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The Four Dimensions of Being a Successful MBA Job Candidate (Part 2)

Last week, we introduced the “Four Dimensions” framework for constructing an MBA job candidate profile (using the visualization below) and addressed two of the four elements – Performance and Behavior. Let’s now turn to the remaining two categories: Capabilities and Smarts.

Performance     < ––––––––– >     Behavior

Capabilities        < ––––––––– >      Smarts

As categories, we learned that Performance and Behavior are what a person does, whereas Capabilities and Smarts are who or what a job candidate is. The Capabilities category describes the sum set of skills that a person currently possesses – his or her ability to perform a task of some technical quality or expertise (everything from building a financial model to creating a PowerPoint presentation, coding a new piece of software, or managing a project). A certified public accountant, for example, possesses a very specific set of capabilities centered on analyzing balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements.

Smarts, in contrast, is a person’s general ability to learn, make critical comparisons, comprehend new information, and change, grow, and adapt to new circumstances (I will leave it to cognitive experts to decide whether “smarts” itself is a fixed, intrinsic quality, or whether it too is malleable). Smarts, in this context, is shorthand for one’s ability to acquire new capabilities, and it encompasses all the things we think of when we refer to someone’s intelligence, curiosity, and even wisdom.

Lest this category seem too far afield for the purposes of most MBA job candidates, it’s worth remembering that the reason employers care about students’ academic achievement (from undergrad GPA to GMAT test scores) is not necessarily that those specific skills and knowledge are required to perform a certain job, but that success in the academic realm often indicates a person’s capacity to learn on the job, digest new information, and arrive at new insights and ideas that help an organization grow and compete.

As with Performance and Behavior, it’s possible, in the context of the continuum between Capabilities and Smarts, to have too much of one and too little of the other. It’s possible to be highly skilled and to be able to perform many tasks – to be very capable, by virtue of accumulated past training and work experiences – while lacking much capacity to adapt and to learn, change, and grow in new directions (and, thus, to become a true leader in one’s organization).

It’s also possible – and this is particularly dangerous ground for MBA job candidates who rely too much on selling their future potential rather than current, marketable skills– to depend too much on one’s general capacity for critical thinking and learning without being able to point to the fundamental, ready-to-deploy skills and capabilities that are needed on day one of a new position.

Taken as a whole, the Four Dimensions are a useful framework for highlighting the comprehensive set of attributes that are needed for MBA-level “knowledge work.” As a job candidate, you may encounter technical interviews that are limited in subject scope (e.g., consulting case interviews that require a straightforward market-sizing task, or finance interviews that require the candidate to pitch a couple of stocks), but any interview that is “behavioral” (that is, about a candidate’s past experiences, track record, existing skills, personality, and future potential) is an invitation to use the Four Dimensions framework.

The best interviews are those, I would argue, in which a candidate has the opportunity to highlight examples from all four dimensions – showing an individual track record of delivering results and winning in a competitive context (Performance), providing examples of supporting others, serving clients and customers well, treating all stakeholders with respect (Behavior), identifying a valuable set of skills and knowledge that is directly applicable to technical tasks or to larger institution-building efforts (Capabilities), and highlighting not only the sum of experiences and skills developed to date, but also one’s ability to learn new things, be imaginative, and expand personal and professional horizons (Smarts).

If you’re ever at a loss for a narrative framework to describe your background and qualifications in a job interview context (beyond the chronological progression suggested by the question, “Walk me through your résumé”), I recommend going through each bullet point of your résumé and identifying whether that bullet can be labeled as highlighting your Performance, Behavior, Capabilities, or Smarts. I would then pick the best 2-3 examples of each of the Four Dimensions (across your professional, academic, and extracurricular activities), and use those to portray yourself as a well-balanced and amply skilled professional who can have a positive effect on others and who can eventually take on a senior leadership role in an organization as it grows and evolves to meet new challenges.

Ivan Kerbel – Bio:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.

Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.