by Brian DeChesare Comments (6)

How to Overcome a Lack of Leadership in Your MBA Applications

MBA Application Leadership

This is a guest post from Edward Fu (HBS, 2010) and Melinda Hwang (MIT Sloan, 2010). Edward and Melinda are authors of “The HBS Blueprint: A Proprietary Step-by-Step Action Plan,” which teaches you how to get into HBS and or any other top business school. They have successfully advised hundreds of clients on developing a strategy to get into the top MBA programs.

As a banker applying to business school, what’s your greatest weakness?

The fact that you have the same work experience as 30% of the other candidates?

The fact that Adcoms may view you as “greedy” or self-centered?

Or the fact that you’ve had no time to complete activities outside of work?

Any of those might qualify, but your single biggest problem is often a lack of leadership.

While top business schools look for different qualities in candidates, the one trait they all seek is leadership.

So how do you demonstrate it when your job title is “Analyst” and you haven’t led large groups of people before?

Leadership Myths and Realities

As a banker or financier applying to MBA programs, you face both real and imagined obstacles when you try to demonstrate leadership.

Let’s start with the real problems first:

Real Obstacle #1: You Have No Time for Activities

Many articles on “leadership” recommend strategies such as starting a speaker series, doing volunteer work, or tutoring underprivileged children.

But if you’re working 80-100 hours per week, you won’t have time for any of that.

Even if your hours are a bit better, it’s difficult to motivate yourself when you have substantial free time only on weekends.

Real Obstacle #2: You’re at the Bottom of the Hierarchy

Many sample “leadership essays” contain stories where the person was a VP of Supply Chain Management and used his/her ability to persuade the CEO of a certain negotiating strategy.

But you will not be doing anything like that if your title is “Analyst,” “Associate,” or even “Manager.”

Real Obstacle #3: You Might Be a Lone Wolf

If you’re working in a buy-side role such as private equity or hedge funds, you’ll often be working by yourself, especially in the early stages of deals and investments.

So even if you use your job to demonstrate your leadership qualities, it can be tough to prove anything when you didn’t work in a team for long stretches.

Real Obstacle #4: Your Work is Difficult to Explain to Normal Humans

Even though you may have pulled several all-nighters fixing a complicated spreadsheet or setting up VBA code that enabled a winning trade, it’s tough to convince Adcoms that technical prowess and leadership are related.

Deals are a bit easier to explain than complicated investment theses, but even there, it’s easy to get lost in the technical details.

After the real obstacles, there are the imagined obstacles, which are less serious but which could still hinder your chances:

Imagined Obstacle #1: Achievement is Different from Leadership

Just because you achieved a certain goal doesn’t mean you had to use leadership skills to do it: Think about a complex investment that you validated with a detailed analysis, for example.

Many candidates confuse these two qualities and end up writing about their most impressive accomplishments, even if they did not require leadership.

Hint: If the hero of your story is you, it’s not a good example of leadership!

Imagined Obstacle #2: You Rely on Your Title Rather Than Your Experience

Many candidates with titles such as “President” or “Executive Editor” often lack leadership experience because their jobs focus on day-to-day duties: Assigning work, following up with staff, and making sure the trains run on time.

They have management experience but not leadership experience.

There are two solutions for overcoming these obstacles:

  1. Develop Real “Leadership Experience” – Use the little free time that you have to join a non-profit, set up a mentoring program within your company, or organize a volunteer group.
  2. Spin Your Existing Work Experience into Sounding Relevant – Especially if you’re already planning to apply to business school, this one is the more realistic, honest, and easier solution.

We love helping you spin your experience, so we’ll focus on #2 here.

What Makes a Good Leader?

My favorite quote on this topic is from Eisenhower:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because they want to do it.”

Any leadership story you tell should involve three key elements:

  1. Someone Else – It could be just one person, or it could be thousands or millions of followers, but you should not be the protagonist.
  2. Responsibility and Stakes – If you “persuaded” someone to watch a new TV show or take a vacation, you don’t have a real story because the stakes aren’t high enough. Your story should seriously impact someone else’s career or practices at your firm.
  3. Persuasion – You’re not a leader simply because “you were there” when a crisis unfolded and you followed the instruction manual. You should have convinced others to do something they were initially opposed to, which saved the day or helped them advance.

How to Spin Deal Experience into Leadership Experience

Once you understand those key elements, you can start reviewing your work experience to find stories that demonstrate your leadership.

The worst strategy is to frame your deal or investment experience in terms of the size of the deal, the valuation multiples, or the specific disagreement about one part of a company’s financial statements that almost caused the deal to unravel.

