While each applicant is different, there are some common types of family business applicants. Chances are that you fit more or less into one or more of these categories.
1. The Leader is in charge of his or her family business. While the Leader could actually be the founder and a successful entrepreneur who now employs his or her family in the business, more commonly, The Leader has either due to death or retirement taken over the business. The Leader has to have a team in place that can manage the business on a day-to-day basis, so that he or she can pursue an full or part-time MBA or EMBA. Leaders typically pursue MBAs because they feel the need to enhance their ability to make effective decisions, to enhance their soft and hard skills, to professionalize their organizations, to grow their businesses, and to take on new challenges.
2. The Future Leader is the designated heir of the head of a family business. Usually this is a daughter or son, but might be a grandchild, niece, nephew, or spouse. Unlike The Leader, they live directly in the shadow of their relative and must contend with an organization that may include many senior level people who they will eventually lead. The Future Leader can more easily pursue a full-time MBA than the The Leader because the organization can typically function without in his or her absence. While Future Leaders pursue MBAs for much of the same reason as Leaders, they are often especially concerned with soft issues related to their eventual ascendency and organizational change.
3. One of the Children. Clients in this category are neither the Leader or designated Future Leader of the family business. These “second sons or daughters” or nieces and nephews may already be heavily involved in the business and know that they will play a senior role in it, but have no expectations of being The Leader. Their reasons for doing an MBA will be similar to those of Leaders and Future Leaders, but in order to tell an effective goals story, they have to identify specific part(s) of the business that they hope to contribute to. For those coming, from say, large Indian family conglomerates, this usually means focusing on specific units within the business. For others coming from smaller or more specialized businesses, it might mean focusing on a functional area like investing, marketing, or corporate social responsibility.
4. The Spouse. The spouse is looking at a situation where he or she needs the skills of an MBA in order to either assist or replace his/her spouse in a family business. The Spouse typically has both the resources and time to attend an MBA or EMBA.
5. The Independent is typically a son, daughter, niece, or nephew who has been professionally successful away from the family business. The Independent plans to enter the family business after his or her MBA. I have worked with many Independents who are Future Leaders. While Independents’ goals are often similar to those of a Future Leader, their accomplishment related content in their essays and resume is likely to have little or nothing to do with the family business. Unlike those that only worked within the Family Business, unless the Independent owns their own business, they usually have no difficulty securing recommendations from supervisors.
The Advantages of Being a Family Business MBA Applicant
-Easily believable future career goals. Family business applicants have a huge advantage in respect to this because assuming they make a good argument justifying an MBA, they should have little difficulty articulating goals that an admissions committee can accept. Making those goals exciting is another thing, which I will discuss below.
-Experience. While not true with every family business applicant I have worked with, those that have worked within their family business often have significantly greater monetary and supervisory responsibilities then the applicant pool as a whole. While this would obviously apply to the leader of a family business, it typically applies to anyone who has worked at their family business. While some of my clients have started “like any other new employee,” the rapidity of their advancement is clear in almost all cases after two or more years of work. This typically means that the family business applicant has no difficulty providing impressive accomplishments in their resume, essays, and in interviews. They often have extensive leadership experience.
-Guaranteed post-MBA employment. Like entrepreneurs returning to their businesses and those who are company-sponsored, family business applicants have guaranteed post-MBA employment, which makes them ideal in respect to a school’s post-MBA employment statistics and to minimizing the utilization of career services. In other words, admitting a family business is statistically advantageous and resource efficient.
-Wealth. Rich and successful alumni play a key role at building great business schools. Those who lead or will lead or be one of the leaders of large family businesses will likely be in a position to contribute to the program as alumni. Additionally, such alumni may also become future employers of the program’s graduates. While an applicant should not flaunt this reality in a vulgar way, it is surely an advantage.
