Tag Archives | careers

How Focused Do I Have to Be In My Career Goals?

Over at Wall Street Oasis, I’ve been running a Q&A forum, answering all kinds of questions from specific application tips, to queries about career goals. Yesterday, I received and answered a question on career focus that seems pretty typical, so I thought I would repost it here.

Q: I am going to business school in order to alter my career path, and believe I want to end up in the financial services/investment management GettyImages_91805592industry. However, I am not 100% committed, and intend to explore other possible industries/roles. Is it okay to admit that I have not planned out my exact post-MBA path in the essays?  Thanks!

A:  Let me tell you that you are thinking about it exactly the right way. It helps a lot when you are writing applications to be able to envision a future in a specific career. It helps you wrap your brain around the idea of what you want to be when you grow up, or even what you want to do REALLY. Harvard used to have a question, long since discarded, about your “career vision” and I like that.

The reality is that careers are fluid, and every business school worth its ranking in the top 10 will tell you that students change their minds about careers all the time. That’s because you are bumping into such great new ideas about yourself and about what’s out there that it’s impossible to march forward as if you had blinders on. In fact, a business school would be doing itself a disservice if it encouraged you to stick with the plan.

The other thing is that industries and functions change all the time. If you like financial services because that’s been your background, great, but we all know that it’s very fluid — remember the job market in 2009? But it’s also somewhat flexible. You could change functions within the industry, or use your financial skills in another industry, or you could go abroad, or you could invent something new. Or you could work for someone who invented something new (Sofi.com?). Who really knows.

So see if you can imagine a path, and if it isn’t the one that works out, that’s ok. They don’t audit you. Promise.

Q: Should I believe you on the audit part?

A: OK, some schools do compare going-in goals with actual jobs landed (see the charts in these slides from Wharton)

But they don’t take your diploma away, if that’s what you are worried about.  In all honestly, there are too many variables, including macro ones, that will influence your career choice upon graduation. Also, some might choose a career in consulting, say, in the short term, to get to somewhere else in the long term — there are many variables. You just don’t want to look clueless going in, at least on the surface.

Aiming for a Business Career: A How-To for College Students and Recent Grads

800px-DevizesbowmenMy day job is helping people get into the business schools in the world, and most of my paying clients are a few months away from filling out their applications. In most cases, I wish I had met them years earlier. That’s because young professionals-to-be could have taken advantage of opportunities that make it just plain easier to jump into a great enterprise after graduating.

Solid skills, leadership potential, global awareness
The MBA is not a requirement for a business career. And I don’t recommend that people set their sights on it simply because it’s another hoop to jump through.  But some of the things that admissions officers are looking for are some of the same things that recruiters are looking for, which are the same things that your hiring manager and teammate wants from you:  a combination of solid skills, leadership potential, and global awareness.

Harvard Business School presents essentially the same three attributes as its admissions criteria. And if you know up front that’s what everyone is looking for, you have a good chance to work on them now.

Skills=quantitative ability
I’m leading with the math stuff because many exciting post-college jobs need you to crunch numbers and use excel.  It may not be inspiring work right away, but businesses make decisions on analytics, and if you can figure your way around basic math and logic problems, you will add value to your team.  Look at the job description for the analyst position at any of the consulting or investment firms, and you’ll see they are looking for candidates with strong analytic (=math/quant skills).

If you are thinking of going a less formal route, but are still considering business or professional graduate school, you should take one math course now and nail it. If calculus scares you, take business statistics (not social science stats). It’s incredibly relevant; I’ve used the tools of probability and regression time and time again in my own finance career, and never had to calculate the area under a curve.

Finally, grades matter. People talk all about the GPA, but the quality of the school, the challenge of courses and the trend are more important. Everyone forgives a weak freshman year if you turn it around by your junior year and really focus.

Patterns of leadership
Harvard Business School calls it a “habit of leadership,” There are thousands of definitions of leadership, and it doesn’t mean you have to be president of the student body or be the next Mark Zuckerberg. You should be actively involved in a select number of activities during college. Investment firms like athletes, not just because of the competition, but sports requires working hard, discipline and being part of a team.  Sports show opportunities for leadership, not just for the captain, but through collaboration and helping teammates do better.

You can also start your own a club or lead an initiative. One student I worked with from Vassar (my undergrad alma mater) started two different clubs – snowboarding, electronic music, and now is spearheading an entrepreneurial effort within the alumni community.

Emerging leadership shows in the words of a student newspaper editorial or production of a college comedy troupe. You can find leadership in teaching – especially if it means getting up in front of a room, encouraging a discussion, motivating others, giving and receiving feedback.  The college campus is filled with opportunities to spread your wings and make something happen.  That’s how leaders begin.

