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Advice on a Non-traditional Path to an MBA: LBS Grad Paul Heslop

In his role at the United Nations (UN), London Business School grad Paul Heslop is responsible for peacekeeping efforts in 17 countries, clearing thousands of mines and other explosives, and defending multi-million dollar budgets to the UN Security Council. While his story is as unique as they come, Paul delivers invaluable advice for any nontraditional candidate (and inspiration for anyone else), underscoring ways that he draws upon his business school experience every day at the UN.

Great interviews feel like eavesdropping. It’s powerful to listen in on someone who’s been in your shoes, especially when he or she has the advantage of hindsight. This inspired us to formalize our conversations with impressive business school alumni, who are poised to deliver frank and essential insights on the MBA journey – from choosing a program to the takeaways that had the greatest impact on their career success and the ah-ha moments that changed them in the process.

Our first in the series, A Day in the MBA Life, features LBS alum Paul Heslop, who once accompanied the late Princess Diana through an active minefield. In a Q&A for Forbes with Fortuna Admissions Director Matt Symonds, Paul gets candid about choosing LBS over Harvard Business School, discovering his dyslexia during the MBA, and his idea for outfitting an unsuspecting Pricess Di with a logo inked in blue marker on a pillowcase.

Diana, Princess Of Wales, Visits A Minefield Being Cleared By The Charity Halo In Huambo, Angola, Wearing Protective Body Armor and a Logo Hastily Prepared By London Business School MBA, Paul Heslop. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)


Matt Symonds: How do you describe your day job?

Paul Heslop: I work for the UN (United Nations) inside the Department of Peace Keeping Operations with the United Nations Mine Action Service  and I’m responsible for delivering mine action programs in 17 countries and territories. My work is primarily involved in mitigation of the threat presented to civilians and UN peace keepers from explosives, unexploded bombs and land mines. We have a $250 to $300 million budget annually, I manage a team of 30 in New York, over 200 international and 600 national staff in the field, and about 15,000 people through contracts and implementing partners clearing mines and bombs every day around the world. Our main aim is to try and destroy, and remove the threat, from all the unexploded bombs, IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], and mines in countries like Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and increasingly now in Iraq. Our work is expanding there now Isis is in the process of being driven out, and we’re also keeping a strong watching brief on Syria and Yemen.

Symonds: Can you speak to the value of the MBA for your non-traditional career path?

Heslop: Very few people in the UN have MBAs, and very few have the pragmatic, business orientation you get from having an MBA. It’s allowed me to look at a number of problems in the organization, or my specialty area within the United Nations system, and bring a slightly different perspective to address improvement. I would estimate – by utilizing lessons from the MBA – we increased improvements in procurement, management processes and contract management by well over 200% in the last 10 years. I would estimate we’re now delivering what would of cost $400 million in 2005 for $200 million today, which equates to well over a billion dollars of saving to the international community. A lot of this comes from frameworks and practices I learned from the MBA at London Business School.

I use something I learned from the MBA every day. One day I’m reviewing a marketing campaign, building the UNMAS brand, the next day I am looking at a specific country strategy, the next our global strategy for the next five years, or a human resources plan, then I’m looking at our accounts or procurement plans looking at how we’re spending and reporting on over $250 million per annum of project delivery, or I am flying out to the field to consult with the managers on the ground, trying to build high performing teams across 17 different projects. Whether managing change, organizational strategy, organizational behavior, project management, negotiation, managerial accounting I’m using those skills I learned in business school every day. And, because not a lot of people in the UN have MBAs, it gave me a unique perspective that was recognized and rewarded with rapid promotion to my current position.

Symonds: What’s your advice on how to pick a business school?

Heslop: I got a place at Harvard Business School, Columbia and London Business School. And to me what defined the difference was how international they felt and how the fit was. At a lot of the US schools, the students had different passport but they had all been educated in the Unites States so it felt like a lot of the same. London felt like an “international” school. If you can get in to a top-five program that should be the biggest deciding factor. But if you get into more than one, look at fit for culture and go to where you feel most comfortable. All the schools in the top 10 are great, but go for the one that feels right and fits with you.

Symonds: So you turned down Harvard?

