Ambition & Vision are Good: Thoughts on MBA Career Goals

Aug, 02, 2011

Categories: Admissions Consulting | Advice | MBA | MBA留学 | Key Posts

I wanted to discuss the importance of ambition and vision in articulating career MBA application essay and interview goals because it is really a core issue that my clients find themselves confronting. The last section of this post consists of a three step process for developing your future career vision so that you can put forward truly compelling goals in your essays and interviews. 
Please keep in mind that I am a graduate admissions consultant, not a life coach or career counselor.  My advice regarding goals is strictly limited to what I think will get an applicant admitted, not what they actually do.  I think applicants frequently confuse an effective articulation of future career goals with what they actually intend to do. Sometimes it is the case that what one wants to do is completely consistent with what one needs to articulate in an application, but sometimes this is simply not the case.  Being strategic about MBA application goals means articulating a set of goals that will get you admitted.  Once you are there, do what you like because no one from the admissions office is going to question what classes you take, what internship you do, or what career path you follow.
I make the assumption that B-school admissions are looking for goals that are both (1) believable based on the applicants past experience and what kind of added value can be reasonably assumed to be obtained from the program and (2) fit with the mission of the program. Here, I will be discussing fit specifically in terms of the necessity to show ambition and vision when applying to top MBA programs.

While I do mention some specific schools below, please keep in mind that I think this applies to all highly ranked programs whether they ask directly about goals or not (MIT Sloan does not ask directly, but they are certainly looking for ambitious students).  
Since I believe in the value of negative as well as positive benchmarks, I will start by taking a look at greed, which is not something you want to articulate.

In the film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko’s (Played by Michael Douglas) speech distills a certain kind of business vision:
The Key lines: The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.

I am not sure how many of readers would have seen this 1987 film, because most of you would have babies or young children.  The recent sequel probably increased the number of who saw this film.   Gecko’s views are antithetical to what business schools want to hear in MBA applications because his notion of greed is not ethical, sustainable, or as the film shows legal. One could argue that conceptually the problem with Gecko’s conception of greed is that it is treated as the sole underlying basis for economic incentives.  If you think people are simply motivated by one thing, greed, you have a rather limited view of human motivation.
Unchecked greed, the kind Gecko personifies is the sort of thing that embarrasses MBA programs when their alumni practice it.  Wharton’s Raj Rajaratnam, recently convicted along with both other Wharton and some HBS alumni of massive insider trading is the current best example for why unmitigated greed is problematic. Especially since the Enron Scandal (Jeffery Skilling, HBS Class of 1979), business schools started to increase or at least publicly emphasized the significant amount of ethics training in the MBA curriculum. After Enron, I remember how MBA programs started asking more ethics related application essay and interview questions for a few years.  The Financial Crisis again raised the whole idea that unchecked greed was a problem. I don’t think it is mere coincidence that many top schools  have increasingly emphasized the important role that sustainable enterprise,  green businesses, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, and non-profit management play in their programs.

I don’t bring greed up to engage in a debate, but as a way to introduce its more polite and politically correct cousin: Ambition.  Ambition is a more morally neutral term.  Ambition can lead to good or bad outcomes, it can be motivated by a desire to improve one’s own position or to have a bigger impact on others.  Ambition  is ultimately about motivation to do something. Greed is ultimately about the desire to acquire something for one’s own use and is therefore generally considered to be, in its most raw forms, morally repugnant because it often involves hurting others to achieve ones aims. Ambition can certainly lead to equally awful outcomes, but it can also lead to great human achievements.

A relatively cursory review of the MBA program mission statements below makes it clear enough why being ambitious is a clear necessity to show fit at top MBA programs.  However, ambition is not really enough because the kind of leader that MBA programs want to turn out is someone who actually must think about something greater than their own personal career. In particular, they must show a real concern for others, whether it be their nation, community, company, or otherwise.  They need to show they posses vision in the sense of seeing something greater than themselves.

Chicago Booth: “We are the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Since 1898, we have produced ideas and leaders that shape the world of business. Our rigorous, discipline-based approach to business education transforms our students into confident, effective, respected business leaders prepared to face the toughest challenges.”

HBS: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world”

Stanford GSB: “Change lives, Change organizations, Change the world.”

Wharton: “Advancing Business. Advancing Society.”

Kellogg: “Our purpose is to educate, equip and inspire leaders who build strong organizations and wisely leverage the power of markets for the betterment of all.”

