Business schools help alumni over career bumps

Coaching is offered to former students who hit problems or want to make a change
Starting afresh: Katherine Armstrong used London Business School’s career services more than 20 years after her MBA © Michael LoBiondo

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Business school is for the most part portrayed as a route to a stellar career and increased earnings. But with working lives becoming longer and less predictable, alumni departments realise that they need to provide support and advice when former students hit bumps further down the road.

“In June 2008, we sent 24 students off to Lehman Brothers,” recalls Stacey Kole, deputy dean of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. It was the largest group of the school’s MBAs recruited into any one bank that year. “Then came September and the news [of the bankruptcy] hit — the day after their training programme had ended.”

Stacey and her colleague Julie Morton, associate dean of career services, got on a plane to New York to meet the young people, who had suddenly found themselves unemployed, then emailed the rest of their graduation class and the year above asking for help. “We said, ‘these are some of the most talented people in your class, let’s get them jobs!’” says Kole. “That was a crisis moment.”

Most of the group were transferred to the banks who took over Lehman departments after it was broken up, but they and the eight MBAs who left also made use of leads from the school — some relocated, others went to work in start-ups where the founder was a Chicago Booth contact.

Now, whenever a large corporate restructuring is in the news, or there are reports of mergers and acquisitions, Kole and Morton pick up the phone: “We say ‘you may be fine but we’re here just in case you want to avail yourselves of our support’.”

Helping hand: Stacey Kole of Booth offers alumni support during crises such as the Lehman Brothers collapse (below) © Getty

Sometimes, the alumni are looking for help with a job search that is going almost too well. “We get tons of people with lots of different options, and they want help to evaluate them,” says Kole.

But business schools also say they see growing demand from alumni who find themselves out of work later in their careers. At Chicago Booth, the response includes lifelong unlimited career coaching, available in London and Hong Kong as well as in Chicago, practical help with job search preparation and support from a team who research global job vacancies. “They are mostly helping recent graduates but also look at very senior jobs that demand 20 years’ experience,” says Kole.

Ana Herranz, director of alumni career services at IE business school in Madrid, which has a corporate alliance with the FT, noticed a couple of years ago that there was little career support for older, more senior alumni. “These people were very successful but things had happened to them — companies downsizing or mergers and acquisitions. If there is a merger, your own performance is not so relevant because you become just a number on an Excel [spreadsheet]”.

So Herranz designed a course of 20 hours over 10 weeks to address their difficulties in getting back into employment. “If you suffer this dramatic reversal in your life after a very successful career, it is traumatic. I saw that these people were really lost in terms of how to approach their job search,” she says.

Working on a positive mindset occupied some of the first sessions of her course. She emphasises practical exercises to list or talk about career achievements — this can help boost confidence. “You have done great things so you will be able to cope,” she says.

This reflection then has to be honed into a commercial pitch. “We need to think of ourselves as service providers and explain what service we provide,” says Herranz.

Sessions with other IE alumni who had successfully reinvented themselves, as well as with a headhunter to explain the modern recruitment market, also helped Herranz’s group of senior alumni. Crucially there was advice on sales and negotiation techniques from a professor at the school. “For someone of 50 years old, we need to be realistic,” argues Herranz. “It may not be that easy to get back into the corporate track again but you could set up as a consultant — then you need customers. Selling is very difficult if you have been a CEO, for example.”

Some of the career challenges faced by high-flying business school alumni are more subtle, however, and not everyone wants to move from corporate life to self-employment.

Katherine Armstrong, now 51, used the career support services at London Business School last year to make a transition in the other direction. An expert in corporate communications and change management, she obtained her MBA from LBS in 1994, went to work for Johnson & Johnson and then ran her own consultancy in the US for nearly two decades, before going in-house with a client in London in 2015.

She enjoyed it, but was unable to stay because her husband could not transfer to the UK. The couple chose to return home together, but going back to consulting felt wrong: “I missed that sense of belonging, being part of a team.”

After eight months between jobs, she found another senior position at Sealed Air Corporation, a Fortune 500 company in Charlotte, North Carolina, with help from Lynne Allen, who coaches alumni from both LBS and Cornell Johnson.

“She knew better than I did what I needed,” says Armstrong. “It took one of the sessions to process what had happened. You have to get through some of that to be top-notch in your job search.” Alongside help with “honing the message”, personal branding and social media, Allen gave her a structured approach to networking so that she could research industries and business trends.

“If you haven’t looked for a job for 20 years, it’s not easy,” says Armstrong. But after working with Allen, she found her job search transformed: “It was like night and day.”

Falling off the corporate ladder

Professional coaches who work with derailed high-flyers say it can be hard to find a similar job at the same level, so being flexible is essential.

“You need to have not only plan B but also C and D too,” advises Ana Herranz at IE business school in Madrid.

People business: IE’s Ana Herranz advocates networking as the best way for finding new work

Lynne Allen, who coaches London Business School and Cornell Johnson alumni in the US, says: “A lot of people in their 50s are really not interested anymore in scrabbling up to the top of the corporate ladder.”

She warns against trying to jump back on where you fell — or were pushed — off: “Where people have failed, is where they just want their old job and old life back.”

Both experts agree that the most important technique for finding new work is networking. Online application processes are overloaded, and, argues Allen, senior jobs are often not advertised, while headhunters do not target those out of work: “The majority will get hired by having conversations.”

Herranz adds that networking is the best way to get information about target companies and sector and to be on the radar for hiring when jobs come up: “Opportunities will come from contact with people.”

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