Ask the Expert: MBA Jobs Clinic – Sept 2014

Are you an MBA graduate looking for a job? A panel of experts answered your questions

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Welcome to the Financial Times MBA Jobs Clinic for September 2014. Are you an MBA student or graduate looking for careers advice or a job? Perhaps you wish to change careers? Or are you a recruiter wanting to learn more about the MBA job market?

Our panel of experts answered readers’ questions on the 18th of September 2014 on our MBA Blog page. Questions and answers can also be viewed on this page.

Our panel included:

Iain McLoughlin is director of career services at Esade Business School in Spain.

Mr McLoughlin worked as a career consultant at the University of London and as an assistant director of careers at the London School of Economics. Previously, he was head of experienced hire and operations at London Business School where he led a team supporting participants in the EMBA and Sloan Leadership programmes. Mr McLoughlin has a BA in economics and a diploma in careers guidance.

Vanessa Jennings is international MBA recruiter for Microsoft.

Ms Jennings is responsible for sourcing MBA talent for Microsoft. from business schools outside of North America. She works with various divisions within the company to hire graduates for finance, sales, marketing and cloud services positions across the globe. She started her career in graduate recruitment with in 2007 and has worked across finance, professional services, engineering and technology before joining Microsoft in 2012.

Tony Somers is director of the MBA Career Management Center at HEC Paris in France.

Mr Somers worked at UCD Smurfit School in Ireland, first in 2003 in a Europe-wide marketing/admissions role and, since 2005, as director of MBA career services. Before that he held similar positions at The College of William and Mary in the US and Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands. Mr Somers also worked in the corporate education field in Europe before moving to the MBA sector in 1995.

Graham Hogg is a consultant at McKinney Rogers, a global management consultancy, based in their New York office.

Following eight years as an officer in British Commando Forces, Mr Hogg now works with a broad range of clients as a business execution consultant. He has been involved in developing leaders for more than 12 years in a variety of industries and organisations such as BP the oil group, UN Peace Support Operations and Barclays Bank. He earned his MBA from Cranfield School of Management in the UK.

1:59pm

Wai Kwen: Welcome to the MBA Jobs Clinic. First question coming up:

2:00pm

Q1: What advice do you have for graduates who have been out of work for a long time? What are the best ways for young people to find work in today’s world? ~John

2:04pm

Iain: Graduates may find themselves out of work or looking for work because they don´t know what they want to do or are unsuccessful in the recruitment process.

If you are struggling to discover what your “best fit” career is, help and support is available from your university, or through reciprocal agreements with one closer to you. Talking to a career coach will help you decide which career you will find stimulating, give you goals to aim for and offer support and motivation when you need it and help you stand out over the “competition”. You have to be aware of your unique selling points and be clear on your value proposition.

Network, let people know you are seriously looking for work and make sure your online presence is a strong, professional one. LinkedIn is for professionals only so use it to your advantage. Don´t just upload your CV – pitch yourself and describe your experience and abilities. Sell yourself, whether on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Set up accounts especially for job-seeking purposes. Recruiters will look at social media, don´t say or show anything which will compromise your candidacy.

Ask friends for their impressions of you – strong and weak points and work on these before your next interview, and importantly broadcast confidence. Being out of work too long can negatively impact your confidence and energy and that becomes the main barrier to success.

Apply speculatively to companies in your preferred sector, offer to volunteer. This is a great way to increase your visibility and show a recruiter you have been gainfully employed.

Register on appropriate job boards but don’t over-rely on them.

Finally, it may not be too late for you to attend graduate recruitment fairs and congresses. They are often in the large cities such as London, New York and Berlin etc. Many of the recruiters who are looking to hire graduates will be there and be there to network.

2:09pm

Tony: I will answer only the first part:

What advice do you have for graduates who have been out of work for a long time?

While the question is addressed to graduates, I would like to extend my answer to ‘professionals’.

People can find themselves out of the workforce for an extended period for a variety of reasons.

The first question that needs to be addressed is:

Is it merely a question of already having the required skills and wanting to get back into the workforce, or whether the skillset itself needs to be enhanced or developed?

If it is the former then the question of ‘getting back into the workforce’ involves resurrecting dormant contacts and re-energising your database of current and potential future contacts through intelligent use of your networks, both physical and virtual.

If you are unfamiliar with the power of social media in the job search process (which may be the case if you have been out of the workforce for some time) then consult a guide such as The Two-Hour Job Search to help get you started. You should also consider investing in the services of a career coach.

