One way or another, if you apply to business school, you’re going to need to demonstrate that you’re a leader. While this is being asked less explicitly via essay prompts these days, you’re almost guaranteed to be asked about your leadership skills in your interviews. You’ll also want to highlight them in your résumé and online forms, plus have your recommenders underscore them.
Many of my clients are initially concerned that they have big strikes against them in the leadership department because they’ve never had direct reports. “I’m not leading anyone,” they lament. “How am I going to answer these questions?” (The truth is, most MBA applicants don’t directly manage people, though a good percentage get to have some influence over the work of interns, new analysts, support staff, and the like.) But as I tell them, I’ll tell you: “Fear not!” Leadership encompasses a lot more than just having a bunch of people under you.
DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
For example, do you have a knack for seeing where your organization could go, say five, 10, 20 years down the road? Have you sensed greater possibilities, whether based on research or even hunches? Have you helped set a new direction for a group or organization? If so, you have vision. As we all know, Steve Jobs was a visionary master, anticipating products people would love before they even knew they needed them.
Vision can be strengthened or supported by applying systems thinking, an ability increasingly valued by business schools. Do you tend to look at the bigger picture and take the longer view, paying attention to the levers driving a particular system or taking into the account the health, or lack thereof, of the ecosystem in which your organization is operating? Do you have a good anecdote to share about that? To give a simple example, consider the problem of hunger that faces many developing countries. For decades, wealthier countries assumed that the problem was just one of scarcity and that simply shipping tons of food to countries’ main ports of entry would suffice. However, in many nations, other factors were at play, including vast amounts of corruption (officials might take food for themselves or try to resell it at exorbitant prices), and inadequate infrastructure and transportation (so food might spoil long before it could get to its destination). A lot of food never made it to those who most needed it. While always important, this kind of thinking is critical in an age when we think technology is the solution to everything — sometimes it is, but sometimes the roots of the problem lie elsewhere and throwing technology at a problem masks it.
You can have all the wonderful visions or ideas in the world, but if you can’t get others on board, who cares (unless you are a dictator!)? Consequently, another critical leadership skill is being able to persuade others, and this can often require courage and persistence. Now, you don’t need to create a reality-distortion field as the previously mentioned Steve Jobs was known to do, but you do need to have conviction and be a compelling communicator.
For example, a client of mine named Arjun* was working for a leading PE firm that had just abandoned a deal because, based on their valuation of the company in question, buying it didn’t seem worth it. Disappointed about not closing the deal, Arjun grabbed some KFC on the way home to assuage his sorrow the fatty fast-food way. While digging into his bucket of chicken, he reflected on the franchise business model — and suddenly something clicked! He realized there was a way they could value the business they’d just passed up using a franchise multiple, and this made purchasing the company look very attractive. He excitedly took his innovative idea to his managing director, who practically ridiculed him for it. But Arjun persisted, refining his pitch, and he eventually sold the investment team on the idea. This turned out to be a coup, because soon afterward they were able to sell off the company for double what they paid for it.
MAKING IT SO
You can also have great ideas or vision but do nothing about it. True leaders take initiative and make the things they envision happen. Peter, for example, had found it very challenging to break into PE and felt moved to make the journey easier for others. While he simply could have talked about doing something but not followed through or even proceeded to mentor one or two people, he actually launched a nonprofit PE-mentorship organization. He and his business partner developed resource materials (including practice LBO models, an interview guide, and résumé book); established a recruiter database and contacts; attracted and onboarded mentors; and hosted regular events such as mock interviews, modeling exams, and case studies. Now that’s implementation for you! So as you work on your application, think about mentioning situations in which you’ve crushed execution.
One quality that can help ensure success when taking action is resourcefulness. Quite often we don’t have exactly what we need at our fingertips to pull something off. This might be money, for example. Some of my clients have faced such situations and they had to get clever to resolve them, offering things like free publicity, trades, shared-income opportunities, etc., to potential vendors. Or they may have had to rethink their outreach, switching from paid media to social media. John worked for a particular group in his manufacturing company that had very few dedicated employees, so he often had to pull in engineers from other groups to staff his projects. These people had no obvious incentive to give up their time to him. He quickly learned that he could enroll them by discovering the ways they wanted to develop and giving them opportunities to do that on his project. (I’ve heard that chocolate chip cookies can work in some cases, but I wouldn’t count on that strategy!)
And can you keep people on board — maintain morale — when the going gets tough? Nazir faced this situation when his company in India was bought by a U.S. competitor, and its ranks had shrunk by 50% because of layoffs and attrition. Determined “to improve the situation rather than be a mere observer,” he urged India leadership to develop a “people team,” as their acquirer had to conduct employee-attitude surveys, brainstorm ways to resolve issues, and organize bonding activities such as lunches and off-sites. Discovering that lack of recognition and opportunities to showcase thought leadership were two areas of concern, Nazir presented possible solutions to the people team. As a result, the U.S. counterparts were asked to actively observe and recognize India associates through an employee-recognition feature, a cash reward recognizing exceptional work was instituted, and project work and reporting were redesigned to increase the visibility of the India team’s contributions.