Tag 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.

Digging Deep for MBA Admissions Value – Take Karate for Example

I’m often, … no correction, always telling MBA applicants to extract the full MBA admissions value from what they have in their bio, and what they have done. Doing this is the only way to present as more valuable than the next applicant to the business school in question; that is, the only way to get admitted in a competitive system.

Easier said than done of course. So the question comes back: How do I do that? And this is a fair-enough question.

How to do it, as I’ve written at greater length in my book, has to do with (a) understand the full dimensions of MBA admissions value associated with what you have done and/or achieved; (b) understanding what is valuable to Adcoms, which is to say what is valuable in the b-school environment and in MBA careers, and (c) being able to connect “a” to “b” in a clear and compelling way.

That’s the theory. Here’s an example. (Note: nothing works in MBA admissions communications as well as an example.)

Let’s say you have been involved in JKA karate for much of your early life, achieved your “black belt” at the age of 18, were reasonably successful in competitions during high school and college, but now just keep your hand in at the dojo as a part-time instructor. Is it valuable or not?

Of course it’s valuable. Karate is a recognized development activity. It takes youth through a structured and disciplined and group-oriented series of challenges. Also, no question that having spent this much of your life on the activity, it has to get some airtime in your application.

More pertinently, which parts are valuable? What do you say? Is it valuable to say you can fight people and easily knock them down. Of course not. That’s a red flag. Is it valuable to say you can defend yourself in any situation? That’s not going to hurt your application, but it won’t help. Adcom doesn’t rate people on whether they can physically defend themselves — it’s not something that counts at business school or with the careers office or recruiters or in the business world for MBA graduates.

The value is in the discipline you learned, in the experience of setbacks and perseverance; in participating well with competitors and competition; in learning to manage adversity; in being part of a structured environment, and in learning to structure and manage your time (e.g. going to the dojo 5x a week on top of everything else.)

There may also be value to be had in the psychic development karate offers: exposure to alternative (oriental) philosophy, mindfulness, inner peace and self-reliance, and so on. If you are now a coach or trainer or mentor of the next generation, there is obvious admissions value in that.

There may be more. The point is, there is lots to say that points to a valid admissions “value claim” for you as a person and professional going forward. Once unearthed, you choose which parts to emphasize, and you move onto the next value activity, approaching it in the same way.

 

‘Dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up’

I spent a few minutes today catching up with the Stanford GSB Dean’s “State of  the School, Fall 2010” message, which anticipates the GSB’s move into the new Knight Management Center in Spring 2011.

What caught my attention, from an MBA admissions perspective, is the inscription on the new cornerstone of the new center. How is that for clarity in what Stanford GSB is looking for? Dreaming up — and presumably then building — new things is, literally, the cornerstone of the institution.

So if you are applying to Stanford GSB, you need to have some idea of what (ambitious) business or organization or innovation you may dream up, why it’s important to the world, why you are the person to do it, why SGSB can expect you to succeed, and a sense of how they can help you.

Is this saying, “think small?” Is this saying, “comfortable career track?” “Sure, we want to educate you so you can be a trader in an I-bank, or telecoms strategy consultant…?” I think not. They are not demanding mainline entrepreneurship exactly, but they are demanding those ready, willing, and able to build big new things in the world.

It’s also worth spending the 4 minutes it takes to watch Dean Saloner’s presentation, below, because he integrates key elements in the business school education framework, from perspective to foundations to critical-analytical thinking to innovation to personal leadership in a very joined-up way. As an applicant, it’s worth pausing to think how this simple pattern can be used to structure stories and events in your own life that you are trying to tell Adcom about.

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