The next issue is to address your ‘calling card’, namely the CV. Here you should seriously consider using the functional or skills-based format. In contrast to the normal layout for a CV – (reverse) chronological order – the functional format stresses the importance of what you did rather than when or where you did it.

Your qualifications are grouped into skills-based categories, for example marketing, finance or research, and these categories relate directly to the position for which you are applying. In other words, the functional-based format focuses on professional skills, rather than when, where and how you acquired them; it de-emphasises dates, titles and employers.

The skills-based formula offers tremendous flexibility. It enables you to tailor your qualifications precisely to the needs of the employer. It is a particularly good choice for those who have limited, irrelevant, or spotty work histories because it can gloss over gaps and lack of direct experience. Incidentally, it is also a good choice for the job-seeker who has held several similar positions over the course of a career, and performed the same responsibilities repeatedly.

2:12pm

Vanessa: Most universities still give you access to your careers services after you have graduated. We work really closely in partnership with careers services to ensure all our roles are available to students and alumni – they can give you really great advice.

If you have already graduated and are still finding it tough – look at contract and contingent roles. A non-permanent contract role with a great company is a fantastic way to build your experience and try out a new role whilst building skills within the industry you are passionate about.

2:14pm

Graham: Its not too uncommon in the current economic environment for graduates to have been out of work for an extended period. What’s important is to be able to demonstrate that you have made best use of this time towards your development. Reading, joining societies or groups (that are linked to your areas of interest) and perhaps some pro bono work. Sports and clubs are also important to keep your social skills up to scratch.

Also, stay on top of your game! Make sure that alarm clock goes off at a “reasonable” time, continue to exercise and avoid daytime TV. If you have a partner or friend who you live with and whom are working, try leaving the house with them and walking them to the station or something – getting out of the house before 09:00 is a good start!

In terms of finding work, once you have identified what you want to do then it’s a numbers game. Call, email and talk to as many people as you can. I think a reasonable number is at least 6 a day through one of these means. Don’t try and boil the ocean in one email; offer to go for a coffee, beer or run with that contact.

We are all human and interaction (face-to-face) is so important. I got my first job after offering to go for a run with my boss – we didn’t go, but he liked my offer (good job as he was a super fit athlete).

2:14pm

Wai Kwen: Great, question 2 coming up!

2:15pm

Q2: I am a macroeconomic market strategist for a research firm. I am looking to move into the hedge fund or asset management space as a portfolio manager. I have a first class honours degree in economics and finance. What postgraduate degree would you recommend next? Is a top-class MBA a worthwhile addition to a CV if one wants to be a portfolio manager. Or would it be best to further my education in economics by say gaining an MSc in economics.

2:18pm

Iain: I would say it depends. Portfolio managers at hedge funds very often have been promoted internally, but if you are looking to enter this industry from outside at a later stage in your career, it is important to focus on the skills needed to be successful in the field. What makes for a good portfolio manager? What skills do you already possess and can build on? Are you a passionate investor yourself?

Both alternatives can be valid and effective. An MSc in economics or a Masters in finance would focus more on the analytical part of the job. An MBA would emphasise the managerial aspects and would also give you more versatility (useful if you consider other career paths). In any case, if your priority is to move into asset management/ hedge funds, you should definitely go for a top-class business school with strong exposure to financial markets.

2:20pm

Q3: How do I tackle this interview question – please tell us about your future plans? What should one not say? ~Adeel, India

2:22pm

Iain: It very much depends on the role you are interviewing for, but most of the time employers are looking at hiring talent for a longer period of time, so future plans that you discuss should at the very least include how the role you are applying for would be instrumental in reaching your ultimate objectives, and therefore it would speak of your motivation for the company and the role; hugely important in a selection process.

Don’t be tempted to say anything which will be negatively received, for example that you intend to stay here for a couple of years, and then return to a family business, or to return to your studies or go travelling.

If you are a senior candidate, with an MBA for example, future plans can be bold but should strike a balance between modesty, eagerness and reality e.g. wanting to become the CEO of the multinational you are applying to within the next 5 years!

You are looking to have a managerial responsibility over a team of employees and a budget responsibility of €xyz within the next 5 years is a good answer.

2:24pm

Tony: This is a variant on the “where do you see yourself in five years’ time” question.

Although, it is difficult to predict things far into the future, the employer will want to hire somebody with drive and a sense of purpose. They will also want to know they can depend on you, and figure out if they can offer what you really want. Avoid choosing specific job titles you aspire to, instead mention skills and responsibilities you would like to take on. Remember to always tie your answers back to the specific role you are there for and tie it into the company as much as possible.

