On Becoming a Responsible Manager

(Today’s post is a guest feature by Darren Kowitt, one of Veritas Prep’s most experienced MBA admissions consultants and essay editors. He shares some insights about what makes a great manager, and how these lessons also apply to crafting an effective business school application.)

While waiting for a plane in April I was catching up on my backlog of Harvard Business Review reading, and came across very thoughtful article (The Responsible Manager, HBR Jan/Feb 2010, reprint #F1001G) by Univ. of Michigan Ross Professor of Strategy, C.K. Prahalad. In one of life’s strange coincidences, I read the article on the day Professor Prahalad died, April 16.

I bring this article to your attention because it touches upon one of the critical differentiators of successful MBA applications. In their first drafts, applicants tend to focus too much on their analytical skills. Applicants also tend to use too many buzz-words, to demonstrate familiarity with today’s frameworks for understanding business, and they also tend to frame their accomplishments in terms of heroism and pure ambition.

This last part is natural enough -– one wants to come across as impressive -– and yet it’s strategically slightly misguided. Ambition is a given; you can’t really out-compete on the authenticity of your desire for success. Heroism is even more suspect, for the people who read applications have learned, in their years, that heroic narratives are as notable for what they omit (namely, anything that would complicate or detract from the taut story line of hard work leading to victory) as they are for what they convey.

My point is that applicants all too easily overlook something that’s perhaps even more impressive than raw analytical skills: the maturity and wisdom to think about how and why those analytical skills are deployed, and what the results, conceived most broadly, are.

At the end of each MBA and EMBA class he taught, Prof. Prahaland presented (among others) the following points:

  • Humility in success and courage in failure are hallmarks of a good leader.
  • Due process matters. Team members seek fairness, not favors – decisions don’t have to go their way but the process has to be fair and transparent.
  • Accept human weaknesses, laugh at yourself — and avoid the temptation to play God. Leadership is about self-awareness, recognizing your failings, and developing modesty, humility, and humanity.
  • Balance achievement with compassion, learning with understanding.
  • Understand the importance of nonconformity. Leadership is about change, hope, and the future. Leaders have to venture into uncharted territory, so they must be able to handle intellectual solitude and ambiguity.
  • Managers must remember that they are the custodians of society’s most powerful institutions. They must therefore hold themselves to a higher standard. Managers must strive to achieve success with responsibility.

He also noted how over the 33 years of his teaching career the world had changed a great deal, and yet the insights contained in his points stayed essentially constant. I would add that this is so because his observations concern ideas (and ideals) about human relationships, things that evolve much more slowly than our technology.

Your resume, if well designed, will effectively convey the scope of your achievements. Your essays, if well designed, should convey the wisdom you have gained along the way. It is this last part that you would do well to remember. Demonstrate that you have the wisdom to attempt to connect the dots between your actions and the consequences of those actions for your team, division, firm and society –- and you will be much closer to your goal. Echoing Cicero, remember that in MBA admissions essays self-awareness is the better part of valor.

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