Tag Archives: goals

New HBS Dean talks of competence, character, internationalism, and dirty boots. Adcom will follow suit

The soul-searching at Harvard Business School over business ethics and the relationship between business and society has been widely documented. From Anderson to Enron to Lehman Bros., risktaking, dodgy, and sometimes outright criminal companies have been loaded with HBS alumni (as well as many from other schools as well, let’s not forget.) But somehow, of all business schools, perhaps because of its self-proclaimed “leadership and influence” focus, Harvard sees itself as needing to lead a new era in business-society relations.

With this as background, a recent Economist piece views the appointment on July 1st of new dean Nitin Nohria as part of a general HBS ethics-focused shake-up.

“Mr Nohria is the first HBS dean who was not born in North America. He is also the first who has come to the job having said that business faces a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ and that business education is at an ‘inflection point’…

“Mr Nohria’s first task is to try to restore faith in business in general and in business schools in particular. This means improving two things, he reckons: “competence” and “character”. He wants the faculty to focus more on the risks of clever financial techniques; they will have plenty of case studies to choose from. He also wants HBS to renew its commitment to shaping its students’ characters as well as their intellects. He has long argued that business people should regard themselves as members of a profession. He supports a movement by students to adopt a business equivalent of the Hippocratic oath… (For more on the MBA Oath see here.)

“Mr Nohria’s other great passion is for super-charging innovation at HBS. This will involve making the school even more globally connected than it already is: one of Mr Nohria’s first acts as dean was to embark on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s business hot-spots. More ambitiously, he wants to rethink the school’s hallowed teaching methods. Since the 1920s, HBS students have pored over case studies of business decisions. The new dean wants them to take part in live case studies—to take themselves to the Midwest or Mumbai and spend time working for real companies. This answers one of the most persistent criticisms of business education: that it is too abstract. Mr Nohria wants his students to get their boots dirty.”

So there is clearly a manifesto from the top of HBS to (1) address character issues and define competence more broadly, that is, to exclude absurd risk-taking; (2) to increase the school’s active global connections, including in emerging markets, in the spirit of innovation, and; (3) to extend the case-method to include “do-it-don’t-just-think-about-it” immersion.

Nobody is suggesting that the Dean makes admissions decisions directly. But HBS Adcom as a whole can hardly be immune to the strong winds of this new directive either. Therefore, applicants who (while staying true to themselves!) show evidence of good character, a measured risk-taking profile, global-innovative intent, and readiness to go beyond the ivory tower during their studies and afterwards, will be doing themselves a favor.

Wharton’s MBA admissions essays for 2010-2011: a challenging set of questions

Wharton’s MBA essays for 2010-11 are great; and very significantly reformulated from previous years, demanding new comment and analysis here.

The required question:

What are your professional objectives? (300 words)

This is in some senses the classic Why-an-MBA? question. What’s new is that it is really short, particularly when compared with the longer questions that follow. The implication is that Wharton, following HBS and others, are putting less and less emphasis on what applicants claim they will do on graduation. They expect to heavily influence that. It is important that you have direction and motivation, but they reckon, and they’re right, that 300 words is more than enough to get that across. Notice that there’s very little space for Why (an MBA) Now? or Why Wharton? If there’s something important to say to that, you’ll have to be really succinct, or work it into one of the other essays.

The optional questions — respond to three of the following four:

  1. Student and alumni engagement has at times led to the creation of innovative classes. For example, through extraordinary efforts, a small group of current students partnered with faculty to create a timely course entitled, “Disaster Response: Haiti and Beyond,” empowering students to leverage the talented Wharton community to improve the lives of the Haiti earthquake victims. Similarly, Wharton students and alumni helped to create the “Innovation and the Indian Healthcare Industry” which took students to India where they studied the full range of healthcare issues in India. If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be? (700 words)
  2. Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (600 words)
  3. Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (600 words)
  4. Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship. (600 words)

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Question 1 does a number of things worth noting. First it’s mining for what you, specifically and uniquely, bring to the program. It does not automatically follow that you would create a class around your speciality, but this will be the case for many applicants, and so is a place to show your special attributes, connections, or interests. The question also therefore allows you to show your “fit with Wharton,” not only what you will contribute but what you would like to learn or experience. Further, as the language of the question suggests, it looks toward your innovativeness, which is a core value in MBA admissions. Your choice of class must show innovation with reference to the curriculum as it stands. This of course demands that you demonstrate knowledge of what is already on offer and where the gaps might be. Finally the question tests your realism and knowledge of how b-school electives and/or off-site experiential programs work. You might say “I’ll create a class that goes to visit Nelson Mandela to learn to balance business and policy objectives” but that would show total naivete as to how things really work and what’s really possible, and your application would be in the bin.