In terms of “what should one not say”, in general one should avoid answering in any way that gives the impression that the organisation at which you are interviewing is just the next step in your personal career path, even though this is probably the reality.

This is why good preparation is important, and this starts with writing a CV that is achievement-oriented. This will keep you on message and ensure that you ‘tell stories’ about yourself (using recognised formulae such as STAR – situation/ task/ action/ result) which the interviewer will remember and will be able to refer to when he/ she decides whom to hire.

2:26pm

Vanessa: Be honest. It’s important that your future goals align with the company and job you are interviewing for. At Microsoft, we want to hear from students who are passionate about enabling people to use technology to reach their full potential.

As long as you are excited about technology there is no wrong answer – whether you see your future through our company, partners or even your own start-up. Your career with Microsoft can be long – we want to make sure you are open to all the opportunities we have, not just the role you are interviewing for.

2:27pm

Q4: I’m looking for a job as a technology or digital product manager, but in my spare time I’m helping a friend run a graphic design business. I built his website and I’ve enjoyed doing this as it helps keep my web development knowledge up to date (I used to be a web programmer). Should I mention this business to prospective employers? I was advised that it may make me sound not so committed as employers my view this as a distraction.

2:28pm

Tony: I would definitely mention this. Firstly, because it shows you are passionate about the sector and secondly many firms value this “internal entrepreneur” spirit.

The top tech firms such as Google actively encourage this mindset, in fact having examples of this in your CV improves rather than diminishes your chances of being selected.

2:29pm

Iain: The answer is definitely yes – mention it – as it shows your motivation for the industry, company, role and shows that you are also willing to keep up with the technology and even getting some managerial experience by helping your friend run his company.

But you might want to let the prospective company know that this is a temporary job and that you realise the commitment which a full-time position would require.

2:32pm

Vanessa: From my perspective I would talk about the project to show your skills and passion for the technology industry. If you are looking to move industries, any projects that can showcase your transferable skills either inside or outside of work should help your application.

2:34pm

Graham: I think this is a great story and it’s really important to demonstrate such qualities to a potential employer. The fact that you have done this work in your own time shows that you have a passion for the subject – if you enjoy what you do then you’ll go the extra mile and bring so much more innovation and thinking to the table. All employers want this today – much better than quoting something out of an old text book!

In terms of how much of a distraction this could be then just be honest. It could be interpreted in a different way but I stand by my point above. Be prepared to answer questions about it such as:

- What did you learn from the project?

- How could this benefit XYZ company (us) – for example, web development knowledge etc?

Any smart employer will recognise that talent in the marketplace does not want to “fall into rank” when they join a business. People want a degree of autonomy (within boundaries) to express themselves. This is a healthy DNA of any organisation.

2:35pm

Q5: I have heard that unless you wish to enter banking or consultancy (I don’t), then there is little point studying for an MBA. Is this really the case?

2:37pm

Graham: I strongly disagree with this. We had such a broad range of next steps from my MBA cohort at Cranfield School of Management.

Admittedly, a lot wanted to go into consultancy as business schools traditionally have supported this through their careers strategies (although I think as professional services change towards a more adaptive mindset so too will business schools) and I think this is a sound move for some, but I had friends go into start-ups, public sector, general management, media, defence and to all corners of the globe.

My MBA gave me such a broad understanding of what is out there in business that at the end I struggled to pick one – this is the exciting part! The BEST thing about this is when you all get back together for a beer over the years and hear such exciting stories.

2:46pm

Iain: The MBA market has changed significantly in recent years. We see many companies in many industries which previously didn’t recruit MBAs (such as fashion, design and innovation) and are directly hiring. We also see people coming from family businesses and creating their own companies.

Of course, someone who is not interested in finance or consulting should also target a programme which has industry contacts.

On the other hand, the hiring will always depend on the individual – their background in addition to the skills attained in the MBA (soft and hard skills). In addition to acquiring hard skills (finance, strategy, marketing, operations), other advantages to doing an MBA include being exposed to situations in which you develop your leadership skills, develop your international mindset through the diversity found in the classroom. Other situations include the chance to practise relevant skills in a safe environment, refresh your knowledge, change directions, build your network, take some time to reflect on what you have done and how you can capitalise on your previous experience.

Even to get to know yourself better through the personal development exercises offered in MBA programmes is an advantage.

2:56pm

Tony: I would very much disagree with this statement. Let’s deal first with banking. The ongoing effects of the financial crisis has radically altered the financial services landscape with the result that “traditional” investment banking jobs are both scarcer and less lucrative.