You should discuss “the how” rather than “the what”:

  • Did you have to build consensus between two lawyers on opposing sides of a deal? If so, how did you go about influencing them?
  • Did you have to persuade the Senior Partners at your firm that your investment thesis about a company was correct? How did you build a case to convince them?
  • If there were regulatory hurdles, how did you get past them? Did you suggest a clever approach to the senior bankers that resulted in regulators’ approval?
  • If you worked on a project between two departments, how did you address the objections that came up, and how did you get the managers in both departments to commit resources to the project?

Here are a few examples of what you could write about:

Example #1: The Deal Savior

A Fortune 500 company hires your bank to help it with a divestiture.

It wants to sell off a division because the service the division sells is unrelated to the company’s core business; this division would be better off as an independent entity.

Your VP and MD both want to market this division aggressively and pitch its growth potential, but it’s quite a stretch to say it could “operate independently”: It’s highly dependent on the bigger company’s systems and processes.

So when you’re creating the information memorandum, management presentation, and other marketing materials, you persuade the senior bankers to tone down that part of the pitch and focus on strategic buyers rather than financial sponsors in your outreach.

They don’t agree with you entirely, but they do back down from their initial stance since you’re “the expert” on the numbers. Plus, you’ve researched their past deals and have cited similar cases where the marketing angle was problematic.

As a result, you find a willing strategic buyer, the deal closes, and the employees function more effectively in their new roles.

Example #2: The Mentor

A new Analyst class has just started working at your bank.

Initially, they don’t know much and they cost you time by asking so many questions.

But one new Analyst shows promise, and you decide to spend 20-30 minutes of your downtime each day mentoring her and getting her up to speed on deal processes, documents, and technical analyses.

As a result, she feels confident enough to reach out to the staffer to ask for more work, and she gets assigned to the most important M&A deal your bank works on that year.

She later ends up using those skills to work in a corporate finance role at a tech startup that’s revolutionizing lending in emerging and frontier markets.

Example #3: The Lone Wolf Joins a Pack

You’ve just started working at a long/short equity hedge fund focused on the consumer/retail industry.

You need to come up with an investment thesis that makes you stand out, and also convince the Partners at the fund to buy into it.

Other people pore through companies’ financial statements looking for tiny details, but you take a different approach: You spend your time reaching out to suppliers and distributors on LinkedIn, build relationships remotely, and then travel to meet some of them.

You teach them a bit about how investors view their companies, and they give you insights into how the retail industry is changing.

You come back with a thesis about a new fashion retailer that’s going to explode, and you persuade the Partners that you’re correct because of all the groundwork you’ve done.

As a result, everyone wins (Except for the people on the other side of your trades…).

“Strong Leadership Potential”

It’s tempting to think that you’ll be at a disadvantage as a banker applying to business school because you won’t “stand out” as much.

There is some truth to that, but the real problem is often the presentation of your leadership experience.

But if you know where to look, you could come up with experience that rivals that of the most “creative” candidates.

Do it well enough, and you might just turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength.

This is a guest post from Edward Fu (HBS, 2010) and Melinda Hwang (MIT Sloan, 2010). Edward and Melinda are authors of “The HBS Blueprint: A Proprietary Step-by-Step Action Plan,” which teaches you how to get into HBS and or any other top business school. They have successfully advised hundreds of clients on developing a strategy to get into the top MBA programs.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Hi Brian,

    I’m wondering if being a leader as an undergrad for many orgs counts as leadership experiences? For example, organizing events and managing school’s fund etc. Or does it have to be non-undergraduate leadership experience?

    1. Yes, that can help. Work experience after undergrad is probably a bit better, but leadership of student groups is good as well.

  2. Oi Brian,

    What do you think about Google Ventures and Google Capital? Is it the king of the jungle, top of the top where one can get in finance? I heard it is almost impossible to get in. What do you think about them? What would other bankers (recruiters) from bb or elite think about someone who worked there (had an internship there)?

    Cheers mate

    1. I wouldn’t say they are the best VC firms. Kleiner, Sequoia, a16z, Accel, etc. are all viewed as better, and corporate VC traditionally hasn’t been as great as standalone firms. Also, most bankers do not value VC internships highly since the work is so different.

  3. Avatar

    Hi Brian,

    Can you write some articles how junior bankers can add value to a deal/pitch? I feel I am just pasting charts on slides everyday and really lack of motivation to express, as I feel that it is very hard to express senior bankers. All they expect is don’t fuck up the slides/calculations. If I want to be a star associate in the group, what shall I do?

    1. I think you’ve asked this question multiple times before, and the answer is the same as in those previous instances: There is no way to “add value” because most clients don’t even look at such presentations, and as an early associate, you won’t be responsible for most of them anyway. Banking is mostly mindless work until you reach the senior levels. If you don’t like that, quit and join a tech company instead.

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