UC Berkeley Haas: “The Berkeley MBA Program develops innovative leaders who know how to put new ideas to work, and to do so responsibly.” 

INSEAD: “Through teaching, we develop responsible, thoughtful leaders and entrepreneurs who create value for their organisations and their communities.”

IMD: “The IMD MBA program develops leaders who can move their businesses forward.”

I TAKE THE ABOVE  MISSION STATEMENTS VERY SERIOUSLY. They constitute clear statements of each of these school’s self-image of what kind of students it intends to admit.  You have a greater potential to fit the school if you fit the mission statement.   While one could be cynical about such statements, I am not.  In my experience, successful organizations are filled with people who have accepted the mission of the place they work.  Since top MBA programs like the ones above are certainly successful organizations, it is quite reasonable to assume that those who work in them have accepted the organizational mission.   If that employee is an admissions officer, I assume they consciously think about their organizational mission when selecting candidates.  
While each of the above statements has its own variations, I think a sort of generalized mission statement for top MBA programs might be something like “We train thoughtful leaders who will responsibly build and positively change organizations.”  While I think you should benchmark your own goals against the specific mission statement of the school you are applying to, my above formulation would be a good generalized benchmark. I think it is clear enough that only someone who has sufficient ambition and vision would have the possibility of meeting this benchmark.

In fact the statements set a pretty high bar for what will be necessary for admission.  I doubt the following goals in and of themselves would cut it:

Generic Management Consultant Goals: “My short-term goal is to work as a management consultant. Longer-term, I see myself becoming partner.”
Generic Entrepreneur Goals: “I want to utilize my MBA experience to create a new company from the ground up.  Eventually I hope to take my company public.
Generic Investment Banker Goals: “After developing expertise in one or more sectors, I hope to eventually become a managing director.”

You may be thinking that my formulations are too simple, but honestly variations of the above are really common enough.  My clients don’t ever express their goals like this in a submitted application when they work with me, but I certainly see such statements in failed applications when working with reapplicants and when reviewing my clients’ initial drafts.

At a basic personal career level, such goals are sufficiently ambitious enough, but they lack vision:
My hypothetical management consultant simply wants to make partner.
My  hypothetical entrepreneur simply wants to succeed at building some sort of company.
My hypothetical banker just wants to rise in the investment bank’s hierarchy.
For these goals to be visionary, each of the above hypothetical applicants would need to have some greater mission. If the consultant wanted to eventually focus on a specific sector that excited her or if the entrepreneur was interested in working on specific kind of business or if the investment banker was concerned with the impact of her work on something beyond her own career development than that greater mission would be in place. 

Being visionary, having a greater mission, does not mean sacrificing one’s core professional objectives or pretending to be someone else, it means showing that you are actually concerned about something other than yourself and that you desire to actually have a meaningful and positive impact in whatever career path you follow. 

The following is a self evaluation exercise. It is based on the sort of questions that I use when brainstorming with clients.

Step 1:  Think about what has motivated your career decisions so far. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. What has motivated me? Why
2. Where have added the most value? Why
3. What have been the most positive impacts of my work to date? Why?
Outcomes from this step: To provide an interpretation of your career and motivation so far.  Hopefully in the process of doing so, you might find the seeds of your future vision as well.

Step 2:  What are you passionate about? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. What do I really love doing and how does that relate to my career?
2. Am I deeply involved with any political, social, religious, cultural activities or organizations that connect to my career goals?  If the answer is yes, you might have the basis for a career vision.
3.  If money was not consideration and you still needed to actually work but could do anything, what would it be? Why? How does that relate to what you could actually do in the future?
Outcomes from this step: To honestly assess what you really care about in order to develop future goals that you will be passionate about.

Step 3: What do you want to do after your MBA? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How do your goals relate to what has motivated you in the past?
2. How do your goals relate to what you are really passionate about?
3. Give your long term goals, what kind of potential impact could you have on your organization, society, country, and/or the planet?
4. How will you leave this world a better place than you found it?
5. Given your goals, why you and not somebody else? What differentiates what you intend to do with what anyone else pursuing your intended future career could do?
Outcomes from this step: To clearly identify a vision that links directly with your career goals. If you are unable to articulate a vision at this point, you need help.

Caution: If your goals don’t seem believable, the above exercise will not work well.

You don’t need to be a superman or superwoman to articulate a career vision that is both ambitious and visionary.  Your objective is to articulate a set of goals that the admissions committee can see as fitting within their program.  Make them believe that you are worthy of gaining admission.
-Adam Markus

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