Holy (obnoxiously) long post Phil! This has been a tortured delivery for me. Off-road searches are so much more divergent than traditional ones. That’s also why they can be more exciting if that’s where your interests lay. Let’s walk Bridget Blazer (BB) through the process of identifying an exciting opportunity somewhere well off the beaten path.
A brief reminder of my definition of “off-road”; I use the term to describe less conventional searches. Here there is less of (or no) “blazed trail”. The path is usually much less clear, there aren’t easy comparisons and few alumni mentors or career center references to call on. Think of a Traditional search as really mining everything “inside the box” of your program and an Off-road search as figuring out what’s “outside the box” that might be appealing. You have to engage in some significantly different activities than traditional position searchers. Remember the definition is relative to your situation. So liberal arts major getting a “traditional” business job could be off-road.
So off-road we go… Let’s walk Bridget Blazer through a representative search.
Profile: Bridget is intellectually curious and used to look down on “business” as an undergrad. (A bunch of Republican profit maximizers talking about “shareholder value creation”!) She worked hard to get good grades and pursue her science career, earning a graduate degree on a Fellowship. Having spent 5+ years in a non-business setting, she decided that an MBA might improve her prospects and open some different doors.
Her scores are high and her resume is impressive (to some). Some won’t understand what it means and be suspicious of the lack of commercial experience.
Situation: The reality is that in the new areas Bridget is looking into, virtually no one knows she exists. And maybe she doesn’t know what she wants. So it’s critical that she start really getting after it. Off-road searches require broader and deeper effort than traditional searches precisely because there isn’t a pre-canned plan. You can’t execute the well-understood and honed-over-generations best practices of past strategy consultants or bankers.
Ambiguity will rule the day and a lot of weeks will be frustrating. Bridget needs to have a healthy sense of self, because she’ll be grinding away networking in odd corners while classmates are getting more conventional offers. To avid sliding into the self-reinforcing abyss of inactivity that leads to doubts and more inactivity, she’ll need to build a plan and have realistic expectations of the nature of the search.
It’s important for Bridget to do a quick diagnostic up front to determine how clear she is on her goals. Not everyone has a good sense of what they are looking for. In this case the term “search” is a little pre-mature.
I see two off-road patterns in past students of mine. Let’s call them “seeking” and “searching”.
- Seekers aren’t entirely sure what they want, but are sure it’s not the traditional opportunities in front of them. They are looking to find their calling. This process is very open ended and forces the candidate to confront thinking through what they want. Seekers often become searchers as their process builds and they learn more.
- Searchers on the other hand have pretty much figured out what they want, but what they want isn’t easily found in their current environment. For example, I’m an MBA who want to go into education or I’m an English major looking for a business job. You’ll have to go root out opportunities, but you have an idea of where you need to look, what you’re looking for and can credibly develop a somewhat structured plan.
If you’re a seeker, you need to adjust timelines out a bit as you explore. Searchers can kick into focused high gear on a particular path earlier.
1 – You can’t win if you don’t play – This will be hard, but if you don’t get in the game you can’t win. I challenge students pretty hard on their goals. Many want something cool and different but in the end aren’t really driven to explore, “settling” for something more traditional. I’d encourage you to think through whether there are things you just have to find out about yourself and the jobs landscape.
2 – Think about multi-step moves – We’d all love the perfect job, life balance and a high salary all at once. The reality in life is that it’s a journey. Think about the path you’re on and whether you enjoy the view. If you do and are being thoughtful, you can make wise moves and end up someplace you’ll like. Particularly for seekers/searchers you may not get there all at once. Given the fact that you may not even know what “perfect” looks like, be smart about choices. Think “is this moving me generally in the right direction?”
3 – Be open minded – I see too many people anchor on specific ideas without decomposing them into their various parts. For example, don’t assume you know what someone does based on their title. Their actual activities might look a lot different than you think. Here in Minneapolis, “Finance” looks a lot different at 3M, Best Buy, Target, Ecolab, Medtronic, Cargill and General Mills. They really aren’t the same job from company to company.
I encourage you to think about positions with a wide lens. This is a slightly different point than above. That’s about taking what you can get if it’s a positive move. This is about even understanding what things are.
4 – It’s a numbers game/ network with content – For people trying to generate non-obvious opportunities, it ultimately comes down to how many people you met with and impressed enough to want to help you in some way. Note the emphasis on IMPRESSED ENOUGH. Here are (too many) thoughts on networking. You have to get comfortable with reaching out, telling your story and following up as best you can.
