This fxMBAConsulting essay (R1 2016-17 application) helped my client secure an admit to the Harvard Business School class of 2017. It is currently one of twenty-nine essays from the HBS class of 2019 being featured in the HARBUS MBA Essay Guide ($60) and is also cited in the Poets & Quants article 29 Essays That Got Applicants into Harvard Business School.
This essay draws on material from a couple of goals/why MBA? and behavioral essays from other schools that had already been written and were strong in their own right. In essence this essay is three distinct stories woven into one essay. While I liked the idea of interweaving professional and personal stories, it wasn’t immediately clear ‘how‘ to connect them. Using a quote to transition the reader’s attention was the answer. The second quote was already part of a behavioral essay written for another school…only the first quote needed to be generated for the HBS essay.
This essay is strong because it includes many of the hallmarks of essay work at fxMBAConsulting:
- Focus on backstory and granular details to draw readers in: Anecdotally, as a high school senior I naively submitted just one college application; singling out X University largely because there was no application fee. | When I began touching my heart after every conversation as a sign of respect, people’s eyes would brighten in recognition.
- Demonstrate a mature, big picture understanding of oneself and the wider world: I’ve often struggled to imagine them as twenty-something Associates – still wet behind the gills. Yet, like everyone else, that’s exactly where they began their careers. At twenty-seven, I sometimes think that my long-term goal, seems like a lofty one, but in those moments I remind (and reassure) myself that good business leaders aren’t born, but rather developed.
- Airtight logic and sentence structure: For me, that development process is a three-fold one and involves cultivating knowledge, experience and good judgment. I’ve grown in practical experience through steady career progression… I’ve sought out and gleaned knowledge through the mentorship of seasoned professionals… The HBS case method appeals to me as a new way to experiment with business problems and hone good judgment because…
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HBS Essay Question (Class of 2019) As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program? (no word limit)
Reading about Tim Cook and Mary Barra, two business leaders I personally admire, I’ve often struggled to imagine them as twenty-something Associates – still wet behind the gills. Yet, like everyone else, that’s exactly where they began their careers. At twenty-seven, I sometimes think that my long-term goal, to become the CEO of a global manufacturing organization like Company, seems like a lofty one, but in those moments I remind (and reassure) myself that good business leaders aren’t born, but rather developed. For me, that development process is a three-fold one and involves cultivating knowledge, experience and good judgment.
I’ve grown in practical experience through steady career progression at Company and progressive responsibility for larger projects, teams and deliverables. I’ve sought out and gleaned knowledge through the mentorship of seasoned professionals like Henry X, a President at Company, who has generously shared lessons and insights from his own career. The HBS case method appeals to me as a new way to experiment with business problems and hone good judgment because it represents a unique learning platform that exists between first-hand experience and imparted knowledge. In addition, the possibility to grow personally and contribute to the growth of others at HBS is made possible by the nature of the HBS student body, with its wealth of different industry and functional perspectives.
While my professional experience has been critical, my personal experiences have been equally influential in shaping my vision of what good leadership and management mean. After immigrating to the US from Vietnam, my father spent the remainder of his working life as a short-order cook, while my mother became a seamstress. Our family budget was always tight, but the situation was exacerbated when, my father’s employer went bankrupt and my father was laid off after twelve years of service. ‘Name, truth is I fifty-two years old, can’t read and English not so good’. He never found work again. Directly assisting the General Managers of Company’s Interiors Division, I’ve gained initial exposure to P&L management. That’s led me to wonder whether the bankruptcy might not have been avoided through better leadership, managerial foresight or administration. Businesses are at the heart of any free-market economy, but they’re likewise an integral part of the social fabric. While they benefit shareholders and clients, they also exist as institutions from which individuals and their families derive a livelihood. That’s been top of mind for me when on location in Bandung, Indonesia, and, most recently, Colorado Springs where I’ve worked under pressure to turn around plants struggling to meet their business objectives.
‘The cleats are $50 and the uniform’s another $90’ Mom told Dad in Vietnamese. ‘And the next thing you know he’ll break his arm and that’s $400 at the emergency room.’
What my sister and I went without weren’t so much the petty indulgences, like soccer, as the tacit and explicit guidance parents usually provide: helping their children navigate societal norms and envisage an educational path and professional career beyond high school. Anecdotally, as a high school senior I naively submitted just one college application; singling out X University largely because there was no application fee.
Because of my family situation, I believe that determination and self-reliance were qualities that I developed at an early age. At the time, they were coping mechanisms, but today, I see them as characteristic of my approach to challenges. At Company I’ve often found myself in unchartered territory, be that culturally, on-location at plants in Indonesia and India, or be that functionally, performing financial and operational valuations on acquisition targets. Over time I’ve come to know myself better and have developed a strong inner sense of what I can achieve. I think that type of self-knowledge is pivotal to leading others as well. In order to fully understand the challenges team members face in their work, managers and leaders at operationally focused organizations like Company must be adept at building relationships on an inter-personal level and communicating on a technical one.
‘Any questions?’ I asked, wrapping up my first meeting with staff – all of whom were Indonesian. ‘Yes, when you leave?’ asked Widiyanto in a tone that made me question whether the meeting had really gone as well as I thought.
One example of relationship building took place when I was in my 3rd rotation of Company’s Operations Leadership Program in Bandung, Indonesia. Under the plant’s previous owner, Another Company, managers weren’t expected to scrutinize metrics unless there was a blatant issue. Many people felt frustrated with the new Company approach, which required them to record and analyze everything. My goal was to help the Bandung staff make the transition by taking reporting off their plates and handling it myself.
Indonesia is a very hierarchical society, and gossip and suspicion were rife in the plant. ‘You are taking over reporting for firing us.’ I was emphatic, ‘No. We’re increasing production not reducing it. I’m trying to help you and the whole plant.’
My stance of ‘just wanting to help’ was seen as mere lip service because it deviated from the Indonesian way of thinking. If my behavior were more culturally relatable to the staff, I thought I’d be more successful in sharing my ideas with them.
When I began touching my heart after every conversation as a sign of respect, people’s eyes would brighten in recognition. I began greeting colleagues in Indonesian, wore a traditional Indonesian shirt on Fridays and, admittedly, resorted to a ‘ploy’ – showing up to an all hands meeting with pisang goreng (a.k.a. banana fritters). Relations improved, and staff began sharing the data I’d been requesting. The same employees, who were at first reticent, ultimately played a huge role in carrying out our expansion plans and helping with logistics.
Months later, we were on the cusp of expanding our manufacturing by fifty percent. I’d also managed to put staff at ease with capturing reporting data and discussing it with colleagues in the U.S. Reaching those milestones had to do with many smaller successes along the way. Chief among them was an ability to face communication and leadership challenges and work through them.
Before heading back to the States, Widiyanto asked me again, ‘Hey, when you leave?’ but this time it was in order to plan a going away tea for me at the plant. That felt great.
In this essay I hope to have provided you with insight into where I’ve come from, where I’d like to go and my personal understanding of leadership. In closing I’d like to thank you for your time in reviewing my application for the HBS Class of 2019.