For These Jittery MBA Applicants, It’s The Ultimate Game Of Thrones

IMD Dean Seán Meehan


Once she sits back down with her team, the dean opens a general discussion on the case, further challenging each applicant.

“I’d like to focus on to the delivery model Can you explain how the partnership with TE Habitat might work? Sean asks.

One of the applicants reiterates a point already made in the presentation that using a new distribution channel, even though it is different from direct sales, would expand the company’s reach without any investment in capital. 

Meehan points out that the company is positioned as a premium provider.  “They use direct sales and have total control over price and how their product is presented,” he says. “We scratch our heads as to how the rest get our product. But how do we ensure that our positioning isn’t corrupted when we go into a shed? One of the founders’ pillars is direct sell. We do not want to sit on a shelf against a competitor. Why on earth would they pay a premium for it? I need to understand how it won’t wreck our brand.”


The Indian attempts an answer, again repeating that it will give the company access to a market it is not currently serving.

“You explained demand but how do I protect the brand?” asks Meehan. “How do we ensure there is no arbitrage between the price point we end up with at TE and the overall market?”

“We can give them guidelines for selling our products,” she replies. 

The Dane on her team offers another solution, test stations in each of the retail stores. Instead of selling the actual product at retail, it would gather customer leads that would be followed up by the company’s direct sales staff.

“Is there anything you’d like to say in conclusion?” the dean asks.


A few more comments are made before the group breaks for lunch. While Meehan does not disclose what the company ultimately decided, the company’s management did exactly what both teams of applicants recommended. His questions were meant to test the group, see how individuals would respond and how team members would support each other or just fold.

The candidates go off to meet with two nearby alums who have come to campus for an hour’s lunch.

Reassembled in the conference room, Farrus places a stack of cards on the table and asks each applicant to pick one, read the question on the card aloud and then spend two minutes giving an answer to the group. There’s not a second of time to prepare the answer. It has to be spontaneous.

On its face, the challenge provides a glimpse into each candidates’ depth, how articulate they are on their feet, a glimpse of their professional presence and presentation skills, and a look at how the group responds to each other.


The German consultant is seated closest to the pile of cards and volunteers to go first. He reaches across the table to grab a card from the top of the pile.

“If you could have dinner with anyone in history who would it be and why?”

“Steve Jobs,” he says, explaining that his IT background gave him a special appreciation for the co-founder of Apple Computer. He mentions the iPhone but little else. “What makes him special is that he put design and marketing first, before technology, and that was key to the company’s success.”

The consultant uses up less than a minute of his time, offers no other details or explanation in support of his choice. Yet the nervous energy in the room is broken when his fellow applicants applaud him for so confidently answering the question.


The woman from Turkey is next. She reads her question to the group: “If you didn’t have to work what would you do with the rest of your life?”

She doesn’t miss a beat, saying she would travel but not for vacation but instead to live like a native in each locale she visits, learning the language and the culture, making friends, and gaining a deeper appreciation for the life others live.

There’s more polite clapping from the applicants and then the American draws what everyone will later agree is the toughest question in the pile: “Imagine a pen that could do anything and sell it to us.”

The room falls silent, eager to hear what this reserved yet confident young man will do with his task.

He says he would turn the pen into whatever it is a customer wants and needs, and he haltingly provides a pair of quirky examples. More applause, yet more apprehension about how difficult the next questions are going to be.


It turns out, however, that the three remaining questions are the kind you’d expect in a parlor game.

“You have two minutes to talk about anything you want.”

“On your 75th birthday, someone close to you does a tribute. Please describe what this person would say about you and your life.”

“Who do you admire most and why?”

More revealing than the answers is the debriefing that follows the exercise. Farrus asks the group who they think got the easiest question and the hardest. She asks how their answers would change if they had more time to think about the question. And finally she makes a statement.


“No one stood up to answer the question,” she says. “All of you sat down. Why is that?”

The consensus was that they were following the lead of the German who failed to stand.

Farrus drills down once again, poking and prodding the group.

“If you had more time to prepare would you have done a different or better job?”

“Do you think there was one of you who was amazing?”

“Did you learn anything about the other candidates through the exercise?”

With each answer, she is gauging the degree of self-awareness in each candidate, their ability to support one another, and what takeaways they’ve gained from the challenge.


The biggest surprise of the day is left for last when the admission officials toss on the table six blue blindfolds and each applicant is asked to put them on. Some nervous laughter fills the room.

“We are going to put a few things in front of you,” advises Farrus. “Please don’t touch them until we tell you to.”

Then, she explains that each candidate has a set of plastic shapes in different colors before them. Two of the shapes have been removed and the group’s task is to determine the shape and color of the missing pieces. It’s not an easy assignment. None of the shapes are simply squares, rectangles or circles. Instead, they are in complex shapes that look somewhat like butterflies, mountain tops, and odd triangles. They come in a variety of colors, including black, green, red, blue, and orange. An applicant can hold up a shape and ask an admissions official to identify the color of the piece but nothing else.

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