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An Interview With Chad Losee, Harvard’s New MBA Gatekeeper

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As soon as the clock approached noon in Boston, Chad Losee politely excused himself from an onsite client meeting in Dallas. The 27-year-old Bain & Co. consultant quickly found a private conference room, called his wife at home to put her on the phone, and then logged into the Harvard Business School’s admissions portal.

In December of 2010, Losee had been a consultant at Bain for all of two years and two months. It was his only job after graduating summa cum laude from Brigham Young University with a degree in international relations. For his MBA degree, he had applied to only two business schools in round one: Harvard and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business for their deep sense of community and focus on the case method approach to teaching.

“I called my wife so she could experience it with me,” recalls Losee, who in May succeeded Dee Leopold as managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard. “I wanted to share that moment with her, good or bad. If I hadn’t gotten in, I would have wanted her support.”

MEETING MORE THAN 1,000 PROSPECTIVE APPLICANTS & READ OVER 100 ROUND ONE APPLICATIONS

For a candidate who admits having gone over his application “at least two dozen times” before hitting the submit button, it was good news. “I had this overwhelming experience opening up the letter. It was a very emotional experience for me because I had wanted to come for so long. I was incredibly grateful to get in and it was a really fun moment to share with my wife because she had endured the months of me slaving away on the application during the evenings and weekends to try to put my best foot forward.”

And now, the 32-year-old Losee, who looks like any MBA student strolling across the campus, is on the other side of the table, assessing hopeful candidates trying to put their best foot forward. In his nearly five months in the job as HBS’ official MBA gatekeeper, he has met with more than 1,000 prospective applicants. Since the school’s round one deadline on Sept. 7, Losee says he has read more than 100 applications.

Losee occupies the same second-floor office that Dee Leopold had for ten years in Dillon House on the HBS campus (Leopold no longer has an office in the building, but now runs the 2+2 admissions program). Other than a couple of drawings by one of his four sons, aged nine, seven, five, and three, there’s little evidence he has fully moved into the space. The beige walls are bare and so is the whiteboard next to the small round table in a corner.

A CALL FROM A HEADHUNTER CAUSED HIM TO TOSS HIS HAT IN FOR THE JOB

He says it’s good to be back on campus. After earning his MBA as a Baker Scholar in 2013, graduating in the top 5% of his class, Losee talked himself into a year-long fellowship with the dean’s office before returning to Bain’s Dallas office as a manager for one year and nine months. It was a telephone call from a Korn Ferry headhunter that caused Lohee to toss his hat in the ring at Harvard. After going through a guantlet of interviews, a process he describes as “harrowing,” Losee finally got the job as the most powerful MBA gatekeeper in the world.

Poets&Quants visited with Losee last week. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed his path back to HBS, how the school assesses applicants, how important the GMAT is in applying to Harvard, and whether a bad admissions interview could result in a ding.

How old were you when you discovered you wanted to go for an MBA?

It was later for me. I had studied political science and international relations as an undergrad. Part of my interest in higher ed was that I had thought I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor of political science. So I didn’t do business internships as an undergrad. I  wrote papers and went to conferences. And then I had this roommate and friend who did consulting and I was so intrigued about how quickly he was learning how tacile the problems were that he was solving for clients. I found that really interesting so I jumped into consulting and thankfully got a great job at Bain. I thought of it as two years and then we’ll see. I would learn a lot about business and a lot about myself. At that point, I would do a Phd or not. And then I just fell in love with the work and I think saw the promise of business people solving problems and making a difference in the world.

Of course, I worked with people who had MBAs and it was very easy for me to see what kind of skills they had. I worked with a number of people who had Harvard MBAs and they were incredibly good listeners and they had this way with our clients where they were really empathetic and clients trusted them so they could have a real impact. those are things I wanted to be as a leader, someone who was a good listener, who could understand where people were coming from and  help them solve their problems. I also saw business school as something that could help me in life. Things like learning more about yourself and learning from people from different walks of life, learning how to give feedback to people and get along with others—all those kinds of things that are relevant to non-profit work or at home in addition to your career.

