute the energy of the applicant and recommender, and take too much time (ref answer above).

In your book, MBA Admissions Strategy, you mention that nearly everyone under 35 with respectable undergraduate transcripts and a good professional record has a realistic chance of getting into the finest business schools. Some prospective students don’t share this optimistic view. I get a large number of emails from individuals who feel that poor GMAT scores or attendance at a less prestigious undergraduate school can hurt their chances during the admissions process. What advice can you offer these students?
In my experience a less prestigious U/G school is a very minor factor, and is entirely a non-factor if there is some concrete reason (normally funding) why the applicant went to “Buckwheat State” and not Harvard College. What counts more is how the applicant performed academically at whatever institution they were at. But even more than that, business schools heavily weigh what a candidate has done between college graduation and MBA application. A good professional record trumps college level branding. (This is different to Grad & Law & Med schools, where applicants apply younger and with less or zero work experience, so college brand is all adcoms have to go on.)

As to GMAT, yes, it is true a minimum threshold GMAT is necessary. If one is not in the high 600s, an application to a top-10 school will stall. But the GMAT works on a threshold principle – the applicant needs a high enough score to relax Adcom about his or her academic ability. After that they start asking other questions – about leadership, team skills, career arc, etc.

Footnote to this is that, believe it or not, a GMAT score can be “too good” – anything above about 760 is problematic. This is because the applicant starts to look like a genius and questions will be asked about whether that person will make a good manager and leader. B-school is a professional place with the aim of turning out people who will survive and thrive in the cut & thrust of real world business. That’s what recruiters want. So Adcom looks carefully at apparent geniuses and dings them if it appears they may be better suited to PhD program and research career.

What are four attributes every admissions committee wants to see in an MBA student?
See my book, chapter 2 “Attributes that Count” for a list of 22 such attributes. It’s hard to say which 4 count the most. I think a clear success record is definitely up there; along with personal integrity; being a team player that mixes well; and leadership experience and potential. But there’s no privileged four. I strongly believe in all 22.

How important is it for applicants to show that they possess these attributes?
The key here is “show”. So many applicants claim they possess attributes. That’s worth nothing. The attributes have to be shown by telling proof stories – that is, anecdotes of the candidate in action, acquiring or living the attribute.

What are the three most common mistakes that an MBA applicant can make, and how can these mistakes be avoided?
1. Trying to be a typical MBA applicant – leading to a generic and therefore low-value application.
2. Inability to see what is precious and valuable in their past activities, from Adcom’s point of view.
3. Wasting precious essay space with sentences and paragraphs that do not deliver or prove profile value.

Is there any additional advice that you can offer students who are trying to develop an MBA admissions strategy?
Candidates should balance their energy between the major blocks of an application, which are: (a)GMAT (b)File essay questions & long essays (c) Recommendations (d) Interview. (I assume their college record is set). In having helped hundreds of applicants get into top schools, the application strategy weakness I see most is candidates who are willing to spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy, not to mention money, trying to get their GMAT score up one notch, while neglecting the rest.

As mentioned, the GMAT operates on a threshold principle – more is better up to a certain point – then more is irrelevant. And the balanced good application beats the unbalanced excellent/patchy application (and remember, they don’t want brainiacs). They are looking for people who appear good on all fronts. Someone who looks like they will continue to be good on all fronts. This is what I call the “CEO-in-Waiting” image.