5 – Be creative and entrepreneurial – You’ll have to be more creative than classmates looking for traditional jobs. Signs won’t be posted anywhere saying “unconventional MBA opportunity”. You’ll have to look with open eyes and detach from the expectations all your classmates have.
6 – Find a champion – Whether at school or through another mentoring relationship, you’ll want to try and find an experienced advisor who’s willing to let you be you and is rooting for you. They may or may not be able to directly affect your search, but they should be able to challenge your thinking and approach while being on your side as you plow tough ground.
7 – Be useful – You’ll be surprised at how interesting you may be to people. You have your own network, you are learning new concepts and reading the latest literature. Share as you can. Think about the relationships you are building as “value exchange”, not “value extraction”.
1 – Knowing where to start – “Spinning your wheels” comes to mind. You can get caught up inside your head, studying endlessly or asking too much advice when you aren’t sure what you want. My (probably unhelpful) advice here is to just get going. List things you like to do, a few jobs that sound cool and start talking to people as well as doing some background research. Every week you wait to get started is a week deferred, and you can’t get time back. PS – Your graduation date doesn’t change.
2 – Gaining traction – Think compound interest. More touch points lead to better data and steadily improving performance. Some early networking opportunities may be rough. Your story isn’t polished, you aren’t sure quite what you’re looking for and fumble over some simple questions. Alternately you may not even know what to ask about fields that are new to you. Don’t get discouraged, just push through.
3 – Telling your story in the right context. BB isn’t exactly sure what her story is. That’s OK to a point. Be able to articulate where you’re coming from and where you’d generally like to go clearly. Here are some general thoughts on introducing yourself. BB needs to focus specifically on what she is trying to get out of any interaction and focus on what about her matters given specifics.
For example, when meeting with a corporate scientist about business oriented lab opportunities (like product development); her publications, research background etc. may be really interesting to them. The MBA-ish talk may be more of a black box they aren’t interested in. When talking to an entrepreneur about their start up, the conversation will be very different.
Develop intuition. The point is to be strategic about how you talk about yourself. How you frame yourself matters…a lot.
4 – Asking for help in the right way – Make it easy for me to help you. Most of my students find the people they approach for advice or support in their search to be very gracious and open. Very few initial meetings are outright refused. Having said that, how many people are willing to actively support you is driven both by the impression you make and whether you are able to “activate” their support. Did you ask for help that they are positioned to deliver?
For example, if it went well it’s always easy to ask “given what we’ve discussed, is there anyone you can think of that could help me better understand XXX?” If they name a few names ask if they’d be willing to make an introduction. You could also ask “may I follow up with you in the coming months as I have more questions?”
What you don’t want to do is overreach on first contact. Don’t assume too much.
1 – Lack of focus – If this isn’t one of your top three priorities, then you don’t really want it. School can crowd out your search time if you let it. So don’t! You own your time, so exercise some degree of control. If you can’t get into the search, then you can’t be that invested in your “dream”. The difference between being dreamy and getting what you want is often simple effort.
2 – Lack of creativity – Are you actually thinking?
3 – Passivity – Get off the couch. Discussed at length above.
4 – Expecting things to “just work out” – Nothing just works out. I’ll point out that there’s a big difference between this and “maintaining a positive attitude”, which is critical. So stay positive and excited, but recognize the size of the hill you’re trying to climb.
5 – Frustration – Discussed above, but I’d add that if you’re really committed to finding something you probably will.
6 – Overlooking traditional opportunities – Make sure you are conducting some baseline due diligence on the traditional opportunities through your program. If you cross them off the list, do it with your own data.
7 – The echo chamber – In school, it’s easy to get caught up in the fishbowl of competition and expectations and lose sight of your real interests. For example, the average MBA graduate salary at the Carlson School last year was ~$95K with a $15K signing bonus.
Let’s say your salary coming in was $50K and your (not well defined) dream is to go into social entrepreneurship where the salaries are below MBA average. That seems reasonable. The salaries won’t be like consulting or banking, but your reference salary isn’t that high comparatively so you’ll be doing much better.
It all sounds great until you see a classmate you just know you’re smarter than get an offer for $130K base. Now you start to question everything. Plus, finding a social entrepreneurship job is hard. They don’t come to the career center and wine and dine. You have to go find them. And then they don’t necessarily know what to do with an MBA. Which can rapidly become discouraging…So know yourself and be OK with your self-defined goals.