It was relatively late, and it’s something I think about a lot in this role. Who is out there that maybe on a path and doesn’t realize what business school could do for them. Who is headed toward making a difference in the arts or non-profit field. I just had lunch with a grad who is the chief of staff for the mayor of Boston. He was someone who had not thought about public service before business school and was a leadership fellow working in the mayor’s office and now is having this incredible impact on the city of Boston. He may not have been that path at all if not for Harvard Business School. That’s great. That is what we are thinking about in admissions. How do we reach everyone that could do well here.

You made an unusual choice when you got your MBA. Instead of returning to Bain as a sponsored student, you chose to stay on campus and become a fellow in the dean’s office. How come?

I was a fellow in the dean’s office (for Dean Nitin Nohria). But it was an organic thing. In the summer between my two years at Harvard, I met with this coach and discovered this passion I had for working in higher ed on the staff side. During that summer, I worked for Kim Clark (former HBS dean and then president of BYU–Idaho) and I had a great experience. When I came back for my second year, I continued to connect with people who had made their careers in higher education. I said, ‘Hey, I think I will have a little bit of time—a few months at least—before I go back to Bain. Would it be possible for me to stick around and help with some projects?’

Those conversations just kept rolling, and Angela Crispi, our executive dean in the dean’s office, was gracious enough to entertain the idea of having a fellow in the dean’s office, and Nitin was gracious enough to consider it. There wasn’t a precedent for it, at least in near history. They lined up some great projects for us to work on. I worked closely with Nitin on a few things for the (fundraising) campaign but the main thing was the launch of HBX (Harvard Business School’s online initiative). So I got into that experience and realized how big of an opportunity it was, working on the strategy for the platform in a sort of product management role, but it was also an opportunity for me to work hand in hand with Clay Christensen who is a faculty member here. They asked me to stay for a year after it was originally going to be for a few months. I talked to the leadership team at Bain in Dallas and they were gracious about this being an opportunity I was passionate about and they were able to let me stay.

Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School

What exactly did you do on the HBX project and what did you learn?

It was an incredible experience because there was this germ of an idea that online education was becoming more and more important. The question was, what does that mean for Harvard Business School? Should we play in that directly? Should we partner with someone? What shoudl we do? Very quickly, before I got involved, there was a faculty team working on how we should approach it. There were a few principles on how to go about it. One was core to HBS. We want this to be a real learning experience with active learners. We very much didn’t want this to be an experience where 100,000 people sign up and 5,000 people finish. We wanted an experience where people were all in, engaged with the materials and felt like they got something real at the end of it. We also wanted it to be case based, and we thought it would be really hard to take what is this really rich, dynamic discussion orchestrated by a brilliant faculty member with this smart group of people in the room and replicate this online.

I was in a sort of product management role for Disruptive Strategy, which is taking Clay Christensen’s core ideas and putting them into modules and putting them out there so executive teams could take the course and examine their businesses. This was everything from putting together the syllabus to the right cases to sitting down with people like Eric Schmidt (of Google) for some of the cases we did. And then all the way through to working with the technology team on the product requirements and at the end of it working with potential customers to sales. It was this wonderful soup-to-nuts experience for me. It was hard to leave. It was so satisfying.

So you get back to Bain and this job comes open a few years later. Do you apply or because HBS already knows you, they come to you?

They used a search firm, Korn Ferry, and I heard from them. They reached out. I think they put a bunch of feelers out. I was flattered and really intrigued, and there wasn’t a question in my mind whether I would put my hat in the ring or not. When I went back to Bain I was all in and I loved that job. I was definitely not looking to leave, but at the same time I discovered through that work with Kim Clark and with HBX that longer term I wanted to be in higher education.

So I was thrilled to be reached out to. Everyone was committed to making this process as fair as possible for the good of the school. That is part of the reason they hired Korn Ferry. I’m really glad they did that, and I am very glad they decided to hire me. I feel very lucky. They did a real diligent process on purpose and there were times in that process when it was just harrowing. I would have loved for this to fast forward and see how this movie ends. There were interviews with the folks at Korn Ferry and then there was the search committee here. I spent a day on campus and met all of the team ahead of time and they had input into the process as well.

What’s it like to be back on the Harvard Business School campus?

it’s good. it’s just a dream to be back. I loved this school as a student. It was a dream to get into this school as a student so to be back in a role where I get to help shape the future of the class and the future of the alumni is great.

Do you remember what your application essays were about?.

