7 Tips for MBA Applicants from Family Businesses
You work for the family business and are applying for an MBA. Will this background be a net plus for you, or a minus? How can you make the most of this experience?
I have worked with several clients who worked in a family business, including tiny start-ups whose headquarters was the family basement to multimillion dollar enterprises with hundreds of employees. No matter the size of the business, I found that my clients had many strengths to offer in their essays based on their experiences. Here are a few of them.
1. You see the forest and the trees. If you’ve grown up in the business, no matter its size, you probably have gained some valuable knowledge about many aspects of it: sales, production, marketing, product innovation, customer service, perhaps even basic finance. Over the years (some applicants will have started working in the business on weekends as teenagers), and especially if the business is small, you will have the same advantage as other applicants who have worked in start-ups or other small businesses, which is the experience of filling different roles and gaining a more holistic view of how the business operates. This allows you to show knowledge of and appreciation for the importance of various business functions working together for a common goal.
2. You have an owner’s mindset, not an employee’s mindset. You can also demonstrate a built-in investment in the success of the business, whether you plan to return to work there post-MBA or not. This added incentive to see the business thrive and grow may have prompted you to work after-hours on projects that you initiated. Additionally, with some level of built-in trust from management, you may also have been given more leeway to innovate, making the potential impact of your contributions that much greater and the lessons learned that much more valuable.
3. You’ve developed communications skills that allow you to influence those senior to you. You are most likely much younger than your relatives who own and manage the company. Therefore, you may have helped to introduce more tech-savvy innovations or a social media presence, which come more naturally to you. Getting “buy-in” from an “old school” mentality is another opportunity to show your communications skills and savvy.
4. You have a job when you graduate, if you want it.. The school won’t need to worry about your employment prospects, if you want to return to the family business. Having said all that, you still need to prove that you’ve enjoyed the level of responsibility that you claim.
The adcom members may be skeptical that your dad/mom/uncle/aunt really held your feet to the fire in meeting deadlines or proving yourself on the job. The dynamics among relatives who work together can also be tricky, and getting letters of recommendation will be a challenge. Here’s how you can deal with these issues:
1. Quantify your achievements and offer as much anecdotal evidence as possible. Yes, this is strategically important even if you are not from a family business background, but it’s especially true here. If you successfully negotiated a new lease agreement for the business saving it $X per month, found a better way to screen job applicants, brought in new customers through the Facebook business page you created that reduced cost per lead by Y%, write about it. The classic rule of “show, don’t tell,” is critical here.
2. Demonstrate your ability to successfully navigate the built-in pitfalls of working with family members. I once had a client where family members fought hard over the succession plans of the business after the business owner and patriarch passed away. Things were getting ugly. My client convinced everyone to work with a skilled mediator whom he had chosen to help reach an understanding. The mediation succeeded, which arguably saved the business from being eaten up by lawsuits. It also managed to preserve family relationships. Another client had ideas to expand sales territory for her family business, but the management resisted change. Through her research, my client was able to prove her idea was a good and calculated risk. She succeeded in selling her fresh thinking to her parents, and the business benefitted from her ideas.
3. Don’t ask relatives, especially those who share your last name, for your letters of recommendation, even if that relative is your direct supervisor and knows your work and capabilities better than anyone. There is simply no way that a letter from a parent, cousin, grandparent or other family member will seem objective enough to be credible. You may need to approach a supervisor from a previous job who can attest to your maturity, quantitative skills and initiative, and other achievements, or someone who supervised you in another organization – perhaps if you were an active volunteer in a community organization or church group. However, you need to have recommenders who can speak about your abilities in the recent past – within the last two years. If you don’t have these options available to you and you’ve only worked in the family business, perhaps someone affiliated with the business might be suitable: an accountant or attorney, or an important customer or supplier. Remember, your interactions with these individuals must be frequent enough and substantial enough for them to comment intelligently and with some specificity on your work and personal character traits.
All in all, working for a family business has probably provided you with extremely valuable experience. It may also have made you nimble in your abilities to work across different departments, and given you a front-row seat in watching your relatives deal with the ongoing challenges of running a business in rapidly changing times. Not a bad set of experiences with which to apply to b-school!
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