Question 2 is a deep, almost wickedly deep, dive into your personal stuff. They are probing the tissue of your motivation, your self-awareness, and self-understanding. The actual opportunity turned down is far less important than why you choose one thing over another, which should takes Adcom right to who you are as a person and what your core values are. Don’t disappoint them in this. Obviously when you turned down an opportunity, it was for a good reason, either a better opportunity or a family obligation or something like that. So what is at stake here too is your judgment and maturity. The question specifically looks to that in asking if you would make the same choice again, in other words, “how have you grown?”

Question 3 is the similar to last year, but the sub-question is new. It is a classic failure question. I’ve written a lot on how to manage failure questions (click on ‘failure essay’ tag,) and in my book. The sub-question that asks about your definition of failure, deepens the motivational, maturity, introspection angles to the standard MBA admissions failure essay. Everyone fails. Not everyone knows why, or demonstrates the self-knowledge or emotional resilience that is core to “bouncing back.”

Question 4 is a fairly typical “challenging situation” question. Of the set it is the one that most clearly asks about your relationship with others — and therefore your role in groups, teams, and so on, although it does focus you on a particular event and a specific 1-to-1 relationship. The ability to manage relationships is key to leadership, and therefore key to business success, and thus key to Wharton Adcom.

All in all, Wharton 2010-11 has put out a really state-of-the-art set of questions. Varied. Behavioral. Hard. But don’t be scared of hard questions. If they were easy you wouldn’t be able to separate yourself adequately from the crowd of pleasantry-and-platitude writers.

How to dent the universe (or how to apply for an MBA like Steve Jobs would)

In dealing with MBA admissions clients, I’m always looking for ways to push them beyond the ordinary, both in terms of how they frame their life to date and what they plan to do in the future. I also counsel applicants to ‘think like a CEO-in-waiting,’ that is, ask: what would a senior executive do here? What would she say? How would he apply?

The poster child for the pathbreaking senior executive is business legend Steve Jobs, Apple CEO. I recently came across a site called MBA Naukri that has collected Job-isms, some of which I have reproduced here as guidance in ‘reaching for more’ in an MBA application.

1. There is no shortcut to excellence. “Use your talents, abilities, and skills in the best way possible and get ahead of others by giving that little extra. Live by a higher standard and pay attention to the details that really do make the difference. Excellence is not difficult – simply decide right now to give it your best shot – and you will be amazed with what life gives you back.”

2. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. I’ve got it down to four words: ‘Do what you love.’ Seek out an occupation that gives you a sense of meaning, direction and satisfaction in life. Having a sense of purpose and striving towards goals gives life meaning, direction and satisfaction. It not only contributes to health and longevity, but also makes you feel better in difficult times.”

3. Create something to give back. “You know, we don’t grow most of the food we eat. We wear clothes other people make. We speak a language that other people developed. We use a mathematics that other people evolved… I mean, we’re constantly taking things. It’s a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.”

4. Fail and rebound. “I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year… It’s very character-building.Don’t equate making mistakes with being a mistake. There is no such thing as a successful person who has not failed or made mistakes, there are successful people who made mistakes and changed their lives or performance in response to them, and so got it right the next time. They viewed mistakes as warnings rather than signs of hopeless inadequacy. Never making a mistake means never living life to the full.”

5. Dent the universe. “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here? Did you know that you have big things to accomplish in life? … Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Granted, it’s much easier to say stuff like this if you’re a billionaire celebrity not a cubicle slave. But you can see that if Jobs himself were applying for an MBA he would not be saying something nebulous like: ‘upon graduation I plan to go into management consulting and then transition to be a manager in the IT sector.’ He’d tell you exactly how he was going to dent the universe, why that was a worthwhile and necessary thing to do, and why it was his deepest inner purpose to do it.