At that time, we had a lot of essays (four written essays were then required, including two that asked for three setbacks faced by a candidate and three accomplishments). There were two that had three parts. So it was a sneaky way of having six essays. For the essay on what I want to be when I grow up, I wrote about wanting to be a partner at Bain. I had worked for Bain for three years, mostly in Dallas but for six months in Stockholm. That was the world I knew and I loved it. I loved the challenge and what I was learning. But I came to HBS—and people talk about it being a transformational experience—and I think it was for me on a bunch of different dimensions. While I was always interested in education, the most likely outcome for me was that in the second half of my career I would go back and teach or work on the board of trustees.

But I was two months into the MBA program and they told us we had access to these career coaches. There were 60 coaches and you could meet with them as often as you liked. So I met with this woman, Michelle, and she asked me what I was interested in. I told her I love consulting but I have this interest in education and maybe technology. She said, ‘How interesting. Tell me about the education part.’ We had this great conversation and that led me down this path of what else might be available in higher education. I became the admissions rep for my section at HBS, helping the admissions office when prospective students come on campus. I would have a coffee with a potential applicant who would be interested in what’s it like to be a student here.

My favorite thing was to bring them to class. They would come downstairs and we would pick them up and I would say, ‘Okay, we’re going to a strategy class where the case is on whatever it was that day,’ and then we do the class and ask them what they thought about the experience. Nine times out of ten, they were just floored by the case method because it was so different from what they had as an undergrad. And of course as an admissions rep that made me remember when I was on the other side as a prospectuve student and came to visit class. For me, it was an amazing experience and solidified my desire to be at this school. So to now be really on the other side of that, I just pinch myself to be able to get to do this.

Why do you think you were chosen for the job?

I think you’d have to ask (Dean) Nitin (Nohria) and you would have to ask Jana Kierstead (executive director of the MBA program). I am fortunate to walk into an office with a team that is incedibly experienced and high performing. So there are people here who have done admissions for decades and have MBAs from the school or other great business schools and really understand the process in and out. I think part of what I can bring to the table is 1) I am a recent graduate so I know very intimately what the program is and how it can change people’s lives. I understand acutely what it is like to be on the other side of this and how much anxiety there could be in the process. As much as a human touch I can bring to this is important. And then I think my background in strategy and analysis would be helpful in terms of our mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. In admissions, we understand our mission to be finding those great leaders, bringing them here and making sure that these talented young people know what they can get out of a Harvard MBA. There’s some strategy on where we go and where we don’t go and getting the message out. And there are definitely some analytics involved. All of that, I could bring to bear.

Did you get any advice from the departing managing director of admissions, Dee Leopold?

Dee is this incredibly steady hand and has done a remarkable job here. So I feel like I have big shoes to fill. But the benefit I have is that she’s running the 2+2 program. That is her baby. So we talk. I have a one-on-one with Dee every week. So I have this great fortune of not having to cram for her sage advice. I can get it over time so I do.

Having been a relatively recent applicant who got in, you obviously experienced the pressure and jitters that goes with applying to HBS. How does that inform your view of how you would like admissions to play out?

First and foremost, I do remember my class visit. When I visited, I felt this incredible desire to be a member in that classroom. When we have visitors here in our classrooms, they get to watch and observe but they can’t participate. I felt this unbelievable desire to just jump into the conversation. So I very much as an applicant felt the desire to get into the school and put my best foot forward. And I appreciated things Dee was doing like letting us know exactly when the dates were going to be and what was happening at Dillon House as I was stewing over whether I would be invited to interview or not.

Anything I can do to continue that level of transparency and relieving any anxiety where we can I want to do. And then the other thing that the team is always thinking about is that it’s a lot of work to put together a business school application. There’s the body of what you put in, but all the introspection and reflection that goes into it. So I think we are always looking at the application to say what information do we need to make the best decisions we can and is there anything we don’t need. If we don’t need it, let’s not ask for it. And that has been the motivation behind cutting back the number of required essays. There are no big changes on the horizon, but I think that is something we are always keeping an eye out for: How to best evaluate a candidate and how to relieve as much anxiety as we can from the process.

How do you think your first admitted class will be different from your own HBS class?

It’s probably too soon to tell. We haven’t seen the whole applicant pool yet. We had our round one deadline so we are in the thick of reading, and the round one applicants are great, by the way. I think the ways it will be similar is that it will be very diverse and diverse in every aspect—people from all over the world, people with all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives and aspirations. That was certainly true when I was here and that was part of what was so special about my experience here. It was all about the other people in the room.

