Tag Archives: management

The Hidden Why of Work-Life Balance in MBA Essays

Everybody knows “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And therefore that you need to mix non-workplace stories and situations into your MBA admissions essays.

I find I still have to nudge on this. Truth is, after 10 years in MBA admissions, I can read applicants’ minds somewhat, and I see the thought bubble above a client’s head that says: “C’mon Avi, this lifestyle story is a ‘soft’ story, while this work story clearly demonstrates my business leadership potential…”

You do need workplace stories, of course. But you need life stories in equal measure, and not just to demonstrate work-life balance. There are further reasons, which are:

1. Your work is not that interesting

What?!! Not interesting? I break it to you, if you didn’t know already, that your own work is more interesting to you than it is to other people. That’s why you do it and they don’t. There may be some exceptions, like if you worked on the international Space Station, but most people most of the time dread having their back to the wall while someone bends their ear about this or that installation where they were able to integrate the database mobility platform of… er…. you’d suddenly feel the urge to refresh your drink, if you know what I mean. Myself, I find picking the lock of elite MBA Admissions gates endlessly fascinating, but if I talk about it socially, people’s eyes glaze over.

2. Your work is relatively junior

Sorry, another home truth here. As an MBA applicant, chances are you are in your mid-late 20s, and so your work is, by definition, quite junior. You are not yet at the top of your game, nor at the top of your industry — where you would have the kind of experiences that would allow you to tell truly interesting work stories, like the time you were in the BP Boardroom when the Chairman of the Federal Reserve called… But, for now your work is pretty standard stuff, or at least it could be bigger and better. That’s why you’re applying for an MBA, no?

3. Your work will change.

By definition, if you are about to embark on an MBA, your professional life will change dramatically. Whatever you’re doing now, you won’t be doing it after graduation. So, whatever your workplace story, you are focusing the admissions reader on your past, while she is in fact looking to your professional future and trying to make a judgment about your ability to progress there.

For these reasons, while workplace essays *are* important, they are inherently limited in terms of their real purpose (to get Adcom to pick you.) The admissions committee is somewhat interested, but is going to gloss over the micro-technical or organizational details in the search for what they really want to know, which is, what is this applicant’s prospects for significant successes at a higher level?

They know, even if you don’t yet, that your current job spec will disappear and be replaced. So they focus on what is relatively fixed by your mid-20s: your character, personality, ambition, drive, and management style.

Turn it around and look at if from the reader’s point of view, as you should always do. What does Adcom at an elite b-school really want to know? (Yes, they say they want to “get to know you,” and they do. But in a way, this is the usual cr*p they alway say.) What they really, really want to know is whether you are going to be a future star, that is rapidly move onward and upward to one day do great things in your industry. Convince them of that (within your applicant sub-group) and you’re in.

The standard workplace conundrum that you solved and learned from is going to take you some way down that road. To go the rest of the way, you need to charm them with your formative life stories.

 

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”

 

Reinvent Management to Get Noticed in the ‘Creative’ MBA Essay

Some schools, notably Chicago Booth, UCLA Anderson, and NYU Stern, ask for open, creative essays where you set the agenda and can submit (within reason, per guidlines) whatever you think is important. The test is (a) how you deal with unstructured situations, (b) whether you have any creativity/imagination ,and (c) what your broader communication skills are like.

It’s a heaven-sent opportunity to get yourself noticed, but only, of course, if you can do something notice-worthy. Of course this essay prompt causes more unhappiness among applicants than any other.

As an applications advisor, I find myself thinking about new and different ways to tackle these questions. The only sure principle is “pop” — can you stand out? As Adcoms keep telling us, it’s not about evaluation (almost everyone who applies is “good enough.”) It is about selection. If you pop and you’re not in a heavily oversubscribed applicant category, your application becomes hard to turn down.

Here’s one way to pop — a management innovation competition. As the Website blurb says:

“The Management Innovation Exchange, a project aimed at reinventing management for the 21st century, and HCL Technologies, a global IT services provider, are offering more than $50,000 in prizes for the best new game-changing management ideas. The HCL MBA M-Prize competition is open to all current graduate business school students and will honor “the best new idea for making organizations more adaptable, more innovative, more inspiring, and more socially accountable.

“One of the people involved in all this is Gary Hamel, director of the Management Lab at London Business School, the author of seminal management books including Leading the Revolution, and one of the most influential management thinkers around. This is what he had to say in a statement:

“Organizations around the world today are challenged to change in ways they have never imagined. Collectively and individually some of the world’s leading management thinkers and progressive CEOs are pushing themselves and their teams to answer the fundamental question: How do we invent ‘management 2.0?’ The HCL MBA M-Prize is not an intellectual exercise or a theory. We are looking for ideas we can test and make work in a real organization. We are looking to reinvent the future of management and let MBA students’ ideas play a critical role in making it work.

‘In addition to a $50,000 grand prize, the winner gets to lead a real-world management experiment, in effect testing the winning idea at a real company. There are also three additional prizes for the best management “hacks”–which the organizers describe as “a bold new idea or radical fix aimed at redistributing power, unleashing human capability and fostering renewal in organizations.”

“The deadline for submissions is Feb. 28. Ten to 15 finalists will be selected by April 15 and the winners will be announced on the MIX site on May 1. Entries will be judged on clarity of thought and originality, potential for impact, feasibility of implementation, and popularity.

“A bunch of the entries have already been posted on the M-Prize web site. One involves giving rank-and-file employees a say in big company decisions, such as mergers and acquisitions. Another proposes an internal market for management talent–allowing employees to choose their own supervisors and rewarding the best. A third suggests an online social network to solicit money-making ideas for the company, and giving a cut of the proceeds from any viable idea to the person who thought of it.

“Not a bad start, but only a start. Surely there must be hundreds of really smart ideas for fomenting the next great management revolution bubbling up in b-school. What’s yours?”

(Yes, it’s open only to current b-school students. But there nothing to stop you telling Adcom what your entry will be next year…)