Category Archives: Leadership

How Not To Fall Down on the Harvard Business School Setback Essay

Over many years I’ve written extensively — both here and in my book — about the weakness-failure MBA admissions essay and how to approach it. In fact, it has to be about 8 years since I pioneered the notion of using the failure essay to position the applicant as a leader, because all successful leaders have failed or will fail at some time or another. Moreover, a real leader will acknowledge not deny a failure, and embrace its implied learning path — demonstrating capacity for personal growth which is the real test in answering this type of question.

Anyway, as you know, this year HBS grew the category from ‘failure’ to ‘setback’ and extended their request from one failure in 400 words to 3 setbacks in 600.

In a sense, not too much new here, but seeing as I’m experiencing a few clients struggling to hit the nail on the head, let me add a few thoughts and go over one or two principles.

First, a setback is broader than a failure. A failure comes from something you did or didn’t do. It implies personal causality and responsibility. A setback can be a failure in these terms, but it can equally be due to no fault of yours — just the big wide world doing what it sometimes does in a way that helped you not.

But, recognize too that the setback category does not cover all negative events. The outcome must be a setback. If you swam too far from the beach but were rescued, you might feel like an idiot and you might have had a wake-up call. But it’s not a setback because you were not held back or slowed down in any meaningful sense.

Choosing setbacks

Assuming you’ve identified various items that count as setbacks, which do you choose?

First the basics: as with the 3 x Accomplishments, you should create a spread from professional to personal to community topics. All work and no play makes Jack a dull admissions boy.

After that, you choose between setbacks the way you choose every topic: by asking yourself “which allows me to deliver the most admissions value?”

These are the kinds of admissions value a setback can communicate:

1. You show you are a leader. All leadership implies exploration of uncertainty and action without full knowledge of the consequences. Therefore all leaders mess up now and then. If you’ve had no setbacks, you have not led enough.

2. You show you are an innovator, and can balance risk and caution. Sometimes innovators go down blind alleys or take risks that don’t pan out. It comes with the territory. If you’ve got nothing here, you are either over-conventional or over-cautious, or both.

3. You show you are determined and can persevere. The “comeback from a setback” allows you to show tenacity and how you don’t give up.

4. You show you are resourceful. Likewise, overcoming a setback may allow you to demonstrate resourcefulness and creativity.

5. You show self-knowledge and self-insight. You are able to do honest introspection, which is the litmus test of maturity. You demonstrate humility.

6. You show growth. You are willing to learn, adapt yourself and your actions, and grow through experiences such as this.

MBA Admissions: About You, About More Than You

The military style and ethos of management is usually best avoided in MBA admissions, because it is not subtle or complex enough for the real world of business. If Adcom is interested in your leadership style (and they are) they are interested in how you are able to motivate people without threats or force or heirarchy. To go up to someone’s desk and scream in their ear is hardly going to work in your office. In business, pulling rank usually does more harm than good.

However, occasionally there is something to be gleaned from the military, and here is a video worth two minutes of your time. It features Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, now CEO of ‘The Mission Continues.’

 

He describes his epiphany during ‘Hell Week’ when it dawned on him: “This isn’t about me. This test is about my ability to lead and be of service to the people who are in that tent right now.” The irony is he then falls asleep…

Jokes aside, here’s the point from an MBA admissions perspective:

A lot of applicants describe corporate hazing of one type or another. That is, the long hours worked, vertical learning curves ascended, all-nighters pulled, jetlag endured, and so on — in terms of personal gain. “I suffered, I showed perseverance and came though it, and learned a lot, and now I’m a better person.” That’s okay as far as it goes.

But the real admissions jackpot comes from being able to see it and frame it in group terms. How the ‘pain’ was all about bearing the load with the rest of the group, and achieving goals for the group. That is, how your effort was about more than just you, therefore implying what you will do with your MBA will also be more than just about you.

In this regard, note items 2 and 3 on the MIT Sloan guidance (which enumerates principles equally true of all top tier MBA admissions.)

“We seek to enroll well-rounded individuals with the following characteristics:

  • Success in your professional endeavors (whether you are well into your career or a college senior)
  • Ability to collaborate to accomplish a common goal
  • Drive to inspire others to achieve success
  • Vision to seek alternative solutions to existing challenges
  • Pursuit of meaningful goals”

 

HBS augments case method teaching: a call to ‘doers’

Harvard Business School this week announced first moves toward its long-awaited curriculum reform in an email from Dean Nitin Nohria and Senior Associate Dean Youngme Moon to incoming students. The essence of it is: HBS is creating a new required first-year course called “Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development” (FIELD), and will provide greater modularity and student choice in the second year.

By all accounts the reforms are not huge, and not as extensive as those undertaken by Wharton, Stanford, Yale, Haas, and other major programs recently. It appears that HBS’s strategy is to introduce reforms in a incremental, rolling way.

But there is a radical kernel in the FIELD program, something HBS applicants should note. According to the deans’ statement, the course will focus on developing substantively meaningful small-group learning experiences that are “experiential, immersive, and field-based.”

Elaborating on this, Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer for Harvard Business School, was quoted as saying: “For most of the last 100 years, we have been exclusively using a case study pedagogy. We’re recognizing that the case method needs to be supplemented with experiential things that allow students to balance knowing with doing.”

In other words, “doing” is moving up the list of what’s crucial at HBS. They are looking to graduate “doers” rather than merely “knowers.” Of course Harvard will claim they have been doing this all along, but part of the enduring criticism leveled against business schools, particularly in the wake of the Credit Crunch, is that “book learning” is not enough to make a good business leader.

The case method is in itself a hybrid between a straight textbook learning and the real world, and this is what made it powerful in a world where some other b-schools taught more rote style. But the world has moved on, and “experience” and “immersion-fieldwork” have become central to what all serious b-schools consider valuable in formative management education. Of course, the case method will still be at the heart of the Harvard’s teaching. But there is a clear manifesto to nudge the case method further towards the real world by augmenting it with immersion.

How does this affect admissions? Quite simply, HBS is looking, more than ever, to turn out graduates who are ready, willing, and able to roll up their sleeves and immerse themselves in their leadership projects. So you-the-applicant should look to show where and how you have successfully navigated “immersion” projects in your past, what learning experiences you will immerse yourself in while at HBS and in your near-term future, and how the FIELD experience will help you do it better.