More often than not, when I begin the discussion with my clients about demonstrating leadership experience in their MBA applications, I hear, “But I’m not in a management position.” Truly, that’s OK. The average age of most entering classes at top MBA programs hovers around 26-28 years old, so it’s not a surprise that you haven’t yet started managing a team. The truth is that many, if not most, applicants (and admitted students) to the top business schools in the world have never had a direct report.
However, almost all of those admitted to the top MBA programs have demonstrated two things:
1. Inherent leadership qualities
2. Inherent leadership potential
In the May-June 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, there is an intriguing article about the four leadership qualities that were found during a 10-year study of the highest-performing CEOs. The four things that HBR cited could be great thought-starters for you as you consider how you’ll describe your leadership aptitude in your upcoming application essays. These are qualities that you can probably point to as either areas where you currently excel or areas where you want to excel (e.g. why you are applying to business school):
2. Ability to engage others (e.g. motivate)
3. Ability to adapt well to change
4. Reliability (in producing results)
Even if you’ve only been working for a few years, chances are you can give examples of how you’ve exhibited some of these leadership qualities. For example, if you work on a team, you should be able to point to a time when you’ve engaged others. Last year, I worked with a private equity associate who’d had to convince the leadership of one of his portfolio companies that they needed to renegotiate with their largest customer (even though that was culturally not the norm). I also worked with a consultant who had needed to convince his team that on-the-ground research (literally door-to-door) was the way to go. Both of these examples ended in great successes — but the real success (to the adcom) was the fact that these people were able to motivate those around them.
Similarly, stories about adapting to change lend themselves to describing how great your problem-solving skills are. Perhaps your company was blindsided by Brexit and there was suddenly an unexpected need for reanalyzing your business unit’s sales strategy or the data that you use. Or maybe you worked in a company that was acquired. For example, I worked with a woman this past year who had amazing stories of how she’d worked with an acquiring company’s management team to ensure a smooth integration as they took over her firm. It not only showcased her ability to change but also her ability to get right in there and help solve the issues that would inevitably
pop up in any merger (even though this was far from her day job).
Many people cite their extracurriculars for leadership qualities and potential, as well. Maybe you’ve been tutoring for an organization for several years and realized that the student drop-out rate was pretty high. Perhaps you were then proactive in considering what the issues may be and submitted a proposal to the executive director (even though this was far outside of your volunteer scope within the organization). Being a reliable contributor who goes above and beyond when the situation arises is a great quality to demonstrate on your applications.
Remember, the key is showing that you are inherently a leader, not inherently an “order-taker.”
Meredith Shields is the co-founder of Vantage Point MBA Admissions Consulting, a boutique, full-service MBA admissions consulting firm that advises applicants to the top MBA programs in the world. With Vantage Point, Meredith and her co-founder, Melody, have developed a unique 360° approach to the application process, delivering the perspectives that matter from not only experienced consultants and former admissions directors at top 10 MBA programs but also current MBA students and post-MBA professionals at some of the top companies in the world.