The recruiting journey through self doubt – MBA Learnings

The MBA learnings series has two objectives. The first is to develop the discipline to synthesize and share some powerful concepts I’ve learnt while at school. With about four and a half months left at school, I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to do this after I graduate as well. The second has been de-mystify what the journey is really about. I have been surprised at the lack of really good resources on this topic and I hope to have a definitive list of 8-10 posts on the topic that will be helpful to prospective, admitted and current students after I graduate. I’ve listed the 5 posts written so far, below.

Today’s topic is one that aims to de-mystify an important part of the MBA experience – finding a job or, to use a one-word description, “recruiting.” My experiences – both as someone going through the journey myself as well as someone attempting to help others through the experience – have shown that recruiting is hard. It is probably the single hardest piece of the graduate school puzzle.

It is easy to laugh – this is almost as privileged a place to be when it comes to finding a job. Some of the best employers around the world make it a point to invest hours and days on campuses to talk to students about what life at their firm is like. All definitely true. But, I don’t think life gets any easier when you are Bill Gates. Sure, you take away worries around shelter, sustenance, and the like. But, the kind of challenges you face are in no way inferior to everyone else. In fact, it is my belief that challenges of the mind tend to be the hardest to talk about and deal with. As evidence, I have learnt that students from the law school and business schools at most universities are the biggest users of on-campus counseling services.

I think this part of the experience is particularly hard for three reasons. First, every person going through the process has a track record of success that got them into school. It feels natural to expect this to work well with relative ease (and, in a few cases, it does, too). Second, the fact that you’re going through it with so many classmates – some of whom do better than you by balance of probability – increases the pressure. And, finally, most of these folk have received really bad career advice in the past that has led them to believe that there is that one “dream company” out there for them.

In my case, I think the peer pressure involved with the experience definitely made me question my own competence and abilities more than once in those moments. I made a couple of unusual choices and those came back as questions – did you do the right thing? What if you had done things differently?, etc. It also took what seemed like ages for any progress to come through. It was tough and it definitely felt like a journey through self doubt. It all worked out though – as I believe it did for most folk who put in the work. That doesn’t mean it is easy. And, it definitely doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

Among the things that helped me in that period, I would pick 3 that were particularly helpful –

1. Focus on the feeling of walking away knowing you did your best. At every point, I just focused on getting to one thing – the feeling of walking away from the interview knowing I gave it my best shot. Since all my energy was focused on that one goal, it made my life a lot easier since I didn’t attach myself to any one outcome. This also took away any possible focus on a “dream job.” Sure, I felt extra pressure on a couple but, as I’d intentionally stayed away from focusing on the outcome, it felt easier. The principle here is to to focus on the process and trust that good processes lead to good outcomes in the long run.

2. Read Harry Potter. I’ve shared this story with many first years. I directed a lot of the pressure into reading Harry Potter. Now, of course, I don’t advocate you do that. But, I do think it is helpful to find something that completely distracts you – so, find your own Harry Potter. I remember my wife offering up my iPad anytime she felt I was feeling the pressure. Thanks JKR! In general, when I wasn’t in class, I made it a point to be home by myself. I preferred solitude to hearing the constant chatter about “the latest and greatest.” I was on a light course load during that quarter and had plenty of time to myself. I spent this time researching about companies, reading Harry Potter and sleeping – my antidote to the pressure.

3. A 2nd year support group. I had a small group of 2nd year friends who I stayed in close touch with during the process. I engaged a couple of them on helping me with most aspects of the interview and another couple who helped me exclusively with cases. I kept this group informed of everything that was going on and vented, on occasion, to them. While I knew I could count on them to never mince words if I was doing something wrong, they were also generous with their time, energy and support. All of this helped give me plenty of perspective and was incredibly helpful.

So, if you are a 1st year going through the process, keep plugging away. The one thing that is worth remembering is that this is one of many job switches in the coming years. Focus on the long term outcome and use the process to learn how to approach finding a job better. This is definitely hard.. but it also definitely helps to keep perspective. There are a a few billion people who’d love to be in your place.

And, if you’re a 2nd year, I hope you’ll remember to balance being direct with your feedback and generous with your hugs.

