In an earlier unit, we introduced the concept of the Leadership Portfolio — the collection of past experiences, initiatives, and accomplishments that are indicative of your leadership strengths. Your Leadership Portfolio might very well be the deciding factor for being accepted by a top-tier MBA program.
You probably won’t be asked, “Are you a leader?” directly. Instead, admissions committees will be evaluating your resume, essays, recommendation letters, and interview responses for evidence that you have an ability to rally other people together and motivate them to work with one another to achieve an important shared vision or goal.
Proving that you are a leader begins with assembling the Content Building Blocks of your Leadership Portfolio.
- Leadership Stories
- Leadership Actions
- Leadership Capabilities
In this unit, we will take a closer look at each of these Content Building Blocks. As we have done in other unit, we will provide helpful, building block questions that you will answer for yourself en-route to constructing your own Leadership Portfolio. Along the way, we will show you how “Susan”, a software engineer, assembled the Content Building Blocks for her Leadership Portfolio.
Some candidates are initially intimidated when asked about their Leadership Portfolio. Their initial fear is that they don’t have one because they haven’t turned-around a failing company, founded a not-for-profit, or saved a village.
Business schools understand that your best leadership years are still ahead of you. What they really want to see in your portfolio is a “habit” of leadership and some good examples of how you’ve led on a smaller scale. Those might include stories about leading a classroom, organizing recruiting at your alma mater, spearheading a fundraiser, or coaching a little league baseball team. Leading in ordinary situations but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees are looking for in your Leadership Portfolio.
Building Block Question: When have I harnessed the energy of other people to achieve a goal, made an impact and permanently upgraded an organization’s capabilities, or spotted a problem and coordinated efforts to solve it?
One of our MBA Prep Schools students, Susan, led a software development team that was tasked with building software for a medical diagnostic device. Like Susan, you will identify a number of possible leadership stories. Once you have outlined them you can choose the best ones to feature in your application. As we proceed, we will show you how Susan fleshed out this particular leadership story.
Your next step is to write down what you actually did as a leader and how you did it. Your leadership actions provide evidence that you didn’t just hold the title of leader – you actually moved the needle and delivered results.
Building Block Question: What steps did I take as the team’s leader to overcome challenges and keep people focused and motivated on the objective?
In Susan’s case, she set high expectations and stretch goals so that her team members would feel challenged. She also sat down with each of her team members and learned about their career development goals so she could offer them assignments that they would find challenging and interesting. Another leadership action she could write about was helping her team to see that they were more than just “software coders;” she reminded them frequently that their programming work for the medical device would actually save lives.
Spend some time on each of your leadership stories and write down examples from the experience of your leadership in action.
The third content building block of your Leadership Portfolio is the list of your top leadership capabilities. Your leadership capabilities reveal how you lead and the kinds of leadership situations for which you are best suited.
You need to know what your leadership capabilities are because business schools are looking for self-aware leaders who know where their leadership strengths lie. Discovering your leadership capabilities is really a two-step process. First, you should identify the leadership capabilities that made you successful in each leadership story. Second, you will review all of your stories and identify the specific leadership capabilities that frequently appear – these are your primary leadership capabilities.
Building Block Question: What leadership capabilities did I draw upon in this story/example?
Susan identified three unique leadership capabilities that made her successful as the leader of the software development team:
- Adapting to New Situations
- Mentoring & Developing People
- Inspiring Others with Words
Table 5: Susan’s Assembled Leadership Building Blocks
Having completed her analysis of this leadership story, Susan has created a valuable building block for her Leadership Portfolio and has generated additional insight about her leadership capabilities.
Choose Your Top Three Leadership Capabilities
As Susan did next, once you have finished outlining, you need to look at your complete collection of leadership stories and leadership actions, and identify your top three leadership capabilities – the ones that appear most prominently across stories.
Building Block Question: Which of my leadership capabilities feature most prominently across my leadership stories?
We realize this may seem like a great deal of work, but the time invested will pay dividends throughout your application process. You will return to your Leadership Portfolio many times to provide the content for your resume, essays, reference letters, and interview responses. Moreover, knowledge of your leadership abilities will make you a more effective leader in business school and beyond.
Now it’s your turn to discover your leadership capabilities.
Unit Review: Discover Your Leadership Capabilities
- Your Leadership Portfolio is the collection of past experiences, initiatives, and accomplishments that are indicative of your leadership strengths.
- Your Leadership Portfolio might very well be the deciding factor to being accepted by a top-tier MBA program.
- The Content Building Blocks of your Leadership Portfolio are: leadership stories, leadership actions, and leadership capabilities.
- Leading in ordinary situations but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees are looking for in your Leadership Portfolio.
- Identify your top three leadership capabilities – the ones that appear again and again.
- Your Leadership Portfolio will be a rich source of content for your resume, essays, reference letters, and interview answers.