Heslop: I went to up to Harvard for the interview and sat in on a class… but I didn’t like the atmosphere or the way the student body interacted. When I went to London for the familiarization day, I loved how the students were interacting, the enthusiasm they brought, the alumni. I loved the experience of being interviewed by alumni and what that felt like and the enthusiasm they showed for LBS – versus at Harvard or Columbia having a formal interview with administrators in admissions.

Symonds: What advice do you have for someone going to business school to get the most out of the experience?

Heslop: Don’t sleep very much. For me, I was one of the older students, I hadn’t been in academia for 10-15 years, and being rigorous as it is, it was pretty tough when I started: Five to six subjects a week, taking into account you’re trying to learn something new, make new friends, build networks, rugby club… I found the first six months very, very, very busy. Then once you’ve gotten through that, and start to master the academics side, you realize that you don’t have to read every page, or you can spend two hours instead of five on prep for a case or class. Then you figure out your social network and start accepting help from exceptionally gifted classmates and it all becomes a little bit easier to manage.

My best advice is, you’re spending an immense amount of money, you will get out what you put in. If you put in more, you get out more, and if you don’t put in much, then you’re probably wasting your money. It’s the whole academic experience, the peer network, I learned as much from the student body and my class mates especially in case studies and my study group as I did from my professors. It one of the things I enjoyed most about London. The absolute quality of the student body. Choose a school where the culture and people there make you feel comfortable, because you don’t get to be an MBA alumni again somewhere else. “Life is not a dress rehearsal” – you definitely won’t do an MBA twice.

Symonds: What was it like to be an older candidate?

Heslop: I was 33 when I went to business school. There were a couple of people like me in my class, but not very many who could relate to the experience I had before I started the MBA program, my last field job before going to B-school was managing a project of 450 people and $11.5 million in the middle of Kosovo. Most people didn’t have that kind of experience in my class, they were on average five years younger and had maybe been managing teams of up to 10 people.

Symonds: Why did you decide to pursue an MBA?

Heslop: Back when I was in undergrad, my best friend and I both talked about MBAs, talked about the GMAT and different target schools. I was working with The HALO Trust, a British charity. I’d worked in Mozambique, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia. They sent me to New York to set up a fundraising and liaison office to the UN and US Government. At that stage, I’d been a country manager and had just about every management position in the organization, and HALO was offering to send me back to Afghanistan – but no one wants to go backwards. At the time the guy who ended up as my best man was doing an MBA in Chicago, at top of his class, he was obviously loving the MBA and doing well, which gave me more thought, he gave me great advice on how to go about the application process and make myself stand out.

Then I sat one day looking out the window of my apartment, and across the street was Fordham University with a big sign advertising its MBA program. I basically faxed them my CV on a spur of a moment whim, and about 20 minutes later they called me back and said they were interested in meeting with me. I said I was right across the street, so shortly after I was in an interview. At end of the interview, they offered me place and a potential scholarship. And I thought: If I can get a firm offer within about four hours, perhaps I should aim a little higher.

Then I started GMAT prep – a bit of a nightmare process – I’m dyslexic, so it was hard and I had not done anything academic for years. Just to round it off, 9/11 happened in New York right in the middle of my application process, HALO had thousands of employees working in Afghanistan, and I spent about every day contacting the American government and military to try and make sure HALO’s humanitarian demining teams were not being mistakenly targeted. So I was doing that in the middle of preparing GMAT and the whole business school application process.

I rang each of the schools I was planning on applying to – all top 10 schools – and told them what was going on. The school that was the most flexible by far was LBS. They said I could submit my application conditionally, though they wouldn’t give me a confirmed offer until I’d submitted my GMAT score. With all the others, they said if you don’t have GMAT score, don’t bother putting in your application. For LBS, its understanding about the professional challenges I was dealing with at the time said a lot about its culture, and I thought: this is a school I’m interested in.

Symonds: Why pursue the MBA?

Heslop: The reason I thought about doing it – I’d reached the highest level I was going to get to in the organization I was working for. I wanted a break, to reset and reflect. One option I was considering was the UN, and I thought the MBA would give me the skills I needed and probably open doors. A lot was about giving myself a fresh start and not wasting the time.

