A stepping stone to the future

The summer after my MBA year at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge crept by and I was a week from September, without a job. With a healthy touch of desperation, I sat opposite one of my favourite professors from the business school, explaining the dilemma I was facing.

“No one’s buying the idea that because I have a media background I can do strategy for a media company.” The advice I got back was practical but not encouraging. “Why don’t you go into corporate communications? They don’t become chief executives, but if you work hard and make the right network you’ll eventually move over to strategy or marketing.”

This echoed most people I spoke to. My classmates, advisers, alumni and career service all sang the same tune: a mix of the “it’s a tough economy” and a “push for the natural pigeonhole”.

While there is a belief that an MBA can open any door in business, the reality is that making a real career shift is hard, if for example, you’re a lawyer who wants to become a trader, a journalist who wants to become a strategist or a human resources professional interested in private wealth management. While we all know the economic challenges we face, there are other hurdles such as your age, past work experience, ability to demonstrate quantitative skills etc. Do not listen to the people who tell you that your Graduate Management Admission Test score or your grades in your MBA don’t matter, if you want to make real career shift, any tangible proof that you’re a safe hiring bet is helpful.

That autumn I faced a choice, go the easy route and become a public relations professional or stick it out and try to do what I had set out to do by going to business school. I made a plan giving myself nine months to make the change. Figuring that the economy was better in the US and employers there were more flexible, I packed my bags, headed home and couch surfed from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York. Six months later I ended up as the director of business development for a small but rapidly growing media group, managing a national digital distribution network.

In the end, I believe that an MBA is a tenuous stepping stone to get you where you want to go. If you rely on just your degree to open doors or just the career services at the school you chose, your choices will be limited. To make a truly great career leap, you have to be persistent and thoughtful about how you plan to get that great job.

1. Budget both time and money: how willing and able are you to hold out for the right job? The classmates I know who waited and searched are the ones who found positions they are truly happy with. I had not budgeted enough to take an unpaid internship the summer after business school but I saved money from my paid position to fly to Silicon Valley for three months where I worked as an intern and networked for the right position. Time and money are luxuries but if you can find a way to budget for them, you’ll find the search for that great first job much easier.

2. Get a bullhorn: when I returned from business school, I e-mailed approximately 100 people to tell them I was looking for a job. Old classmates from college and high school, family and friends, co-workers, professors ... you name it. The biggest help came from the daughter of a man who works for my father, who studied for her MBA 10 years ago. You never know when or where that lucky break will come from, so grab a bullhorn and tell the world you need one.

3. Own your story: if your resumé/CV does not explain why you want to be a derivatives trader after being a gourmet chef, then you need to fill in the gaps in your cover letter or during an in-person interview. The chief executive of my company recently told me that when he received my resumé for the final round of interviews, he didn’t want to waste his time. Some gentle nudging from my current boss made him take the call, where I proceeded to sell myself and the reasons why I wanted to work at his company. I produced copies of work I’d done in business school and for my internships. I even showed him some of my grades. It’s the idea of mixing passion with pragmatism. It took me months to build a narrative that was compelling enough to start nailing cover letters for job applications and subsequent interviews. Spending time on “why you should hire me” is one of the best things you can do.

4. Set daily goals: inertia is a scary thing when you’re unemployed. I cringe when I think about the hours I whiled away on Facebook and “reading up” on Techcrunch. After a month or so of nothing really happening with my search, I set a daily goal of applying to 10 jobs and contacting five people and it brought results. The sheer effort behind contacting people, looking for jobs and working day after day on cover letters and résumés for different positions makes you more focused, refines your narrative and gets your name out there. Within two weeks I had recruiters looking at my LinkedIn profile and within three I started to get job interviews even for totally cold applications.

5. Make cold calls and send e-mails: afraid of cold calls, taking up people’s time or wondering if they will bother to talk to you? My advice is to get over it. I have come to see job hunting as the greatest act of self-aggrandisement and door-to-door salesmanship in our modern era. I contacted people I read about in trade publications and some chief executives of these companies did write back. One even referred me to a colleague at a leading media company. People do respond to cold calls. It’s a tiny percentage but then you only need one great job. Don’t be afraid of reaching out cold. I did and it gave me the position I have today.

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