-Connections. Just as those employees coming from companies that might have a close relationship with a particular MBA program, family business applicants are also often in a position to take advantage of connections. if a family business applicant also has connections with the development office (fundraising office) or other departments within the university that they are applying to, these connections should be utilized if they are deemed to be potentially effective in gaining admission. All parts of a university, including the MBA admissions office, are subject to influence. Such influence must be used carefully and while no guarantee, I have seen this kind of influence work effectively at a number of top MBA programs in the US. For those who find my remarks shocking, grow up, the world is unfair and the application process is just as subject to a variety of influences as any other human activity. While each applicant must use his or her re sources to the best of their ability to gain admission, good judgment and tact are critical when considering using connections.
-Resources especially for family business students. Family business students are not only a distinct group of students in an MBA program, family business itself is a distinct subject of study by business school faculty. So not only are family business student clubs very common. Some programs that have courses and/or defined academic focus on family business include:
Columbia Business School: Family Business Management course
HBS: Management of the Family Business course
INSEAD: Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise
Kellogg: Center for Family Enterprises
London Business School: Family Business Research
Stanford GSB: Family Business course
Additionally, a number of schools including HBS, IMD, and UCLA Anderson have conferences and executive educational resources focused on family businesses that MBA students may be able to take advantage of.
The Challenges of Being a Family Business MBA ApplicantFranky, I think the advantages completely outweigh the challenges.
-Formulating attention getting and dynamic goals. While family business applicants have little difficulty making their goals believable, making goals that are exciting to the reader can be more of a challenge. In this sense, the family business is like any other applicant, but with the difference that their future is not entirely wide-open because it is very much connected to an existing organization. The dynamism can found by figuring out what kind of change related story to tell about ones post-MBA goals: How will the applicant impact the business? You can find my own approach to creating dynamic goals for yourself in my post on Stanford Essay 2. In addition, I would recommend that family business applicants actually conduct a SWOT analysis on the business when formulatin g their own goals.
- Team member related experience. While many family business applicants have no difficulty writing about and/or discussing team member experience, some have had limited exposure to being in a position where they were not the leader. Not surprisingly, I also have found this to be the case with some of my clients who built their own companies. Sometimes the notion of peer and colleague has to be altered in order to find effective stories for such applicants. One of the ways I help such clients is through advising them on the identification of relevant experiences that fit team related questions.
-Getting Too Personal. Setting the right tone and telling the right stories is key to MBA admission. One of the primary ways I help clients is by giving them feedback on the stories that they intend to tell. Family business applicants are especially likely to need feedback in this respect because family businesses are very personal. The conflicts within them can often be with relatives. Knowing what to disclose and how to do so is not always obvious.
-Recommendations. Just as with many entrepreneurial MBA applicants, family business applicants often have difficulty with recommendations. Since family members are not considered to be objective enough, having your grandparent, dad, mom, uncle, aunt, etc. write your recommendation is not an option. Many of my family business clients have no supervisor recommenders, instead they look to senior non-family member colleagues who don’t report to them, clients, business partners, and outside advisors for their recommendations. Family business applicants with past or present non-family business experience are less likely to face this problem or at least not with all of their recommenders. All I can say is that no client of mine has ever been unable to find suitable recommenders, but sometimes it just takes a bit more creativity to identify the right people. Many MBA programs, in fact, provide advice to family business applicants regarding the reco mmendation issue. For example, Stanford provides the following useful advice:
“We understand, however, that you may be in a situation that prevents you from providing a reference from your current direct supervisor. For example, you may:
- Be self-employed
- Work for a family business and a family member is your supervisor
- Be in a new position and your direct supervisor does not know you that well
- Not have notified your direct supervisor that you are applying to business school
If you are unable to provide a letter from your current direct supervisor, include a brief note of explanation in the Additional Information section of the online application. It is up to you to choose an appropriate replacement.”
Similar advice will be provided by any MBA program.
While each applicant’s situation is unique, I hope that the above is useful for family business applicants. If you are looking for more individualized advice, please contact me to arrange an initial consultation.
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