How to secure powerful, authentic

Letters of Recommendation 





What if your recommender says,


“You write it. I will sign it.”


How to convince your MBA letter of recommendation writer (recommender) to work hard on your behalf



If someone says,”You write it, I’ll sign it, you have three options


  1. Write it

  2. Find someone else to write it

  3. Convince this person to write it on your behalf


I suggest option #3

And along the way, you might mention that you might need to find someone else

Some recommenders might feel ashamed of forcing you to go to someone else for an authentic letter

By saying that you need to find someone else, your recommender might offer to write your letter

Of course, some people are simply too busy

But I encourage you to take this opportunity to practice “managing up”


I know that some companies (and some countries / business cultures) do not appreciate the importance of recommenders writing letters instead of applicants


At my high school, one of the most beloved teachers asked students to recommend themselves to college

At that time, I lacked the foresight and probably the guts to find someone else

(I guess I can cut myself a little bit of slack since I was 17 years old)


In the end, I was admitted to every college I applied, so I guess and OK job (Oops, am I sending a mixed message here?)

Anyway, if I were 22 - 32 again, I know I could find a way to persuade each my recommenders to write for me


If I could travel back to high school, I would give my high school teacher a self-assessment with supporting examples

(The best self-assessment tool I have seen is Stanford GSB's Leadership Behavior Grid - see below for how to use it)


Then, I would ask her to use those materials to write my letter

If she still refused to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), I would take my documents to another of my favorite teachers, who would probably appreciate my organizational skills and use my documents to create something authentic




Can you do it?


Maybe it all depends on where you work

And maybe it is unfair of admissions directors to blame / penalize you for choosing to work at a company where “You write it, I’ll sign it” is the dominant culture

Still, what if you could persuade this person to get outside his or her comfort zone, take the process seriously, and by doing so, increase your chances of admission at some of the world’s most selective and competitive graduate management programs?

It is worth a shot

Remember, you probably plan to leave this job anyway, right?  


Find a way to change a cynical, self-defeating practice that robs applicants of honest, critical feedback and deprives organizations of increasing dialogue across generations

In the process, learn what motivates people five to ten years your senior


In short, look at this opportunity to grow as a leader

Finally, if you need tips on how to negotiate, I suggest these links






Part 2


How to use Stanford GSB's

Leadership Behavior Grid

to secure authentic letters of recommendation

for top MBA programs




Have you seen Stanford's well-defined (narrow?) Leadership Behavior Grid?

No other school has taken the time to define the difference between a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 rating

Why is this the case?

One word: consultants

From my understanding, Stanford hired a leading strategic consulting firm to assess and overhaul their entire admissions process around 2007

If my understanding is correct, the Leadership Behavior Grid probably represents a significant investment

No wonder they have copyrighted it. So kudos to Derrick and his team for giving recommenders and applicants something concrete to dig their teeth into

Even if you are not applying to Stanford, I encourage you to use Stanford’s Leadership Behavior Grid to organize your recommendation letter process


Step 1 - Assess yourself


Give yourself a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 based on the qualified details included in Stanford’s Leadership Behavior Grid

What were your highest ratings?

What were your lowest ratings?




Step 2 - Explain your highest and lowest ratings


Justify your highest and lowest ratings with real examples that your recommender may remember



Step 3 - Start and maintain a dialogue


Ask your recommenders to assess you on some competencies and character traits that contribute to successful leadership

Share your Stanford Leadership Behavior Grid self-assessment, and the supporting examples, with your recommender

Ask him or her to follow the same process before writing his or her references for all schools on your list (better to secure an unused reference now than to bother your supervisor on holiday)




For reference, I have copied Stanford's 2014 Letter of Reference Grid, which you can find here



Stanford Leadership Behavior Grid 

(fall 2014 version)