Prior to school starting:
BB’s pre-work is much less clear than for candidates who are clearly seeking conventional positions. Pre-work should revolve more around self-exploration and discovery. What are your strengths & weaknesses? What are you passionate about? What kinds of positions seem interesting? Where can you find interesting, less conventional positions? Given all this, how can you best leverage school to propel you towards something you’re excited about?
I want to focus on “leveraging school” for a moment. Let’s assume that if you’re dropping a lot of money (both tuition and opportunity cost of forgone income) and time you’d like to use the experience to best effect. And yet I see too many students come through without a plan or at least being able to articulate what they want out of it.
Why does a plan matter? It’s easy to drift along in the current. And the current in a specific program is usually to produce a certain kind of outcome. At a b-school it’s consultants, bankers, marketers etc. And the drive is to place them well, but at conventional employers. The majority of students want that and so the system is set up to drive (and measure & reward) that.
So a plan can liberate you from the conventions in your program. You know (generally) what you are looking for and it’s easier then to decide what to take on and what not to. As the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
So take time before school starts to think this through.
As school starts:
The first semester is usually crazy with new relationships, course content and demands on your time. To the extent you can, make sure you are aligning your course work and time with your particular goals. Often the course work is out of your control 1st term, but you do decide what organizations to join.
It’s important to start reaching out. Based on your early research, who might be good to talk to? (See Networking Posts for more). A starting point might be on-campus. What other parts of the university might have interesting connections? If you want a boundary-spanning job, you’d better start spanning boundaries. So go talk to someone outside your school that might help. For BB this could be somewhere in the sciences or design.
As Internship search heats up (Fall into Spring)
Are you even looking for a conventional internship?
Pros: Grounds you in conventional position and keeps options open. May be a good structured corporate experience. Might also yield a FT offer as a base line for planning.
Cons: Is it moving you in the direction you want or pulling you away from it?
If not, then you need to find or create an interesting summer experience. The only way I know to do this is to network entrepreneurially and in unconventional places. Go find places where you look interesting and are different enough that you seem mystical to your potential employer. A scientist not intimidated by an NPV calculation, a Finance person who understand Customer Insights…whatever the combination, it can be very compelling to the right company or potential boss. You just don’t know who it is until you find them.
So where might they be?
- Go look at local industry or professional groups. You’ll be surprised at both how many there are and how open they’ll be to interested students.
- Go to a few targeted conventions or trade shows that make sense. You can create multiple contacts with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet in these target rich environments.
If you can’t find a conventional FT position that’s appealing, then consider consulting opportunities that get close to what you think you want. They can be good bridges. I’ve had a number of students carry this off successfully.
For BB, summer is more a continuation of the process than a big transition (like for those in traditional searches). Take some time to reflect on where you are at the halfway point. Do you like what you’re finding? Are you making progress? If not, why not?
Keep exploring and being creative. If you have spare time, what are you reading? Are you getting fully immersed in topics relevant to your emerging interests?
As summer approaches an end, you need to decide if you are forgoing regular FT interviewing. Interview prep is important and so a go/no go has significant impact on search time allocation. I don’t have an answer for how to proceed here other than think through where you are and assess your risk tolerance. Where will you feel the most regrets if things don’t work out? Will you feel worse with a “good” traditional job that’s short of your experiential dreams or with a lower paying “un-prestigious” job that’s a perfect experiential fit? Only you can answer.
Second year search for full time position
Based on where you are, it’s full tilt on networking/exploring/interviewing.
At this point, you know enough about your program to have focused coursework. I’d encourage you to deeply commit to at least one activity that supports your emerging interests. As a reference, for my (admittedly traditional) search it was a year long cross-functional New Product Development program and helping lead the graduate volunteer consulting club. It was tangible experience that was relevant to my search while also being fun and social. So what’s your thing?
Beyond that it’s keep on keepin’ on until you hit pay dirt!
Philosophizer’s note: I really struggled with this post as there are as many stories off-road as there are people. In this realm, please, please, please be creative and driven. If you want it, you’ll be amazed what effort and follow through can create. Most people I know who have cool jobs took some sort of unconventional path to them.
As always, what did I miss?
PS – Like Law & Order, all my characters are purely fictional and based on composites. But Esra and Amy, thanks for allowing me to chat lately and get my juices flowing on less well traveled paths.