Tag Archives: Columbia GSB

Turning a failure into an intelligent failure. Insight on how messups can play positively in MBA Admissions

MBA applicants are routinely asked “the failure question” either in MBA essays or interviews. It always takes more or less the same form: “tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.”

As I’ve written before here, and in my book, the test is not to see if you have any weaknesses or failures. Everyone does. It is to see whether you are mature enough to recognize your failures and so address the implied weaknesses. Also, failures are more likely to occur in new, challenging tasks, so if you present “no failures” you are simply telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged.

The other day I picked up an interesting take on failure — creating “intelligent failure” — in the article Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.

McGrath says: “Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations. Instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal. To those executives, let me argue that an extraordinarily valuable corporate resource is being wasted if learning from failures is inhibited.

“Naturally, to an executive raised on the concept of “management by exception,” any failure at all seems intolerable. This world view is reinforced by the widespread adoption of various quality techniques, for instance, six sigma, in which the goal is to stamp out variations (by definition, failures) in the pursuit of quality…

“Failures are crucial to the process of organizational learning and sense-making. Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can re-set its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”

The point McGrath is making is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set reasonable prior fail-safe mechanisms in place, and then interrogate a failure afterwards, to make a failure useful as learning. This turns it into an “intelligent failure.”

If you can show the MBA Adcom that you did this, that you didn’t just fail dumbly, or have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your essay will shine in all the right ways.

Warren Buffett undervalues you at $1million after your MBA

Last week Warren Buffett told 700 Columbia Business School students: “Right now, I would pay $100,000 for 10 percent of the future earnings of any of you.”

Seven hundred Columbia GSB students had crammed into the Roone Arledge Auditorium to hear the Sage of Omaha, accompanied by Bill Gates. Buffett (Columbia class of ’51) helped, if you couldn’t do the math: “Many of you are a million-dollar asset right now.”

There’s nothing unique about Columbia in top-tier MBA company. Buffett would make the equivalent offer to graduates of other top-tier MBA programs.

And I’m sure Buffett’s offer is dead serious — if any top-tier MBA graduate were fool enough to sell at that price! Warren didn’t become the world’s greatest investor by overpaying for his stock, therefore of course he assesses the average future value of Columbia business students at far greater than $1m. (He champions “value investing” — analyzing a company’s real long-term value and buying securities priced well below that.)

Effectively the careful, savvy Buffett is saying he commercially “values” anyone picked by Columbia (or equivalent) Adcom as, at minimum, a million-dollar asset even though he has never met him or her. He trusts Adcoms to have picked the right people, top faculty to have adequately prepared them, and the careers office to be able to place them into high-return jobs, so that his investment would soon show returns.

What this tells you is that the brand value of a top-tier MBA holds up exceedingly well in the eyes of the smartest people, despite the recession, despite alleged MBA complicity in the Credit Crunch, and so on.

There was another lesson for those who would like to be one of the 700 (or equivalent) next year. As reported in Columbia University’s The Record, David Lin, 26, a second-year MBA student from Los Angeles said Buffett’s success “proves you don’t have to be a jerk or have a huge ego to get ahead in this world. He’s a role model for everyone, not just investors.”

As a normal ego, non-jerk, Buffett is an important role model for MBA applicants too.