And if I was to go to UN to get professional grade post – as I have now – you have to have a Masters degree. So doing it at that time made sense. Most people in the UN have a Masters in International Affairs or Aid and Development but I thought a business degree would perhaps open more doors, make me more attractive and if the UN didn’t work out give me other opportunities outside of the UN and the Aid world. The success at Fordham gave me confidence to try for higher ranked B-schools.

Symonds: Which part of the MBA experience had the most impact on you at the time?

Heslop: It may sound a bit strange, but it was there that I realized I was dyslexic – I only found that out in business school. Before that I’d always been fairly bright but my academic results were not great. I was told I was lazy and/or stupid at school and undergrad. At LBS, everyone is incredibly bright, very dynamic, and for about 60% of students, English wasn’t even their first language. Yet I felt in my class I was holding my own, firmly in the middle – and possibly top side of the middle. And yet my results on the exams were putting me in the bottom quarter. Then someone said, ‘you might have dyslexia,’ so then I got tested and was given strategies to deal with it. It changed my performance. It was an interesting revelation at 33 years old.

Symonds: Looking back, what has been the most valuable thing you’ve gained from business school?

Heslop: Probably self-confidence. Maybe it’s strange coming from someone who’s cleared thousands of bombs and mines. Often, I’m required to give briefings to member states and committees in the UN. This can range from advising the Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council through to different General Assembly working groups and meetings. The UN is an entity, not a person, they have delegates right up at the ambassador level, who sit on these committees like weapons and arms control, treaty compliance, etc. I have to brief them on different aspects of UNMAS programs, or different projects several times a year. I brief the military advisors from member states at least twice a year on issues related to mine clearance, dealing with IED’s being used against peace keepers and how to try and reduce peace keeper casualties. I have stood there with Special Representatives of the Secretary General and Special envoys in a closed session of security council and provided background on projects ranging across Africa and the Middle East. Answering their technical questions, and trying to provide advice senior government officials for the countries most impacted by our work. Yes, it is pretty cool to realize where you are and who is asking the questions.

Annually I am on standby to defend the UNMAS budgets in peace keeping and our strategies for project delivery. A budget committee can literally come back with a question or a statement of: “We want to cut this budget by $20 million – you need defend it now!” You can have less than an hour to come back with the right response or budget is cut and thousands of lives affected.

I’m briefing the Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council next week. I’m going to talk strategy, results, make the pitch for funding and their support. I have the confidence to pull all that together and know I can do it right. I can explain, defend. I can talk strategy, I can talk numbers. My MBA is from a top five business school, I am a LBS alumni. I was pretty arrogant before a went to LBS, but I think the MBA from a top school allows me to frame an argument in a much more structured way and present it coherently, and in my mind, I have the credibility based on experience and academics to hold my own. In front of any one, or committee.

Symonds: Is it true that you guided Princess Diana on her famous trip to the minefields?

Heslop: That was me. When I as working in Angola, I got a call from my mom saying, “Princess Diana is coming to visit you”. A few minutes later I got the call at HALO HQ confirming she was coming, and we set up the visit. The night before her visit, I thought, we have to get the HALO logo out there and the obvious place was on the body armor she was going to be wearing. It was pretty obvious the images of her trip were going to be on the front pages of every newspaper in the world. At that time, it was not an industry standard for organizations to put their logo on body armor – it is now! So, first I took a sticker and stuck it on, but it kept peeling off. So then I took a blue marker, traced the logo onto my pillow case (the only white material we had) and – as I cannot sew – asked our maid to sew it onto the body armor that Princess Diana’s would wear the next day. We had the HALO logos front and center when we took her through the mine field. We achieved a media coup with the HALO logo/brand on the most famous woman in the world. That image has been used hundreds, probably thousands of times since.

The moment I remember the most is, as she was about to leave the minefield, I gave her a mine that we had defused and removed the explosives from. And as I handed it over, I joked, “For God’s sake don’t put it in Charles’s bed when you get home!” She just threw her head back and laughed. Of course the media captured it (without knowing why she was laughing) but I think it’s one of the most relaxed shots I’ve ever seen of her. It always makes me smile when I see it.

Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder and Director Matt Symonds is a frequent contributor to Forbes, BusinessWeek, The Economist, BusinessWeek, the BBC, and AméricaEconomia.

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