“Vision is making people see what they have not seen, and making them follow you,” says MIT Sloan’s Rod Garcia who has led MBA admissions for the school for many years. Helping you dig down deep to determine your long-term vision is the central theme of your candidacy around which every other part hinges. One thing is certain: Until you know your long-term goal, you cannot possibly know why you and the school(s) you’re applying to are a “fit.” And your long-term goal must be as specific as possible. “Private equity” by itself is about as vague as it gets. Your goal is to get the admissions officer on board, so your task is to enroll him or her in your goal. And you cannot do that when you don’t really know exactly what you want to do. And you certainly can’t get specific until you get passionate. The sections that follow will help you identify and leverage passion and specificity in your own candidacy and, indeed, career.
Ask yourself this: Why should the admissions officer care when I don’t?
When push comes to shove, many people have no trouble being visionary, but they do have trouble giving themselves permission to be visionary. We all have those critics running through our head, making us worry about “what would my mother say?” “What would my girlfriend think?” “What would my coworkers, or worse, my boss or mentor, say?”
So what do we all do? We end up killing off transformational goals—the very thing that most top business schools want. Can you imagine if whoever invented the wheel had paid attention to the rest of the tribe: “You want us to chip away at some rock for a month just because you’ve got this ridiculous idea that somehow it will make it easier to bring water down the mountain? What’s wrong with the womenfolk carrying it down by hand? They’ve got nothing better to do while we hunt!”
You’re supposed to be in the 5 percent that’s going to lead the world, not the 95 percent that’s going to agree with the world. So, the barometer for a visionary goal is really simple: If at least one person looks at you like Scooby Doo and says, “Rhat?” like you’ve lost your mind, you’re probably on the right track. But don’t take me too literally: Just because everyone agrees with you doesn’t mean you have a boring idea. It’s just that when one or two people disagree with you—especially if that person is someone like your mother who fears for your security—you might be onto something exciting. Remember, Gandhi’s own mother must have been horrified when her son put on a lungi and started agitating for a free India. After all, he had a law degree from Oxford!
Goals Essay 3: Get Real—Leveraging Your Personal Story
Pia was a typical overachieving beautiful white girl (not to be confused with a White Boy—see Chapter 13—although she was a bit of that as well). After graduating from Bryn Mawr with honors, she continued her upward mobility with a position at an engineering-consulting concern. Currently, she was doing product packaging. While working with Susan, one of my coaches, she hit a roadblock in her long-term career goal. She was doing great work, but Pia’s resistance—this appropriate girl wanted an appropriate goal, not a visionary one—required an Auntie Evan intervention. (Imagine the love child of Judge Judy and Barbara Walters: Hit ’em hard with the facts, then make ’em cry when the truth sets them free.)
So I gathered all of Susan’s notes and began to examine the disparate parts of Pia’s life.
Rummaging through Pia’s file felt like being in an episode of Cold Case: She was the daughter of a single dad, who raised her to be a diehard feminist and encouraged her to break through the glass ceiling; she had grown up in Los Angeles and attended an all-girl, private day school, which gave her the mathematical confidence to study engineering; she was a young muckety-muck in a women’s engineering society. And then there was the non sequitur in the workbook that was originally overlooked: the tattoo. Pia didn’t like talking about this two-inch long dragon beneath her right collarbone, the last testimony of a crazy girlhood and former rebellious nature. But she wouldn’t get it removed: something about honoring a friend and promises made for life. But nowadays, Pia was a respectable young consultant who would never straddle a Harley! As much as she loved the tattoo, she was also deeply ashamed. She never wore open-collared shirts in an effort to hide it. In short, she viewed the tattoo as a necessary burden, like the needlepoint pillow my best friend made for my living room.
When I asked Pia if she really needed to cover up the tattoo or was she just being insecure, the floodgates opened. She had to cover it up—it was completely inappropriate in her workplace, and what would all the linemen in the packaging plants she worked in think of her (I think she feared getting asked out most of all). The tattoo was big enough to be noticeable when she wore a V-neck, so she either had to limit her wardrobe to grandma’s casual or cover it up with concealer.
