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Real Humans of MBA Admissions: Pascal Michels of IESE

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Our Real Humans of MBA Admissions Series this week takes us to beautiful Barcelona, where we caught up with Pascal Michels on what he tells us was the first day his new job as head of IESE MBA admissions began to feel real. In fact, he stepped into the role earlier this summer, but with students arriving on campus and the admissions season kicking into full gear, now is when the rubber is truly hitting the road.

Though he may be new to the role, Michels is not new to IESE. He obtained his own MBA from the school in 2010 before working as a vice president in finance at Citi for three years. Like many, he looked to business school to make a career shift, having previous won a highly competitive civil servant role working for the European Commission in Brussels.

Pascal Michels
Pascal Michels, IESE’s new head of MBA admissions

But ultimately his trajectory would take him from Brussels to business school to banking…and then back to business school. When IESE asked if he would return to oversee financial services for the school’s career services office, he jumped at the chance. “I had the time of my life,” he says, of the four years he spent in this role. And now, IESE has tapped him to head MBA admissions, placing him at yet another transition point.

And that’s precisely where we met him, just as he was beginning to dive into this new role. We had a lengthy interview about what his priorities will be overseeing MBA admissions for IESE, which we’ll share in an upcoming Admissions Director Q&A. But to help get to know a little more about the person who will now serve as IESE’s gatekeeper, we first talked him into taking part in our Real Humans of MBA Admissions series. Enjoy!

Real Humans of MBA Admissions: Pascal Michels of IESE

Coffee or tea? Coffee, definitely. I am not sure I understand tea drinkers. I know it is healthier—I’m sure I should be drinking green tea—but I am definitely a coffee addict.

Beach or mountains? Mountains. Because especially as long as I don’t manage to drink the green tea to lose the weight I need to lose, I cannot be seen on the beach.

Morning person or night owl? Absolute night owl. My day tends to get really complicated when anyone tries to slot anything in before 10 a.m.

Phobia? I have an absolutely irrational and yet uncontrollable fear of flying and of sharks. Yes, flying is an occupational hazard. But I can handle the sharks by avoiding the ocean and the Mediterranean. You may not know this, but the largest ever landed white shark was found in the Mediterranean. My ultimate fear, of course, would be to survive a plane crash, land in the ocean, and be attacked by a shark.

Guilty pleasure? This may not seem to follow on my earlier answer about not being fit for the beach, but the most selfish thing I do when I’m in good shape is to take long runs. I go for two- to three-hour runs overlooking Barcelona, and it is amazing. Except then I’m gone for too long and my family gets mad. Yep, I run for pleasure and my stakeholder group makes me feel guilty for it—guilty pleasure.

Favorite virtue in others? The thing I detest most is arrogance, so my favorite virtue is the opposite. A combination of humility and humor.

Worst habit? I am a procrastinator, so whenever it is left up to me I will let the deadline approach—dangerously so. After pondering doing a PhD for a very long time, I finally came around to dropping the idea for that very reason.

Happy place?  When I have my runner’s high on the mountain trails behind Barcelona. You turn a corner at approximately 10 km into a run, your endorphins kick in, the music is right…that is definitely when I am at my most relaxed.

Comfort food? Pizza

Go-to cocktail? Amaretto sour made by my younger sister who two years ago went through a cocktail mixing course and now is required to mix them whenever we meet.

Proudest moment? I know I should answer when I got admitted to IESE, and I am proud of that. But my proudest moment is really the moment when I became a European civil servant for the European Commission in Brussels. I competed for this insanely difficult entrance exam and worked extremely hard to get it. I then decided to ultimately do something else with my career and that is where the IESE MBA definitely became the game changer

Biggest regret? If I had known that such a thing as an MBA existed at the age of 18 when I was deciding what to study as an undergraduate, I would not have studied business then. Studying business without having any work experience really didn’t allow me to get much out of it. I have come to realize that I am a people person, so I would love to go back and study literature or psychology or something like that as an undergraduate and save my business studies for later, in the shape of an MBA after I’ve gotten some work experience.

One thing you would change about how you were raised? I am very grateful to the education my parents gave me. I do think I would have liked to receive more coaching from my parents or from somebody close to my family. As the first born, I was very much left to my own devices for such things as my studies. I lacked courage because there was no one to show me you have to embrace the world. I think my risk aversion made me a very conformist young adult.

Superpower you wish you had? Ironically, I do have a superpower. I have an extremely good capacity to guess all sorts of things, the time it is, the age people are, what things weigh, etc. But I will tell you, it is really useless. I think the superpower I wish I had would be knowing how to fly. That would be amazing because it would take care of my fear of flying and also help deal with traffic.

Favorite fictional hero/heroine? Sam Lowry in the movie Brazil by Terry Gilliam. It’s built on George Orwell’s 1984 and was an absolute cult movie, but I don’t think it’s as well known in the United States because the studio decided it was too dark and didn’t release it widely in cinemas. I strong identify with Lowry because he is this dreamer who wants to oppose the system. Of course he eventually gets crushed by the system.

What schools, if any, rejected you? (How does it impact how you will interact with those who you must say no to?) When I applied to business school, I was waitlisted at a school that is a competitor to IESE. It was a school I admire, and I never understood why I was waitlisted. I never got any feedback, and it still bugs me a little. Now, in my role as admissions director, if I have reservations or think my team has reservations about a candidate, I actually will introduce them during the interview.

I definitely can identify with the frustration of not being given explanations. So if I have hesitations about someone’s work experience or ability to deal with the course load, I will specifically address it during the interview. I want candidates to feel like, yes, this is their blind spot, and then if they can convince me that it’s surmountable, then by all means, go for it.

Which part of the IESE process would you most like to skip if you were applying today? To be honest, I think there is a lot of paperwork, which I hope technology will make unnecessary soon. I hate that you have to spend so much time digging out transcripts and submitting certified copies. Also, the recommendation process is quite burdensome and I do find myself wondering why schools don’t move to LinkedIn for this. I am a procrastinator and not the most organized, so I would happily dispense with the paperwork.

Pascal Michels
Michels with his daughter

What’s the best thing you read/watched/listened to recently? I used to be an avid reader, but as dad to a four-year-old, I find my time for pleasure reading significantly reduced. Having said that, there is a text that is very dear to me, and I reread it at least once a quarter. It’s a one-pager by Franz Kafka called “Before the Law,” and I’ve even written about it on LinkedIn because I think it is extremely relevant, both in the job search but also in the admissions process.

Basically, it is the story of someone who wants to enter the law, the door is ajar, the light of the law shines through, but the guardian tells the man from the countryside that he can’t enter. The man waits his entire life—I get goosebumps just thinking about how the story ends. At the end of the day, there are guardians in your life, people who are going to tell you no. For some it can be an admissions director. But this short story reminds you it is your life, you have one life, and ultimately you have to hold yourself accountable. If you spend your life waiting for someone to wave you through, you run the risk of realizing at some point that you are wasting your time. Sometimes it is better to break a rule or cross a boundary than waiting for someone to tell you that you can.