Along with the hard facts of a candidate’s academic background and professional history, MBA admissions committees also place a good deal of emphasis on the softer skills people use at work. The business school experience is highly collaborative, as students work together on class assignments, cooperate to run clubs and plan conferences and events, and share industry insights and interviewing best practices during the recruiting process. Admissions committees therefore seek applicants who have demonstrated teamwork and leadership skills.
While it’s fairly common for MBA applicants to have some experience working as part of a group or a team, not everyone will have had the opportunity to manage others or take ownership of projects. Setting out to build a track record of leadership before business school will not only help you stand out in the admissions process, but also develop skills that will serve you well throughout your career.
The most obvious place to look for leadership opportunities is in the workplace. In some fields, responsibility for teams and projects comes as a natural part of an individual’s early progression within an organization. If you work in a field in which this kind of exposure is fairly routine, don’t be afraid to speak up. Consider approaching your supervisor and sharing your desire to gain some hands-on management time. He or she may have a lead on an upcoming opportunity, or be able to advise you about how to best position yourself to be considered for the sort of role you’re seeking.
Meanwhile, other professions are more hierarchical, and might even require entry-level employees to work in the same role for several years before being considered for other activities. Chances for leadership may seem scarce in this sort of environment, but if you keep your ears open, you may well find openings outside of your formal job responsibilities. For example, you might consider joining an organization-wide committee or initiative, which may afford the opportunity to network with other departments or take charge of planning an event. You may also see ways to gain informal leadership exposure by offering to serve as an administrative point person for a project, stepping up to steer the team during a supervisor’s absence, or taking on mentorship of a new hire who is struggling.
Outside of the office, community organizations and other activities can serve as a great leadership equalizer. Whether management opportunities abound at your workplace or are difficult to come by, it remains that community service outings, professional and alumni organizations, and casual or competitive sports teams are open to all comers; and these can often provide avenues to coordinate events or direct others in working toward a shared goal. For example, if you play on an intramural sports team, consider becoming a co-captain next season. If you regularly attend events for alumni of your undergraduate institution, think about joining the planning committee. As a bonus, these kinds of involvements tend to translate quite nicely to participation in similar student-run organizations during an MBA program.
Finally, no matter where you’re gaining your leadership experience, take proactive steps to cultivate your skills. Identify mentors who are willing to share their management strategies with you, and take opportunities to partner with more experienced individuals so you can learn from them on the job. Ask your supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses as a teammate and leader. Some of their comments may be difficult to hear, especially at the outset of your professional development when you are sure to make a few missteps. This is the only way to gain insight into your blind spots, and subjecting yourself to a little ‘tough love’ now will be well worth it down the road.