Now that I'm on the other side of the application process my friends (and total strangers too) who are targeting Fall 2012 applications often ask me for advice on all things b-school. I received a ton of support, encouragement, and words of wisdom when I was applying so I think it's only fair that I take everything that I learned and pay it forward to this year's applicants. It's July now, so by this time last year I was past the GMAT (yet contemplating a retake), waiting for updated essay questions, and fretting about recommendations. I knew that asking for recommendations sooner was better than asking later. I had already asked my former indirect manager, but I held off broaching the subject to my direct manager. It turns out all of that trepidation was for naught. She was happy to do it and even encouraged me to go all out in my pursuit of a full-time program.
I think that when it comes to asking for recommendations people often focus on two camps: 1)100% company/manager support and 2) breathe the letters MBA and sayonara. I would like to offer up a third category. I was nervous about asking my direct manager for a recommendation, not because an MBA is taboo (my company offers tuition reimbursement and even pays for a prep class and one test fee), but because within my function the MBA is deemed nice but not necessary so the norm was to enroll in a part-time program. Unlike in other departments where there is a full-time MBA sponsorship option, in my division openly applying to full-time programs is seen as a definitive statement that an employee no longer wants to be there. While that may be true, it doesn't necessarily mean that a person wants to be out the door immediately.
My trepidation in asking my direct manager for a recommendation did not stem from worries about job security. Instead I recognized that I was targeting very selective programs and that there was no guarantee I would be admitted. Although I was definitely ready be out of there, I didn't want to be shut out from present opportunities in favor of a future possibility that may not happen. It was only July 2011 and even if I was admitted I wouldn't be enrolling for at least another 12 months, if at all. I didn't want to wake up today without any admits or career progress.
For applicants applying this year who are in a similar position to where I was, your concerns are 100% valid. However, I would not forgo asking your direct supervisor for a letter of recommendation. Yes, people get into great schools all the time without a recommendation from their boss. But when push comes to shove admissions committees prefer to hear from your manager. You simply have to be strategic about asking for the recommendation to prevent cutting off your nose to spite your face.
If your company offers any type of tuition reimbursement, GMAT/GRE prep courses, and/or is populated by people with an MBA then the degree itself is not taboo. You simply need to find a way to put it on the table for your career in an unassuming way. Here are some tips:
1) If your company does yearly employee development planning include the possibility of an MBA or business classes as one of your long term goals. I would put it at the bottom of the priority list and tie the need for it to your career progression at your current employer. For example, "I want to improve my general management skills so in 2-3 years I will explore taking business classes to increase my cross-functional awareness." What a throwaway line like this does is put the idea of using education as a development tool into the conversation...at least for a later date.
2) Take advantage of any GMAT assistance your employer offers. Often times to either participate in a free company sponsored GMAT class or to have them reimburse you for an outside course you need your manager's approval. Since GMAT scores are good for five years it is easy to position it as something you want to get out of the way and have in your back pocket. If your company is already offering the benefit then it's not a big deal for you to use it.
By doing these two things you have at least put the MBA on your manager's radar as a low flying blip. When you broach the subject to ask for a recommendation 2-3 months later it won't be coming out of nowhere. You can bring up the full-time option as just that, an option. Even if you have your heart set on attending full-time keep part-time programs in the mix with your boss. You're already worried that you won't get in anywhere so channel that with your boss. You wouldn't be lying if you told him/her that full-time programs are very competitive and there's a good chance you won't get in. In my case I presented it as something I just wanted to try so I wouldn't regret not trying. This presents the full-time MBA as a long shot that likely will not happen, thus mitigating your manager's potential assumption that you have one foot out the door. Ask for his/her support as a recommender but also make it clear that you are 100% invested in your current employer (helps to show this in your performance too). You can even ask that your plans be kept confidential since there is no guarantee that you'll be leaving. Also, offer to make their job easy by providing them with everything they will need to write thorough recommendations (without writing the recs for them....that's a no no).
They say a closed mouth don't get fed. I understand why someone would rather avoid asking their direct supervisor for a recommendation rather than risk being kept in a career holding pattern for a year or more. However, it's to your advantage to at least test the waters. Your boss may be totally unsupportive or they could totally surprise you and give their blessing (like mine did for me), but you won't know for sure unless you ask.