Results Orientation

1 Fulfills assigned tasks

2 Overcomes obstacles to achieve goals

3 Exceeds goals and raises effectiveness of organization

4 Introduces incremental improvements to enhance business performance using robust analysis

5 Invents and delivers best-in-class standards and performance


Strategic Orientation

1 Understands immediate issues of work or analysis

2 Identifies opportunities for improvement within area of responsibility

3 Develops insights or recommendations that have improved business performance

4 Develops insights or recommendations that have shaped team or department strategy

5 Implements a successful strategy that challenges other parts of the company or other players in the industry


Team Leadership

1 Avoids leadership responsibilities; does not provide direction to team

2 Assigns tasks to team members

3 Solicits ideas and perspectives from the team; holds members accountable

4 Actively engages the team to develop plans and resolve issues through collaboration; shows how work fits in with what others are doing

5 Recruits others into duties or roles based on insight into individual abilities; rewards those who exceed expectations


Influence and Collaboration

1 Accepts input from others

2 Engages others in problem solving

3 Generates support from others for ideas and initiatives

4 Brings others together across boundaries to achieve results and share best practices

5 Builds enduring partnerships within and outside of organization to improve effectiveness, even at short-term personal cost



1 Sometimes rambles or is occasionally unfocused

2 Is generally to the point and organized

3 Presents views clearly and in a well-structured manner

4 Presents views clearly and demonstrates understanding of the response of others

5 Presents views clearly; solicits opinions and concerns; discusses them openly


Information Seeking

1 Asks direct questions about problem at hand to those individuals immediately available

2 Personally investigates problems by going directly to sources of information

3 Asks a series of probing questions to get at the root of a situation or a problem

4 Does research by making a systematic effort over a limited period of time to obtain needed data or feedback

5 Involves others who would not normally be involved including experts or outside organizations; may get them to seek out information


Developing Others

1 Focuses primarily on own abilities

2 Points out mistakes to support the development of others

3 Gives specific positive and negative behavioral feedback to support the development of others

4 Gives specific positive and negative behavioral feedback and provides unfailing support

5 Inspires and motivates others to develop by providing feedback and identifying a new growth opportunities as well as supporting their efforts to change


Change Leadership

1 Accepts status quo; does not see the need for change

2 Challenges status quo and identifies what needs to change

3 Defines positive direction for change and persuades others to support it

4 Promotes change and mobilizes individuals to change behavior

5 Builds coalition of supporters and coordinates change across multiple individuals: may create champions who will mobilize others to change


Respect for Others

1 Is sometimes self-absorbed or overly self-interested

2 Generally treats others with respect: usually shares praise and credit

3 Is humble and respectful to all

4 Is respectful to all and generous with praise: ensures other opinions are heard

5 Uses understanding of others and self to resolve conflicts and foster mutual respect



1 Shows occasional lapses in trustworthy behavior

2 Generally acts consistently with stated intentions

3 Acts consistently with stated intentions even in difficult circumstances

4 Is reliable and authentic even at some personal cost: acts as a role model for the values of the organization

5 Is reliable and authentic even at some personal costs: works to ensure all members of the organization operate with integrity

Based on your professional experience, how do you rate this candidate compared to her/his peer group?

Below average


Very good (well above average)

Excellent (top 10%)

Outstanding (top 5%)

The best encountered in my career

© 2013-2014 Stanford University



Just for fun, compare Stanford’s super intense Leadership Behavior Grid with the HBS laissez faire LoR criteria, which only ask your recommenders to simply check a number without needing to parse and apply extensive, qualifying text

HBS recommender criteria  


Awareness of Others



Imagination, Creativity, and Curiosity



Interpersonal Skills (with subordinates/colleagues)

Interpersonal Skills (with superiors)





Skills: Analytical thinking

Skills: Listening

Skills: Quantitative Aptitude

Skills: Verbal Communication

Skills: Writing


Information is subject to change. Please verify all data with the schools.


- Updated by Vince on 11 Mar 2016

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