The Harvard Business School campus

The Round One deadline was just a couple of weeks ago. Now you have your very first pile of applications to dig through. What has that been like for you, someone who only graduated three years ago? And I would suspect the round one batch of candidates is among the best because they believe that by applying in round one they have an advantage.

Let’s set the record straight. You have no advantage by applying in round one. Round one and round two give you the exact same advantage. I have been sitting in that chair reading applications and have just been totally inspired in ways small and large. The stories they tell and the things their recommenders are saying is an inspiration. It’s going to be hard to put together a great class, not because there are not enough great people but because there are so many great people in the applicant pool. It’s about how you get the right mix of those candidates in the room. One of the things that I certainly do is try in our mind’s eye look ahead to imagine how this person would be in the classroom. What kinds of things would they say if they raise their hand, what counterpoints would they bring up in the middle of a case discussion. And then, what kind of person would they be in our community on campus. Would they be the kind of person who will help versus take. I also try to project forward to what kind of alumnus or alumna would they be. Would they be good representatives of the school, would they be good stewards of what HBS is and what it is not.

If you had to guess how many applications you have already read, what would the number be?

I’ve read over a hundred applications. We obviously knew when the deadline was so I cleared most of my calendar. It’s not too long before we start sending out interview invitations in a couple of weeks. It will be mid-October. Around here now it gets pretty quiet. The doors are always open in our offices except when they are reading applications. They hunker down and just stay focused. There are a lot of doors closed now.

All of the applications are being read by at least two people and because of travel I have a much lighter load. So far I’ve been to South America, China, Europe, all over the U.S. Those trips are typically events in the evenings and then during the day either meeting with companies that may be interested in sending students our way or meeting with alums and trying to understand what is happening in industry and where should we be looking for the best leaders. I just got back from Europe last week and I go to Mexico in two weeks. And I think they are easing me into the travel schedule. My reading is not as heavy as it is on some of the other team members. And it will be heavy on the other end.

Sarah Lucas, our evaluation director who does all of our training, puts together our strategy on how we attack the work as a team. (Lucas is also a Harvard MBA and Baker Scholar as well as a former McKinsey consultant with 17 years of experience on the admissions team at HBS). She helps figure out who reads what across the whole team. I also will be doing interviewing applicants here and in some of the other locations as well.

What have you discovered or learned from the conversations you’ve had on your road trips so far?

This is one of the things I hoped for in the job but it’s just so refreshing to be out there, talking to people and remembering five or six years ago what it was like to be in their shoes. They have such great stories and backgrounds, and most of them can see the value of HBS. Some of them are just curious and a friend invited them to the event and those are some of the most fun conversations because they learn a little bit about the general management program, or the focus we have on leadership, or the case method, or entrepreneurship, and then they realize, oh, I don’t have to be someone who is doing finance or consulting. They realize they could have a fabulous experience and come out a leader on the other end.

For us, it’s so nice to be out there understanding what people are expecting of business school and what they are hoping to get out of the experience. HBS is a school that stays incredibly relevent just through the new courses that are offerred every year and through the cases that are written. I have been working with all of our research centers around the world on these trips and we have incredibly bright researchers working in country and faculty come and partner with them and they are writing cases about companies all over the world. That is a way the school stays so relevant to business leaders. For the admissions team, it’s hearing the voice of prospective students. What are they expecting and hoping for out of a business school experience.

In recent years, the essay requirement has become more free form at Harvard Business School.  For the past three years, there has only been one essay with no word limit on it. What is the value you see in that approach?

For us—and I can tell you after having read a lot of applications—I think it’s one of the places where the applicant gets to show us much more of who they are than they can in other parts of the application. So they have made choices that are on their resumes, from the schools they went to for their undergraduate degree to their professional choices. In the essay there is no prescription for what we are looking for. It’s truly an opportunity for them to choose what they want to tell us and an opportunity for us to get to know them. And again, it helps us get a sense for what an applicant would be like in the classroom, or in a club, or leading an initiative on campus. So people have taken it in a lot of different directions and we like that.

So you believe you are getting useful information that would otherwise not be in the application?