1. I’m in, Now what? – An attempt at helping you structure your transition to school once you are admitted.
2. Advice to an incoming student – A long “expectation setting” post that breaks life at school into a tension between 6 priorities
3. Designing for introversion – An introvert’s guide to thinking about the MBA experience
4. Lessons learnt from internship recruiting – Lessons + a guide to how to think about the summer before school
5. Digging into my 1st year process – A reflection on how I approached my 1st year and what I learnt

self doubt, recruiting, mba learningSource

Lessons learnt from internship recruiting – MBA Learnings

I hated looking for a job in my final year at university. It is one of those profoundly painful processes that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone. It seemed to bring to surface all my insecurities and really made me question if I had done anything of note in the past 20 odd years of my life.

So, when I decided to study again, one of my objectives was to understand how best to approach looking for a job. We’re in an age where we’re constant job seekers. Whether it is seeking an internal transfer within a company we work for or whether we’re looking for a role in a different company, it is clear that our age is one of many jobs, roles, careers and companies. In that sense, looking for an internship at school felt like a perfect laboratory to test how this process ought to be approached. I’ve decided to break the whole process down into three main steps, cataloged my process and then shared what I learnt. I’ve attempted to bring it all together in one post. So, it’ll be long. I hope it is worth it.

Stage 1- Figuring out what I want to do. This has to be the first step of any job or project search. There are always options you don’t want. And, it helps to really understand what you want to do rather than follow the crowd. A simple point to remember – for every job or role you don’t feel all that passionate about, there are a hundred who do.

My process.
i) Speak to as many smart people as possible. I liken this stage to market research. Take time to just get some perspective from people you like and respect. Just engage with them on general advice on careers, paths, and how you ought to approach them. It helps a GREAT deal if you already have a sense of the direction you’d like to take. For example, it is much easier to have conversations focused on careers in pharmaceuticals than just careers in general. Ideally, speak to people who’ve done what you’re about to do or something similar. These perspectives should give you data points and perspective to reflect. After every such conversation, take a few minutes to take short notes of what you took away.

ii) Take the time to reflect. Now, take the time and think about what you think you’d be interested in and what you’d like to explore. Write down what you learn. The ideal outcome of this process is a shortlist of roles and companies that you’d be interested in working at.

iii) Explore ways you can meet people in these target roles or companies. There are 2 ways to approach this. The intentional approach is very targeted and focused on getting a job. This involves looking into your LinkedIn connections and figuring out who you know in a certain industry. If you’re looking for connections in Pharma near New York, it makes your search straight forward. Once you find a few people who know people you’d like to meet, you reach out and set up some informational meetings.

The other way to approach this is to do this with less intention (my preferred approach). Reach out to people you know within the industry you’d like to work with and just ask to meet with interesting people. As long as your interest is genuine, this can lead to some really cool serendipitous connections. Take the time to visit these people in person (if at all possible) and just meet. No big agenda aside from a willingness to get to know them and list. In the long run, this approach makes a huge difference and is how good “networking” is done.

Lessons I took away.
i) Get started as early as possible. I was told to get started on this process well before I got to school. It is one of the better pieces of advice I have received. The principle here is straightforward – some things just take time. And, it is best to do so when you don’t have a burning deadline in sight.

ii) Approach this part of the process with the intention to learn as much as you can. Relationships are not built when by seeking specific favors. Relationships are built when you have a genuine interest in getting to know the person at the other end of the table. At this stage, it is critical to really get to know people as the perspective you’ll receive from an expert / someone who has gone through the same process as you is one that you’ll be hard pressed to find in a book.

iii) Think long term. This isn’t about getting what you think you want now. If it is, then you’re approaching it all wrong.

Stage 2 – Attempting to get your foot-in-the-door via an interview.

My process.
i) Finalize that target company and roles list to the extent possible. It helps having a pre-final list. Of course, it’ll change but it helps having an idea of the direction you’re heading.

ii) Work hard on that resume. I think my resume went through at least 20 iterations. It is really important you get as many external points of view as possible, filter out the feedback that suits your style and trust a few people to help finalize on a document that you are happy with. It isn’t over till you are happy with it.

iii) Find ways to signal strong interest. In school, this means showing up to company events and speaking to recruiters. Outside of schools, this means speaking to people within the company/within teams of your interest and making sure people within the company know of your interest.

iv) Work hard on that cover letter. There are a few companies out there who just expressly forbid cover letters. Aside from those, take the time to work on that cover letter. This is a wonderful way to signal interest and explain why you are a fit for the role you’re applying to. This is especially important if you are switching roles or careers. Make sure you run your company-specific cover letter with at least one person from each company you are applying to. The goal isn’t to use every piece of feedback you get. The goal is to filter it for what works for you, trusting a few people whose style suits yours and getting to a version that you are happy with.