Go Global
I once asked Derrick Bolton, head of admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, if having overseas experience was a “check the box” requirement to get admitted. He demurred, but did say that he would encourage college students to become fluent in another language. MBA programs are training global leaders.  Look at the single essay University of Virginia’s Darden School requires of applicants:

Share your perspective on leadership in the workplace and describe how it has been shaped by the increasing influence of globalization.

For those of you who are already bi-lingual or bi-cultural, you have a leg up on the competition. It’s no secret that business is global; it could mean living abroad or it could mean working in an international virtual team.  This cross-border outlook is essential for those who want to be leaders in business or social enterprises. Having worked in Asia for 10 years, I personally believe that a cross-cultural experience should be a requirement for tomorrow’s business leaders.

Take a breath
You don’t have to race toward your career goal by doing everything perfectly, or even in a straight line. Take advantage of all the opportunities you have now.

Aim high. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Your Questions Answered: VC the right path to MBA?

I get lots of questions from students who are thinking about an MBA, and people wonder what is the “right” path to get there. In truth, there are many paths, but here’s a case of a student who already had one option, and is wondering about another.

Q: I have an offer to work at a small early stage venture capital firm straight from undergrad. I am interested in working in VC long term and see this as a good opportunity to do so early on. I also want to go to business school in a few years. I was wondering whether this experience at the unknown VC or if having experience in a more well known IB/Consulting shop then possibly transitioning to VC is better positioning for business school.

A: Congratulations on the offer to work for an early-stage VC firm! You are lucky, not that many students get this opportunity, as you well know.

I sometimes tell people not to over-think the universe. I know that sounds woo-woo, but I think you have a great opportunity to work in a very exciting field. Because the firm is relatively small, you will have opportunity to see and work on things you wouldn’t be able to if you were to go to a big firm. You will have a chance to talk directly to clients, get to explore with them their innovative ideas, and add value to the process.

On the other hand, you *may* not be getting the kind of training you would get in a larger environment, such as a well-known investment bank or consulting firm. But, keep in mind a couple of things:

1. You have this VC offer and you don’t have an IB/consulting job
2. Business schools are looking for a people with a diversity of experiences and skills
3. You may be competing with your IB/consulting colleagues for the same spot in a business school class
4. MOST IMPORTANT: VC firms uniformly want people with VC experience. Check it out on VC job forums or elsewhere, so if that’s your long-term goal, then take advantage

You may find that you don’t even need to go to business school. I am here in the heart of Silicon Valley and I have met young VC analysts who feel like they aren’t sure whether spending 2 years and thousands of dollars to go to school to come back and compete for the position they would already have if they had stayed.

And then, to go back to my comment on over-thinking. Sometimes you have to experiment and see what works. You have your whole future ahead of you. How lucky is that?

How to Make the Most of Your MBA: A Primer for Entrepreneurs-to-Be

This week’s tips come courtesy of Alison Albeck Lindland, a fellow Vassar graduate who went on to get her MBA from Columbia Business School, graduating in 2008.  Prior to business school Alison worked on the Goldman Sachs and Jaguar accounts at OgilvyInteractive and was an early team member at TheaterMania.com, a startup media and ticket software company. After graduating from CBS, she worked at

Alison Lindland and colleague

American Express Interactive, and is now director of business development at Kohort, a venture-backed  group management and event planning platform.

Alison says these tactical pointers cover a potential entrepreneurship career. Personally, I think her recommendations apply to anyone hoping to take a big jump into something new and different careerwise.