Yes. And when I talk to people that’s the advice I try to give. It’s in the prompt. We can see your resume and your letters, tell us something else you would like us to know. If they just rehash what we already have, if they turn their resume into prose form, it doesn’t help us that much because we know how to read resumes. Tell us something we don’t know.

Do you think there are curable errors in tone, attitude or content that people make in applying to Harvard Business School?

We talked about one and that is probably the one that comes closest to mind. In the essay, you have choice to decide where you are going to go. And truly there is no prescription on how to take that essay. But if you just take the bullets from your resume and turn them into sentences it doesn’t help us. So that is one thing I would say. Tell us something new. Tell us something we didn’t get. It can be about an experience at work, at home, or in some other capacity. It could be something you are passionate about. You can take it in a number of different directions. The applicant strategy should be to help us understand something new or different about you.

The Harvard Business School campus

Since you’re about to send out invitations for the interview, let me ask you a few questions about that. Consultants often say that you can easily screw up during that 30-minute session. If you screw up, is it all over for a candidate?

By the time we invite people to the interview stage, you have about a 50% or 60% chance of being admitted. The interviews for us are very different than at least other interview processes I have been a part of. They are different in the sense that we are trying to get to know someone in a really deep way and again project how they will perform in the program. Things that come up that are different in our interview process is we have an incredibly small group of people who do interviews. We do that because we want them to be very well trained and try to eliminate as many biases as we can.

But there is no stock list of questions. Each interview is tailored to each candidate, and the interviewer will have read the application in full. That’s different. The reason we like that is it allows us to get beyond the surface of the resume and go to something really interesting you might have said in your essay or something your recommender might have mentioned that you accomplished that we want to hear more about. Or you might say something really interesting in the interview and we might spend a lot of time there. So we are looking for all the same things in the interview as we are in the application. At the end, we write up notes about your interview and those notes go into your file. But it’s not that the interview is more important or less important than the application. Everything is read in full along with the interview notes before we make a decision. It’s really important for us to get to know you well, but it’s not more important than the application or any other part of the process.

If the candidate was nervous to the point of being inarticulate would it hurt you if the rest of your application was solid?

We’re human beings, too, so we know what it means to be inarticulate or nervous at times. We are rooting for the applicants to get in.

You didn’t have to do a post-reflection interview note when you applied. And that’s a part of the process you haven’t yet experiened as the head of admissions. But what is your sense of the real value of it and do you think you will continue to require it in the future?

You’re right. I haven’t been on the other side of this. We hope there is value for the candidate. We hope that you have never walked out of an interview and felt like I did that perfectly. So we give you the last word. I’ve talked to at least 1,000 prospective students over the last couple of months and when I talk about this everyone is vigorously nodding their head like ‘I have never had a perfect interview. I’d love to be able to have the last word.’ And so I think that is part of the value. If our process is to get to know you completely and to have you be in complete control of that, we want you to be able to do that.

It’s very interesting for us to hear how well we did get to know you. We certainly have our impressions from the interview and we do our best to be fair and as objective as possible, but then it’s really important for us to understand how you as the applicant have experienced that. I think it’s mutually beneficial and we’ll see how it goes.

It’s been said that a 730 GMAT score is not the new 700, given the increase in exam scores in recent years and Harvard’s median score is exactly 730. Do you agree that it’s the new 700?

Well, we’re not solving for GMAT scores. We’re solving for leaders who can make a difference in the world and a test is one tiny aspect of our application. The median means that 50% of the people are below a score and 50% are above that. There is no mission or crusade to make that higher. We are trying to find well-rounded leaders and test scores are only one part of it.

If you have a sub-650 applicant, what does it take to offset that score?

I think we just take it as one piece of information among many. Again, we’re solving for the best leaders we can get in the classroom. The case method doesn’t work if everyone comes in with the same opinion on what the business leader should do. So we are really trying to understand what kind of perspective you would bring. The test is only a measure of how well you do on a standardized test in a four-hour time period. It’s not a measure of anything else.

So Chad, we know how you found out about your acceptance to HBS. How did you find out you had the admissions job? Where you in another client meeting?

It was almost like that. Jana (Kierstead) called. I was at a hotel on assignment in Austin and she gave me a call. She cut right to the chase, and I couldn’t have been happier.

 

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John A. Byrne is editor-in-chief of PoetsandQuants.com, the highly popular website that covers graduate business education trends, MBA programs, business school rankings, and admission and employment stats. 

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