Apparently makeup was a big issue. Pia began to talk about her experiences at cosmetics counters looking for the perfect concealer. One brand wasn’t thick enough. Another ruined a Theory blouse, and the rest, in one form or another, had destroyed her best clothes; it was a runway massacre.
Before we knew it, our conversation had strayed far from her firm. The whole thing became a classic bitch session about how nobody was doing anything effective about heavy-duty concealers.
When you catch yourself thinking or saying the complaint, “Why hasn’t anybody . . .,” insert yourself there. Be that somebody. Ask not what anybody can do for you, but what you can do for everybody. That’s transformational leadership in a bottle (or a cosmetics tube, if you will). Just by doing a little digging, I put my finger on something Pia cared deeply about. Her professional passion had been staring at her in the makeup mirror the whole time.
Suddenly Pia got that Elle Woods glint in her eye. “I could dominate the cover-up market with a concealer that actually works. I wouldn’t even have to go on late-night TV to sell it. But QVC is the natural outlet! I could get an endorsement from Dr. 90210!” She grabbed my arm. “What about Sanjay Gupta? Do you think he’s big enough?”
Wow. Pia had gone from an obsession with appropriateness to outside-the-box visionary in just one quick session. Her fire was real, not manufactured, because she was her own customer. She knew the market and knew how to address it.
Then I saw her crash back to earth. “But I’m not an entrepreneur. Do you know how much money it would take to get a product like this off the ground? The manufacturing costs alone would require a huge capital investment. Who’s going to give me that kind of money? How do I even ask for that kind of money?”
I finally interrupted her litany of self-minimizing concerns to ask a rhetorical question: “Isn’t that what business school is for? To learn how to write a business plan? To understand capital investment? To become an effective entrepreneur? To master persuasive leadership so you can enroll anyone to do anything for you? I mean, you’ve not only discovered the difference you can make on the planet, you’ve expressed your rationale for needing an MBA education! I couldn’t have made this up if I tried!” She had practically written her goals essay already.
We ended that conversation with a piece of homework: “Go surf the Internet and get me some facts. How many people have tattoos? What is the annual revenue for those useless products you’ve gone through? Are they all made by big cosmetics companies or by specialty providers? And is Alyssa Milano hawking one on late-night TV?”
A couple of days later, Pia reported her findings to me with an excitement that neither Susan nor I had yet to hear in her voice. Suddenly, the tattoo turned from a burden to a blessing—and a great basis for a successful company. Making a difference in seven million lives is big— and certainly a more visionary long-term goal than being some kind of manager in some kind of consulting firm.
PS: With this goal, Pia got accepted to the Triple Crown—Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton. At the risk of sounding like Madonna during the Blonde Ambition Tour, I later told Pia, “Go on, girl. Show me what you can do!”
If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, do a little inner-view— an interview with yourself—and objectively put the pieces of your life together. … For those of you who are reading this and saying, “I don’t have an embarrassing tattoo,” and you’re bummed out because the most exciting thing in your life is turnarounds or semiconductors, be careful not to play the “is my goal catchy enough?” game. Your goal doesn’t have to be catchy, cool, or involve a near miss with death. If it’s real, if you can really get behind it, then that will come through—no matter what.
Here’s how you know for sure: Are you behind it enough to go after it even if you don’t get accepted to business school? Full stop. Admissions officers will get on board even if you’re talking about semiconductors when it’s obvious that your goals have your full faith and credit (that is, if you don’t get into business school and learn how to get financing, you’ll still get financing) even if it means maxing out your credit card to get the ball rolling.
Note: A goals essay is not a business plan. It’s a vision kicked off by an action (that would be your short-term goal). And, oh yes, a reason to go to business school (after all, you need certain skills to realize your vision). By the way, if you already know how to write a business plan, you may not need to go to business school. And you’ve seriously missed the point of this essay.