Meet Stanford GSB’s New Admissions Director

Kirsten Moss shares her thoughts on leadership, how to pick the best applicants, and the future of business school admissions.

June 01, 2017


Kirsten Moss | ToniBird Photography

Kirsten Moss wants to know what you care most about. What problems keep you up at night, and what you have done to help your community thrive. The answers to those questions help Moss, the new director of admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, spot future leaders who will embrace and fulfill the school’s mission to change lives, change organizations, and change the world.

This isn’t her first time at Stanford GSB, nor is it her first leadership role in a prestigious business program. Previously, Moss led the admissions team at Harvard Business School, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, government, and sociology in 1986 and her MBA in 1992. She also spent six years at Stanford GSB, working in MBA admissions, most recently under Derrick Bolton, who now is dean of admissions for Stanford’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program and whom she succeeds in her new role. She has just finished her doctorate of psychology, focusing her research on leadership assessment and development.

Moss left Stanford to join the executive search firm Egon Zehnder but maintained her close ties with the school as a leadership facilitator for the Interpersonal Dynamics class, more commonly known as “Touchy Feely.”

We recently caught up with Moss, who begins her new role on June 1.

Why did you take this job? What made you want to come back to Stanford GSB?

It is a great honor to lead Stanford GSB admissions team, and I took the role for two reasons — its impact and meaning. The Stanford GSB mission is to create ideas that advance our understanding of management and, with those ideas, to develop leaders who change the world. I accepted this role because I think it plays a critical part in ensuring that Stanford GSB can continue to deliver on this mission of selecting and developing leaders.

Personally, I have been focused on leadership assessment and development for the last two decades because it holds great meaning for me. I believe every individual has the potential to create positive impact; however, each of us needs the knowledge, skills, leadership ability, and support to turn our ideas into realities. I will take great pleasure in providing applicants the opportunity to join Stanford GSB ecosystem, where they can develop their potential to change the world.

Tell us a few things about yourself you would like people to know and one that might surprise them.

Although it’s the third time in my career I have accepted an MBA admissions role, this time I feel more excited and prepared than ever. In prior positions, I was primarily using my instincts when selecting talent. Over the last decade, I have worked in the private sector assessing and developing senior executive leaders, obtained my doctorate in leadership psychology, and conducted my own research. I am looking forward to applying these insights and experiences at Stanford GSB.

The thing that is most intriguing to me about working in admissions is exploring how best to make each selection decision. Leadership assessment is as much of an art as it is a science.
Kirsten Moss

The timing also feels right for me to accept this new role. I am married with three children and have spent a good part of my career trying to balance the challenges of working and mothering. For much of this time, Stanford GSB has been a good home for me as its leaders, such as Derrick Bolton, have enabled me to balance these demands. Now that I have two children in college and one soon to be there, I am shifting to a new “normal” and excited to embrace all the intensive travel, marketing, and management demands that the role of assistant dean of admissions requires.

One thing to know about me is that while I love all kinds of exercise, like running, hiking, yoga, and CrossFit, I find my greatest joy in dancing. Every week, I attend dance classes, because the music, choreography, and movement make me feel most alive.

A second surprise is that my mother is British and was raised during World War II. As a child she told me many stories about how difficult it was to live in a war-torn country. As a parent, I remain grateful that my family feels safe and I can provide food for our table each night.

What is it that intrigues you about working in admissions and selecting students?

The thing that is most intriguing to me about working in admissions is exploring how best to make each selection decision. Leadership assessment is as much of an art as it is a science. While you can rely on research and data to provide frameworks regarding what to assess, your experience and pattern recognition determine how you apply these theories in the moment.

In selecting candidates, the best predictor of future performance is past performance. We want to find candidates that have been curious and engaged in their classrooms and have been willing to voice their opinions. We also search for candidates who have had a significant impact on their organizations and communities. We are curious about what have they done, how have they done it, and what has motivated them to do it.

One of the things we ask in Stanford GSB admissions process is, “What do you value and why?” That iconic question is a window into what is most meaningful to the applicant. A leader’s values are the energy, which motivates their choices, behaviors, and impact.

