Back to the future

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Two months from the end of my MBA, a frightening feeling of “back-to-reality” is beginning to set in, and I am wondering whether it has all been worth it. The global economy and the job market are the worst they have been in years, my bank account is nearly empty, and I feel like I need to sleep for a month before I feel rested again.

Of course, not all is dire. The fifth and final term of the year has started, and it is wonderful to see the friends who left for two terms on the Singapore campus at the end of 2007, now that they are back to enjoy the last term in Fontainebleau. The warm weather has finally arrived after a dreary French winter, and we can once again enjoy warm sun on our faces on the lawns of Insead’s beautiful campus near the famed forest where many a French king once hunted.

Sitting outside with friends on a sunny May day is the best – and cheapest – way to burn away the mist of worry hanging over many of us as we wonder where we will end up and whether we will be able to find work when thousands seem to be losing jobs in the financial and business capitals of the western world.

Frankly, the season for on-campus recruitment activities, which is drawing to an end, has been a very difficult one for me, and many of my fellow MBA participants. There was a whirlwind of presentations by a myriad of companies, each followed by cocktails or dinner, in a nook of the Insead cafeteria, a restaurant in town, or sometimes a grand hall of the Fontainebleau castle.

While I enjoy cocktail parties as much as the next person, the relentless charm offensive by recruiters telling similar stories is draining, particularly as it is compressed into the same busy schedule of classes and coursework as usual, and we also need to make time for writing applications.

Then there is the bait-and-switch – as much as the company presentations appear designed to convince students that opportunities are limitless and that corporate culture is all about finding the right people and giving them a chance to grow, when the applications are in and interviews start, the message sometimes changes.

On the occasions when applications are not rejected outright, interviewers occasionally seem to think that their role is to make applicants feel stupid, inadequate, or incompetent in order to screen them out.

This is by no means a general approach, but I and many others have experienced it often enough that it bears mentioning as a fairly widespread practice.

This may be a test of the applicant’s mettle, and clearly it is necessary to select those students who are able to handle the pressure inherent in working for many of the firms that recruit on campus, but it is a rude awakening for many students who had imagined a charmed life full of possibility earlier in the programme.

I cannot help but wonder why recruiters forget to treat potential employees with respect after the effort expended to convince candidates to apply for jobs at their companies.

After all, isn’t spending €50,000 ($77,386) plus living expenses and opportunity cost a sign of motivation? Do people who have been accepted into one of the world’s most selective business schools really need to be tested for their ability to do mental arithmetic? Do we really need to be told that we have great leadership potential but that what really matters is that we could not do long division with pen and paper fast enough?

Fortunately, other recruiters take a different approach – one that seems to me to be superior when dealing with such a talented and technically-skilled pool of people as Insead students. They evaluate leadership potential, fit with the company culture and strategic objectives, and actually make an effort to get to know the human being who is sitting in front of them.

This does not mean that they have to be any less selective in finding the right person for the company they represent, but it seems to me a more useful way to actually identify candidates with whom the mutual fit is strong and who may be with the company for years to come.

As someone with a very non-traditional profile (economics undergraduate, 10 years working as an economist and policy adviser for Canada’s foreign ministry), I knew that it might be challenging for me to make the transition to a private sector job.

Perhaps I underestimated the challenge – I think my age (36), may be putting me at a disadvantage in two ways. First, I am less inclined to apply to dozens of jobs hoping one will work out, since I have clear ideas about what I want and do not want. Second, I am less inclined to say what people want to hear in an interview because I have come to realise who I am and who am not.

I believe that only if I present myself positively but truthfully will I find the job which is right for me, as opposed to being hired for presenting a false image of what makes me tick.

Fortunately, I am glad to report that despite the challenges, many of my friends are starting to get good job offers, and after the gloom of April, the sun is once again shining down on the campus.

But, like many of the slightly older participants at Insead, I am unlikely to find work through the official on-campus channels that are so well organised by the school’s career services, or via formal recruiting programmes at major firms, consultancies, or banks, aimed at a younger demographic.

I am confident, however, that a conscious search for those back doors that are open and welcoming will, in the end, allow me to find the right opportunity.

Until then, I will keep enjoying simple pleasures – such as the spring sun – until I can count on a regular pay packet again.

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