May 3, 2012

Become an Irresistible Job Candidate

Tens of thousands of new MBA holders are about to flood the job market. If you're one of them — or if you’re a seasoned candidate — here’s how to stand out.

Rebecca McReynolds
Topics: Your Career

In this second installment of our series on global career strategies, we connected with four experts who spoke at Columbia Business School’s recent Pan-Euro reunion in London. The panel, assembled by the school’s Career Management Center, included Helen Bostock, director of Global Head Graduate and Embark Resourcing and Development, Barclays Wealth; Diane Morgan, associate dean, degree programs and career services, London Business School; Lena Triantogiannis, partner, Egon Zehnder International; and Anthony Vardy, managing director, United Kingdom, Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann.

What are companies looking for in their candidates?

Helen Bostock: Employers are becoming much more specific in their searches. For example, we are looking for people who speak Russian. We also need people who can assimilate easily, so we’re hiring on a nationality basis on certain desks. That’s a reality.

Lena Triantogiannis: We are always looking for candidates with skills such as strategic thinking, business leadership, and people leadership. Those are core, but they are colored by the situation. For example, globalization demands higher management skills because of the increased complexity of today’s business.

We are always evaluating executives behind thought leadership, business leadership, and people leadership. Those are core, but they are colored by the situation. For example, globalization demands the ability to manage scale and complexity as well as the unprecedented pace of change.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are also going to be in higher demand, not just in smaller companies but also in larger organizations. In the past, large organizations were all about compliance and rules, but now you need to be more innovative and entrepreneurial even in larger companies. Increasingly leaders are not just hiring talent for today but are expecting an assessment of future potential and someone’s ability to flex in an ever-changing market.

How do you stand out from the crowd?

Bostock: It’s very important for candidates — whether they are just starting out on their careers or are switching jobs — to really prepare and focus on their interview performance. I would prepare systematically for the interview and use colleagues and peers to critique your answers to expected questions.

Something that differentiates MBAs is their ability to act as a catalyst for change. The reason we recruit MBAs is because they tend to have strong academics, analytical abilities, and can be autonomous in their working style. So highlight those skills to differentiate yourself.

Anthony Vardy: People coming out of MBA programs typically have only three or four years of work experience, so you are probably not far enough along your career path to differentiate yourself through your work achievements. Instead, identify your skills and characteristics that are particularly appealing to employers and push those. Are you a consensus builder who works well in team building, or a driver of business turnaround in difficult times? Go through some testing, find out what you are really good at, and use that as a platform to promote yourself.

Diane Morgan: There is going to be a big emphasis on how valuable you are to an employer immediately, not just your potential value. So you need to leverage the skills you acquired in business school and use specific examples of how you applied them. For example, use an experience from school that illustrates your ability to manage people from different cultural regions and influence them without having direct line authority.

There is a lot of talk about “personal branding,” but what does that really mean?

Triantogiannis: This is something executives need to be thinking about and developing all along their career path. To distinguish yourself you need to ask, “What do I stand for in stakeholders’ minds? What am I good at, and how do I make that even stronger so I can build a specific spike to my profile?” For example, if you are in human resources, you may aim to distinguish yourself for your ability to develop and drive talent management programs. You need to be writing papers on it, going to workshops, and giving presentations so that influencers know you.

It’s also being quite systematic on what and how you communicate about yourself. For example, let’s take your online profile. I don’t have the resources to go trolling through Facebook, but we do Google people, so make sure you are happy with what is out there about you online. Take time to think through the communication on your resume. What do you have to offer, and what tangible evidence do you have of your ability?

In this market, it’s tempting to jump at the first job offer that comes your way. Is it better to just have a job — any job — and then look for your dream job from that position of strength?

Vardy: You don’t want to take just any job. However, it is easier to go from one job to another than it is to get a job while you’re sitting on the outside. Employers tend to look at someone sitting in a job as more attractive on paper than someone who isn’t working. I would strongly recommend taking up a reasonable opportunity and then proving your true worth once you’re on the inside.

Morgan: People go in looking for ideal job, but today you need to rethink how you view your first job after business school. Is it a stepping stone to your next job in two years? You may need to find a transitional job. It may something you did in your old job but now you are doing it in a different sector, or you stay in same sector but switch jobs.

Bostock: MBAs sometimes get fixated that they need to go into consulting or banking. But sometimes candidates can become too focused on getting a major brand on their resume, so the smaller companies find it very difficult to attract talent. MBAs shouldn’t be too sniffy about the brand. If you are intent on getting your foot in the door, go into a small organization, make an impact, and leave in two or three years. We have had great success with people who have taken a little bit of risk early in their careers and gone outside the norm with their career paths.

When an offer does come in, how do you separate your emotions in order to objectively evaluate it?

Triantogiannis: Career management involves a series of well-thought-out decisions that set you moving in a specific direction. It sounds basic, but the truth is that we do not all have the desired level of self-awareness. I suggest you invest the time to review a job opportunity before the offer stage. Start by making a list of both hard and soft facts about the job. Under hard facts, for example, does the job provide the critical experience you need to move toward your ultimate goal? But you also need to consider the softer issues. Do I really like this company, or this product, or this owner? Or do you keep trying to tamp down negative feelings that may be coming up around a job offer or a company?

Vardy: There is no excuse for not researching a company very carefully because there are so many resources available today. That research is going to be the foundation of any decision you make. In terms of evaluating the job itself, that’s where a good, objective adviser will come in handy. Everyone has a friend or family member who may be in that industry or has enough experience in the business world to provide guidance. So use your network.

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