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Turning Down HBS With No Regrets

Diana, Princess Of Wales, Visits A Minefield Being Cleared By The Charity Halo In Huambo, Angola, Wearing Protective Body Armour And A Logo Hastily Prepared By London Business School MBA, Paul Heslop. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Not many people turn down the offer of a place at Harvard Business School. The MBA program enjoys a yield of 91% on the offers that it makes, the highest acceptance rate among the world’s top schools. But then not many business school applicants have walked through an active minefield with Princess Diana, outfitting the unsuspecting royal with a logo fashioned from a pillowcase and blue marker.

Paul Heslop is not your typical MBA. He’s responsible for UN peacekeeping efforts in 17 countries, clearing thousands of bombs and mines, defending multi-million dollar budgets to the UN Security Council. Ahead of the CentreCourt MBA Festival in Boston on June 30, Fortuna Admissions caught up with the man who handed a defused mine to the most famous woman in the world. He explains why he chose London Business School over Harvard Business School, how he discovered his dyslexia during his MBA, and how he draws on his business school experience every day in his role at the UN. 

Matt Symonds: How do you describe your day job?

Paul Heslop: I work for the UN (United Nations) inside the Department of Peace Keeping Operations with the United Nations Mine Action Service  and I’m responsible for delivering mine action programs in 17 countries and territories. My work is primarily involved in mitigation of the threat presented to civilians and UN peace keepers from explosives, unexploded bombs and land mines. We have a $250 to $300 million budget annually, I manage a team of 30 in New York, over 200 international and 600 national staff in the field, and about 15,000 people through contracts and implementing partners clearing mines and bombs every day around the world. Our main aim is to try and destroy, and remove the threat, from all the unexploded bombs, IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], and mines in countries like Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and increasingly now in Iraq. Our work is expanding there now Isis is in the process of being driven out, and we’re also keeping a strong watching brief on Syria and Yemen.

Symonds: Can you speak to the value of the MBA for your non-traditional career path?

Heslop: Very few people in the UN have MBAs, and very few have the pragmatic, business orientation you get from having an MBA. It’s allowed me to look at a number of problems in the organization, or my specialty area within the United Nations system, and bring a slightly different perspective to address improvement. I would estimate – by utilizing lessons from the MBA – we increased improvements in procurement, management processes and contract management by well over 200% in the last 10 years. I would estimate we’re now delivering what would of cost $400 million in 2005 for $200 million today, which equates to well over a billion dollars of saving to the international community. A lot of this comes from frameworks and practices I learned from the MBA at London Business School.

I use something I learned from the MBA every day. One day I’m reviewing a marketing campaign, building the UNMAS brand, the next day I am looking at a specific country strategy, the next our global strategy for the next five years, or a human resources plan, then I’m looking at our accounts or procurement plans looking at how we’re spending and reporting on over $250 million per annum of project delivery, or I am flying out to the field to consult with the managers on the ground, trying to build high performing teams across 17 different projects. Whether managing change, organizational strategy, organizational behavior, project management, negotiation, managerial accounting I’m using those skills I learned in business school every day. And, because not a lot of people in the UN have MBAs, it gave me a unique perspective that was recognized and rewarded with rapid promotion to my current position.

Symonds: What’s your advice on how to pick a business school?

Heslop: I got a place at Harvard Business School, Columbia and London Business School. And to me what defined the difference was how international they felt and how the fit was. At a lot of the US schools, the students had different passport but they had all been educated in the Unites States so it felt like a lot of the same. London felt like an “international” school. If you can get in to a top-five program that should be the biggest deciding factor. But if you get into more than one, look at fit for culture and go to where you feel most comfortable. All the schools in the top 10 are great, but go for the one that feels right and fits with you.

Symonds: So you turned down Harvard?

Heslop: I went up to Harvard for the interview and sat in on a class… but I didn’t like the atmosphere or the way the student body interacted. When I went to London for the familiarization day, I loved how the students were interacting, the enthusiasm they brought, the alumni. I loved the experience of being interviewed by alumni and what that felt like and the enthusiasm they showed for LBS – versus at Harvard or Columbia having a formal interview with administrators in admissions.