On The Hot Seat

Scoping out future leaders for Harvard

Deirdre Leopold was named executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School in 2006. Deirdre Leopold was named executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School in 2006. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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Deirdre Leopold was named executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School in 2006. Leopold, 57, has been a member of the HBS admissions board for more than two decades. After working as a portfolio manager on Wall Street, she earned her master’s of business administration degree from Harvard, where she was copresident of the Women’s Student Association. Leopold spoke recently with Globe business reporter Robert Weisman in her office on the HBS campus in Boston.

How hard is it to get into Harvard Business School?

Well, I think that it is quite difficult in a good way. And I think that is exactly a point of pride for people in terms of being able to be in an institution where the selection is taken so seriously.

What does HBS look for in its candidates?

Our mission is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world. So we’re driving back to that guiding principle. We’re looking to compose a class of talented leaders who come from many different backgrounds but share some common qualities. And those qualities might include curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, and an ability to engage in a community, and a moral compass that points true north.

What kind of candidates do you actively avoid?

Think of the qualities I described, and think of their opposite. We want people who can come here and believe that they are as invested in their classmates’ learning as they are in their own. We’re looking for people who, over the whole course of their lives, have been givers versus takers, who are not bystanders but active participants.

Some applicants hire admissions consultants to try to game the system. Can you detect an application that’s written by an admissions consultant?

The written application is only one part of our process. We start with a written application, but we interview every applicant who is ultimately admitted. So we are not reliant only on a written application. I think we’re in a culture now where consultants are hired to do a lot of different things. We understand that some people - particularly those who do not work with people who have gone to business school, who do not have expertise in this admission process - we understand that seeking out advice is natural. But there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications.

Has the economic downturn increased your applicant pool in the past year?

Well, our applicant pool increased last year. . . . It was the second highest year. . . . (But) we have learned that we are not good macro predictors of general applicant trends. So we think that, yes, some people may turn to business school because of an economic downturn. On the other hand, some people may become more invested in staying in their jobs.

If a young executive is already on the corporate fast track, do you recommend that he or she come to Harvard Business School?

If they’re thinking about Harvard Business School, which is truly a transformational experience, I’d ask that person: Do you want to be open to that change? Do you want to find out different ways of doing things? Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?

What do students learn at Harvard Business School that they can’t learn at a Wharton or a Stanford?

I’m only speaking from a point of expertise about Harvard. It’s where I went to school, so I’m speaking as an alum and also as an admissions director. The case method, which is our pedagogy, is truly distinctive. We’re educating leaders to be effective. Leaders operate in gray areas. It’s not about the specific analytical tools you have in some imaginary toolbox. It’s developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time, and to be able to take a stand and to be able to communicate it to others and to bring people along with you.