You’ve been behind the scenes of Stanford GSB and Harvard Business admissions. What changes in business school applications have you seen over time?

Broadly speaking, the application process for undergraduate and graduate admissions has stayed largely the same over the past 50 years. Institutions still ask applicants for references, test scores, grades, and essays. I find this interesting, as selection practices within the private sector, though far from perfect, have evolved more rapidly and focus on measurable behaviors, which predict performance more accurately. I hope that in the future, admissions professionals can see the value in widening the lens of what we evaluate and consider data not just on what an applicant has accomplished but on how they have accomplished it.

How has your experience as a Touchy Feely facilitator influenced you and your own leadership style? Did it impact your view of effective leadership in any way?

The interpersonal dynamics course is an amazing learning laboratory for anyone interested in studying leadership behaviors and development. What I have learned over the past five years is that everyone can add new leadership behaviors, or arrows to their leadership quiver, as long as they are willing to take risks to try new things that may be uncomfortable. The most successful leaders are comfortable using a wide range of behaviors more frequently than their colleagues.

I also have seen firsthand that Stanford GSB students have significant leadership capability even at an early stage of their career and develop further skills rapidly in the Touchy Feely learning environment. I often advise senior executives to attend Stanford GSB executive education Touchy Feely class, because there are so few opportunities within organizations to experiment with using new leadership behaviors, from managing conflict to appreciating the efforts of others.

What have you learned from assessing C-suite/senior executives that influences your approach to MBA admissions?

What has been most interesting to me evaluating senior leaders is that while the scope and scale of impact they have created may be larger than those of Stanford GSB applicants, how they achieve this impact is the same. The root leadership behaviors that motivate and inspire others are identical. In assessing applicants, I will be looking for a similar frequency and range of leadership behaviors that I see successful CEOs using to drive change.

Through reviewing the academic literature on leadership from over the last half century, working within executive recruiting, and conducting my own research, I believe there are five leadership domains which encompass about 50 different leadership behaviors. First, leaders envision a direction for their organization by challenging assumptions, finding root cause and stimulating collaboration. Second, leaders endeavor to drive results by taking initiative above and beyond their responsibilities, setting challenging goals, and persisting to achieve them. Third, leaders engage their followers through communicating a compelling vision and influencing others to support them in their efforts. Fourth, leaders empower others by developing their skills and capabilities. And lastly, leaders build trust and respect through demonstrating integrity and sharing their values, concerns, vulnerabilities, and optimism. Leaders become entrusted because others believe in them. To be effective, senior executives need to use leadership behaviors in each of these five domains. What my research has shown is that that early career professionals also need to use the same behaviors to become high performers.

What changes would you like to see, if any, in the profile of the class? What do you think the school needs more of or less of?

The profile of our class is most impacted by where we invest our outreach efforts. Under Derrick Bolton’s leadership over the past decade, we have increased the number of women, minorities, and international students in Stanford GSB class. Derrick increased class diversity through shaking the hands of hundreds of applicants across the globe annually. While I think we’ve made dramatic progress in those areas, there is still additional work to be done. I am looking forward to collaborating with Stanford GSB leadership and my team to identify our outreach priorities for the future.

I do want to note, though, that intellectual curiosity and leadership capability is not defined by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or country of origin. Those who have created positive impact in their organizations and communities, no matter who they are, what they believe, or where they come from, will be strongly considered for our class.

What are you most excited about in assuming this role?

I am excited to work with the new leadership team at the school, specifically Yossi Feinberg, senior associate dean for academic affairs, and Dean Jonathan Levin as they chart the next decade for Stanford GSB. And I also am looking forward to working with the admissions team again. This team has incredible professionals with deep experience in admissions, and it will be a pleasure to work side by side with them in support of Stanford GSB’s mission.

What keeps you up at night?

My responsibility is to our applicants. Over 8,000 individuals submit their personal stories to us each year, spending many hours preparing their applications. The admissions team has a responsibility to treat each of them with honor and respect. We need to ensure that our process reflects integrity and considers each applicant in a fair and consistent way. My goal is to ensure that our process embodies these values.

— Mary Duan

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