This means that MBAs looking to get into banking are exploring other options, whether in other functions within investment banking, or choosing finance roles in the corporate sector. This widening of options has meant that finance rather than a narrow definition of (investment) banking has become the post-MBAs career buzzword. This also fits more comfortably with the skillset that MBAs acquire during their studies, as many of these ‘new’ roles highlight leadership and management skills.

On the consulting side, we have seen a growth in “internal” consulting roles in companies which, in addition to being as lucrative as remuneration packages in the consulting firms, also emphasise a broader range of skills than simply case-cracking and client engagement/ management. As an internal consultant, you have to drive the process through and you get to see the results, therefore leading people to achieve that result is paramount.

The point I am trying to make is that even within the traditional “top choices” of MBA students (banking and consulting), the landscape is changing. The definitions that were once valid have shifted, that these roles now require more of the skillset typically seen in general management, in other words, the suite of skills that a student learns when on an MBA.

2:59pm

Vanessa: There is an advantage to studying for an MBA. I’m an MBA recruiter in the technology industry and we have 300 MBA full-time openings worldwide this year. Competition for MBA talent to enter the technology industry is fierce with our large scale competitors and starts-ups all vying for MBA graduates to join their companies in 2014 and beyond.

2:59pm

Q6: My company sponsored my MBA, but now that I am back in the office, I am pretty much in the same role as the one before I went to business school. How can I convince my boss that I am up to a more senior role?

3:02pm

Tony: This can happen and is particularly common among those who are following a part-time programme. Students on these programmes spend time studying with their peers from other companies and, not only do they have the intellectual stimulation of following the MBA, they also gain exposure to other ways of tackling an issue that perhaps concerns them.

If they are then frustrated in their efforts to resolve this issue or to improve how things work in their place of work generally, and if this leads to a general feeling of blockage regarding their career, it can become very problematic.

In my view, you need to face this problem as you would in any negotiation and frame it in a way which makes your boss and others see that your talents are being under-utilised and that the skills you have learned can be applied for the benefit of the company as a whole. Show concrete examples of how you might do this and get him/ her to agree to a timeline for a change or promotion, if he or she can do anything right away. If not, you may need to consider a change.

3:04pm

Iain: There are several ways you can approach this challenge.

Talk to your boss or mentor; he or she may not fully understand exactly what an MBA is and how your contribution to the company may change now that you have acquired new skills. Show the value you are now able to add – here are some suggestions below.

  • Propose a project using your new skills when you have evaluated the benefit to the company.
  • If you are in a position in which you can network internally, you can make yourself visible with other departments and managers who may provide new challenging positions.
  • Check to see if there are any international postings in the company which may be open to you with the MBA.
  • Network with other MBAs in the company to find out if they can support you (advise or mentor you).

3:04pm

Wai Kwen: Last question coming up.

3:05pm

Q7: Does a two-year MBA hold more cachet with employers than a one-year one?

3:06pm

Iain: This may be a cultural perception. Companies tend to focus on validating your competencies rather than the length of the programme. For career switchers, a longer programme may give you credibility as well as experience in a new sector/ industry (via an internship), and companies may be looking for this. This would be especially important for triple switchers – sector, industry, geography.

On the other hand, if you want to accelerate your career but you are concerned about the opportunity cost or have extensive experience, then a one-year MBA may be an ideal fit for you.

3:07pm

Vanessa: I would say that we hold both in equal standing – we recruit heavily from both one- and two-year programmes. We assess all MBA hires on a combination of their MBA and pre-MBA work experience and then find the right role for the individual.

3:12pm

Tony: If you gain an MBA from an accredited and well-ranked programme you will have sufficient cachet with employers, whether that degree is one or two years. The crucial question to ask is “which one is best for me?”

Generally speaking, the more you wish to change in terms of your career, the more time you will need on your MBA to do this. One-year programmes allow for a relatively short period away from the workplace, with lower opportunity costs, while two-year programmes allow you to properly explore your target post-MBA career as well as crucially gaining some experience through an internship or other project-based options.

At HEC Paris, we offer a 16-month option which we believe combines the best of both – the September intake is structured so that students can avail of (summer) internship options, while our January intake offers two options – a return to the workplace after 12 months or the option of an internship during the final part of the degree.

3:15pm

Wai Kwen: The MBA Jobs Clinic has come to a close. Many thanks to the panel for their advice today – I hope you all enjoyed the session.

To read the latest features on the MBA job market and careers advice, take a look at our MBA Careers hub at http://www.ft.com/mba-careers.

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