Essays that ask you to write about significant achievements fall under the category of
what are known as behavioral or experiential questions. The basic assumption behind these questions is that past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior. They are all varieties on the theme of “Tell us about a time when you…” These questions are meant to take the measure of your managerial potential.
Let’s look at how one candidate effectively addressed this essay question from Stanford GSB (*this question is not from the current application):
Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
This writer avoids writing about leadership in any generic way and zeroes in on the specific aspects of his contributions and their impact:
Leadership essay example: The Change Agent
When I was invited to become the Vice President and General Manager at Third Way Associates (TWA)* two years ago, the company was in financial and administrative disorder. Employee retention was poor, and TWA took too long to pay vendors because of poor communication and accounting processes. Cash flow was managed based on immediate needs rather than by the logic of budgets planned by project and city. Sloppy expense reports that were turned in with no receipts were reimbursed to employees.
TWA founders Scott W ____ and Glenn L ____ had good intentions, but spent most of their time selling sponsorships and getting new clients rather than directing and managing the company. As we begin 20XX, TWA is much healthier in every way. Under my direction, vendors are paid in an average of 20 days from date of invoice, instead of 60 days or more. Our cash flow is better administered since I introduced very specific detailed area budgets with over 125 budget lines per city. Because I can give the company founders much better stability and macromanagement vision, the three of us are able to look more to the future rather than simply put out fires.
Despite the difficult economy in 20XX, we not only retained our same clients but also signed several new client agreements for three years or more, including a two-year contract with Big Shoe Company worth $1.3 million. I’ve brought fresh accounts and industries into TWA, including ____ Airlines and Drink Y, among others. Combined, these accounts generated more than $500,000 in 20XX, and we estimate close to $1 million dollars in the following year.
Since my arrival, we have a much wider and broader sales menu which has been crucial to generate more revenue. I’ve expanded our most popular sports events to 25 cities, giving our clients new investment opportunities. These events range from recreational soccer clinic tours to professional soccer games broadcast on TV.
I also expanded our field staff, and at present we have 25 strong and reliable managers who report directly to me from each city. Despite the economy, 20XX was not a bad year for TWA, and this year promises to be even better if we continue our current strategy and continue to work as a team.
Leadership essay analysis
In every paragraph, this writer mentions concrete measures he took to introduce order to a chaotic company that was trying to grow. From instituting budgets with line items, an improved accounts payable system, and recruiting additional big-name accounts, the writer proves how his efforts strengthened the organization.
How can you maximize on your thought leadership experiences?
As you choose among your own experiences as essay material, think about these questions to help you frame answers of substance:
- What was the obstacle, challenge, or problem that you solved in this accomplishment? A tight client deadline? A complex merger transaction? A new product launch amidst fierce competition?
- What did you do to rise to the challenge you are writing about? Motivate your team to work overtime? Sell senior management on the deal’s long-term upside? Identify a marketing profile for your product that no competitor can match?
- What facts demonstrate that your intervention created a happy ending? Did your team submit the project deliverables three days early despite being 20% understaffed? Your client approved the $500 million merger, the largest ever in its industry? Your new product has 20% market share after only one year? What was the impact of your leadership?
Don’t forget about your people leadership skills
What we’ve spoken about until this point revolves mostly on skilled problem-solving, or “thought leadership.” But respected businesspeople need to be equally or even more talented at something we didn’t have a formal name for: people leadership. By effectively leading the thinking of client firms’ problems as well as motivating them to work long hours to develop solutions to these problems and collaborate with clients on implementing them, these businesspeople prove to have what it takes to be exemplary leaders.
So don’t forget to include strong elements of people leadership in your essays. Here are several to keep in mind:
- Rallying others around a vision. Did you convince your team or group to follow a specific path/solution? How did you do it? Successful clients have talked about handling dissenting opinions diplomatically or presenting their teams’ detailed quantitative evidence for a recommendation. The more you can show that you understood your audience and tailored the content and form of your message to them, the better.
- Harnessing others’ strengths – and expanding them. Did you provide team members tasks they could handle comfortably based on their capabilities, as well as opportunities to broaden their skills? For example, you may have handed your quant jock teammate the most complicated operations analysis as well as responsibility for leading a key client meeting. In this way, you leverage teammates’ strengths while helping them develop new ones.
- Getting through tough times. Did you model for your team enviable cool in pressure-cooker situations, maybe helping them keep the big-picture goal in mind or lightening the mood with humor? Did you reward teammates with praise, pizza, or both for working long into the night? Did you pitch in on others’ responsibilities as deadlines loomed? Helping your team handle stress while managing your own is a cornerstone of strong leadership.
Use your words
Another tip: Look for opportunities to incorporate strong verbs that illustrate your strengths in these areas. Good examples of leadership might incorporate several of the following:
- Establishing a goal or vision
- Obtaining buy-in
- Taking responsibility
The old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” remains a classic bit of wisdom in the writing process. Make that a guiding principle not only in your leadership/achievement essays, but throughout your application.
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