Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What's Your Story? Applying to BSchool from a Career Management Perspective

Shannon Caldwell
Director, Career Management Center
MBA applications that stand out are ones that complete a good story. Everything in the application should provide a consistent story about – Why an MBA? Why now? And why specifically at the schools to which you are applying?  My goal is to help you all begin to tell your story as part of the graduate school admissions process.  This process is a very good groundwork for the storytelling that you will be doing when you are looking for a job.

The first step is for you to figure out where you want to go.  If you don’t know exactly, imagine one or two of the careers you think you would most like and most excel in.  Now choose one of those for the purpose of this exercise.  You can go back and repeat this process again with another career option.  Let us know if it would be useful to have a future blog post on the subject of a choosing a career path or how to talk about the paths you’re considering.

The second step is to look at what you’ve done already, what skills you’ve built, and begin to tell your story.  The story includes who you are, what makes you unique in a business environment, what skills and experiences you have that will be a benefit in your future career, and which ones you need to build.  That sounds onerous, and my goal in today’s post is to break it down a bit to make it a more doable exercise.

Building Bridges: Making Your Past Resonate

You’re always going to be competing against people who have been in the career path you want to go into since the start of their careers.  Let’s say you want to go into investment banking.  Some of the people you are competing with are former analysts at investment banks. Some of them have been working in finance with operating companies.  Some of them have been consultants.  Some have worked in private equity.  Stiff competition, right?  It is your work (and my work to help you) to translate your past experience for your future employer.  We want your past experience to sound incredibly relevant for your future career. 

An example: One of the best examples I have heard is that being a nuclear submarine officer is like being a Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) caseworker is like being a brand manager.  One of our professors helped one of our students make this connection recently.  In each of these careers, to be effective requires getting a disproportionate share of resources, attention, and help for your ship, clients, or brand from many different shared service departments that do not report to you.  This requires motivating others and making compelling cases to get their attention on your project.  You can’t expect the brand management company to know what submarine operators or DFACS caseworkers do.  The former submarine officer and DFACS caseworkers have to learn what brand managers do and be able to explain their past experience to the brand management company interviewers in brand management terms. 

It’s time now to start thinking of how you are going to explain nuclear submarine operation to the brand management company, because that is exactly the same way that you are going to explain it to your prospective school. You are going to make your background as relevant as possible to what you’re going into.  You’re going to show them that you’ve done your homework, and you’re also going to own up to what you do not know.

How You Make a Difference

Now it’s time to talk about how you’ve made a difference where you are. And of course, we want those accomplishments to be honest, based on who you are, or the story you’re telling is going to lead you to a path that doesn’t fit you.

You’ve come into a job with a job description, been given duties, and been expected to execute them as directed.  So, not surprisingly, when we ask prospective students what they did in their past jobs, they tend to think about the job description. What was the scope of the responsibilities?  This approach won’t get you far.  It is a first step, sure.  But, if you stop here, you really haven’t built a bridge to that next job, or to the school.  Why?

It doesn’t tell us how you made a difference.  I want to invite you to put aside a lot of things from your past job, including what your company wanted you to do, what your assigned duties were, and what your boss valued.  Those things may or may not show up as you tell your story, but what we really want to know is going to be hard to find if we have to work around all those constraints.

How were you different from other people they could have hired?  Because you were in this job, instead of someone else, you paid attention to certain things, asked certain questions, pursued certain issues, just as a result of who you are and what interested you.  What are the things that interest you?  What did you go after that other people they could have hired for the job might not have done?  Maybe you were doing financial analysis, you really delved into some of the numbers, and you realized that the estimates could be better if you looked at them a different way.  You shared that information, and maybe there’s a tradition now of doing things your way instead of the way most people did them beforehand.  Moreover, because the estimates are better, something else happened.  What was it?  Why does it matter?

Maybe you built a partnership with another department, and that collaboration led to better information for both parties and a better outcome.  What was the information, and how did it lead to a better outcome?  What was it you paid attention to?  How did that lead to good things for your company?  How can it lead to good things for another company?

What Difference Did You Make?

Now, how can we tell people what the results of your efforts were?  You don’t just want to say you built a relationship with the marketing department and that led to better collaboration.  Remember, we really don’t know that much about your past work.  And, though it’s interesting to hear a little about it, by the time you’re talking to the admissions officer or the interviewer, they only want to hear a little bit about the ins and outs of your past environment.  When you spell out the result in big terms that apply to all business environments (new customers, more revenue per customer, time saved, costs cut, etc.), you take the work off of the essay or resume reader, and you build the bridge, helping people understand what was important. 

Format: Context-Action-Result

The best bet is to tell the stories in a Context-Action-Result format.  We need to know a little bit about the situation or context you were facing.  We need to know what you did (the action).  And we need to know the result that came from it. 

Action & You: When it comes to action, it’s very common, because of course you are working on a team or with a group, to talk about what “we” did.  You may be used to thinking this way because you care about the outcomes for the whole group, because you think of yourself as a team member.  While this is an admirable quality, and it probably means you are someone we would rather work with, it doesn’t give the admissions director or recruiter much to go on.  They know you were on a team. They also know other people were on the team. When you talk about what “we” did, they can’t tell what your contribution was – and you are the individual they are hoping to get to know.  Put another way, we’ve all worked on teams where the team accomplished something great but one of the members was counterproductive.  So, the team’s results alone aren’t enough.  We need to know you helped bring them about.

But To Tell A Specific Story Means I Can Only Tell A Few: Telling things in the Context-Action-Result format means telling a few specific stories with their specific outcomes.  Students are often reluctant to go this route, because it will reduce the breath of the responsibilities that they show.  Embrace this approach!  Those stories that you will tell are the stories in which you shone.  They will tell us worlds more about who you are and what you can do than a list of responsibilities.

If you tell your stories this way, there are a three big benefits. 
  • It’s going to be much easier for the admissions committee to get a sense of who you are and how you operate in a work environment.
  • You’re going to demonstrate that you are a lot more sophisticated than the average applicant.  You’re going to show a great deal of maturity, self-knowledge, and willingness to make an impact.  These are all qualities that the admissions committee is looking for. 
  • You’re going to be well along in the career search, and chances are that’s why you’re coming to business school.  You are already going to be good at talking about who you are and what you can do, and that will enable you to go ahead and start networking in your field.  Start that now, and you will be one of the most dedicated and advanced people in your field when you get to campus.  There are lots of benefits down the road, if you can do this work now. 

 An MBA Will Differentiate Me

One last word about how business school fits into your story.  Most people come to business school because they believe it’s going to make them much better prospects for jobs.  They think of the MBA as the destination.  While that is a normal phase to go through, it is not a place to rest.  As soon as you become eligible to apply for those jobs that require MBAs, you often find yourself competing in a field where an MBA is not a differentiator.  Maybe every candidate has an MBA.  Now, it’s about how do you stand out, what makes you different?  Sound familiar?