  • Get to know everyone in your cohort. There’s a temptation to gravitate to the people you are just going to be friends with or have to work with in study team but guaranteed you’ll be missing out on some terrific people and contacts.
  • Network with your classmates. Once you’ve identified the industry or area of focus that you want to pursue after graduation use all the internal databases and  or LinkedIn to identify current classmates who worked in that field and do coffee chats with them. I met lots of great classmates who I otherwise would never have met socially, whose background ranged from telco engineers who gave me mini tutorials in how mobile tech actually works to mobile entrepreneurs who had worked on interesting early mobile dating apps.
  • Get to know your professors personally and tell them what you’re interested in.  Having gone to a small liberal arts school, I came from a mindset where you always got to know your profs personally and would have them over to your house for dinner.  Most business schools are not this way so you can really stand out if you make an effort and you never know what it will yield.
  • Seek out opportunities to TA for your favorite profs or help with their research.  I TA’d for Prof. Whadwa’s excellent strategy consulting class for a session for the Exec MBA class.  This a great chance to get to know my favorite professor better, and to know 65 terrific Exec MBA students.
  • Volunteer to help out institutes or think tanks in your school.  You would be surprised how many institutes and think tanks your school funds.  Though the smaller ones may not have a great profile to students you would be surprised to learn how many industry and high profile alums may be involved.  At CBS I was thrilled to discover the Columbia Institute of Tele-Information and I simply walked in, introduced myself and said I wanted to get involved.  Turns out they were in the early stages of planning a Location Based Services conference for the summer . Given my contacts from my summer doing mobile at Amex, they were happy to enlist me.  It was without a doubt one of the best experiences I had in school.
  • Get off campus and talk to everyone.  If you’re nervous about cold-emailing people for networking coffee chats, start with the guest speakers in your courses. Connect with them in person before they left the actual classroom and follow up that day asking for a coffee.  It’s a great warm intro and usually you’ll know more about what they’re working on after the talk.  In my case, if they could not meet with me, they would give me someone else to talk to.
  • But if you’re nervous about cold emailing people – don’t be.  Being an MBA gives you carte blanche to reach out to people – it is what professionals expect of MBAs.  Just say you’re really interested in something related to their career or company and can you come to their office for a 20 minute coffee chat.  90% of the time people said yes to this request – and again, if they didn’t I’d ask them if there was someone else I could talk to. Remember to make networking hay while the MBA sun shines.  And set yourself a target – like 3 a week so you keep doing these.
  • Take a class in another school or that is widely cross registered. MBAs are great but you’re going to spend most of your career working in cross functional teams – why not get to know these people (lawyers, journalists, designers, developers etc) now.
  • Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you to go to all the happy hours and on some major group trips.  You’re working hard in school and this is a great way to recharge and really grow those relationships – plus you’ll never have time in your adult lives to do things like this again.

Phew! It’s exhausting, but that’s the beauty of the MBA experience — it’s all there for you if you want it.


–Betsy Massar, taking a leaf from the Alison Lindland playbook. For those who want to jump in and experience the busy and rewarding MBA experience, make sure you set yourself up for success with Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting Into a Top MBA Program.

It’s All About Differentiation

Silicon Valley’s career guru, Patti Wilson has published her mid-year Careerzine. I’ve excerpted some of it below; it’s perhaps a bit on the “realistic” side, but has some good tips, such as to work on “career differentiation”. This is true in job hunting, applying to graduate school, and managing your current career if you are working for someone else or self employed.

Patti writes:
It is hard to know with certainty who to believe any more, but more importantly it is even more difficult to plan and prepare for contingencies and do adequate career management. My approach is to hope for the best but prepare for the absolute worse. Be ready to hang on as if you had to tough it out for 5+ years while you look for your dream job.

Silicon Valley vs. the US Economy

The difference between Silicon Valley and the rest of the US economy, aside from a state budget run amok, is that the tech bubble bursting and the massive blood-letting of companies and jobs between 2000-2003 seems to have mitigated the damage this time around. It simply is not as bad as other regions. Companies are hiring and laying off people. Green jobs are growing here as is bio-tech/bio-pharma. I have heard that the salaries of local MBA grads of our top schools are higher this year than last. On the other hand, people are more precarious than during the tech bust as there is less to nothing to fall back on. Many have seen their 401k plans lose 40% or more in value and the home equity was already used up in refinancing to get through the last crash.

What’s Next?

Now that’s the $64 question and if the dollar devalues, it will be the $100 question. Advice I have been giving my clients is to be prepared to last it out for however long it takes. With increasing fierce competition on a global scale, you must commit your resolve and effort to “career differentiation”. Yes, I know that’s a mouthful, but personal branding is so overworked. And do you really know how to brand yourself? Or what you would look like if you were?

Being able to answer to “what makes you different?” is really how you can articulate your unique value proposition to the world. And knowing what makes you different takes reflection, effort and the long view. You have to look forward down the road to see where you are headed because recognizing your distinct path in part makes you different.

The tools are there: social sites, blogs, video, podcasts, and wikis. To not understand them, and make the most of them is to your detriment as they give you the edge to show the world how, why and in what way you are different as visibly as possible. And that in itself can determine your success.

So, spruce up your Linkedin profile, get on Facebook, Twitter and then explore the more esoteric vertical social sites to find more ways to be connected and visible to everyone.

Career Security

Yes, career security does exist in these tough times. It is in the power of the collective and the collaborative. It stands to reason that if consultants are competing for every project then they are better off collaborating on all projects. If we are all striving to be different then helping everyone be their personal best will only help you stand out too. If you can take the long view and look down the road, you can change the future.