v) Send your applications in early. Seriously. Don’t wait for the last minute.

i) Narrow or broad? Find an approach that suits you. There are many many ways to go about this process. But, the biggest difference tends to be whether you prefer casting a broad net of target roles and companies or whether you prefer a much targeted and narrow approach. I honestly don’t think there is a right or wrong here as I’ve seen both work exceptionally well. The important thing is to pick an approach that works for you. I’ve come to prefer a narrow approach that is very focused. But, that’s just preference. It has its downsides as you put your eggs in fewer baskets. But, the upside is that you only work on roles that really interest you.

ii) Don’t do things to check-the-box – do it because you care. This is a general life lesson but really applies here. Don’t reach out to recruiters to check the box. Do it because you have a question. This is not everyone’s approach. But, I’d find it hugely frustrating if I found myself on a call that was motivated by a desire to check the “I spoke to someone within the company” box rather than out of genuine desire to learn.

iii) Seek and get comfortable with hard feedback. Better to have hard feedback early on your resume and cover letter than just receive rejections when you apply. Seek hard feedback and celebrate when you do receive it.

iv) Personal contacts matter. If you’ve taken the time to build relationships at the places you want to work, interview calls come much easier. They know you, they like you, they’d like to give you a shot, and your resume submission is just a formality. Makes it easy for them and yourself. I know it is cliche – but, who you know does actually matter a lot.

Stage 3 – Be the best you can be in those interviews. It is easy to imagine the process of attempting to get an interview as a game where you notch up points. Once you have received that interview call, however, your score gets reset to zero. Now, you walk into territory where your previous contacts and relationships matter a lot less (if at all) and where your competence gets a shot at shining through.

Process –
i) Master the basic pieces – behavioral, the 4 why questions and strengths and weaknesses. There is a tried-and-tested approach to doing well at behavioral interviews. I’ve written about that and added my enhancements to the approach in my previous post on the topic. They key here is to just put in the time, write down all your key stories, take time to understand your own thought process as you approach different kinds of problems and work on communicating it.

With the 4 why questions – why industry?, why company?, why role?, and why you?, it matters that it feels passionate and genuine. Boring prepared answers fail this test almost immediately. If you’re not able to find enough passion to explain these in your practice, I’d really question if you’re interviewing for the right role.

Finally, with strengths and weakness questions (especially weaknesses), speak to people who know you well and practice your responses. This needs to feel genuine.

ii) Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge. I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

iii) Work hard on technical/case interviews. My interviews required me to get really good on case-style interviews very quickly. For the roles I was looking at, these were either technology product cases (easier) or broad strategy cases (harder). In some ways, I was a bit late into this realization for broad strategy cases and had to work really hard over a 3 week period to catch up. I ended up looking back at 3 weeks where I read 2 books, worked out around 30 cases by myself, 20 with my wife, and 15 mock cases with friends and ex-colleagues. Work with people who’ve mastered the process and aim to find your own path.

4 books helped me greatly in the process.
Product cases: Cracking the PM interview (Gayle Laakmann, Jackie Bavaro) and Decode and Conquer (Lewis Lin)
Strategy cases: Case in Point (Marc Cosentino), Case Interview Secrets (Victor Cheng)

All thus reading and interviewing led to 2 synthesized approaches that I could apply across these 2 kinds of cases –
– For product cases, I had 5 step process – what is the problem the product exists to solve?, who are the users/buyers?, how does it perform?, what changes would I recommend?, and how would I prioritize these changes?
– For strategy cases, I think the crux is identifying whether the case is an estimation (estimate top down, bottom up and do a gut check), a profitability case (break it down into its drivers – revenue, costs, etc.) or a decision case (go/no go with qualitative and quantitative costs and benefits).

I’m staying away from any more specific advice on technical/case interviews as it is important you do all the reading required and develop a style that works for you.

iv) Customize your preparation for each company. Consider developing “snapshots” of your research of the company you’re interviewing for. Here’s an example of a page full of publicly available information on LinkedIn. This stuff takes time but my belief is that this sort of preparation just comes through in the interview.

iv) Develop a pre-interview routine. Confidence matters a lot in the interview game. Develop a routine that helps you feel good. I used to generally wake up early, scribble a few notes of my approach to case interviews, read through my snapshot + behavioral interview notes. Just before the interview, I’d listen to the same collection of songs. I’ve heard of others who did a few “power poses” before their interviews. This is very personal – so experiment with a few different routines and then settle on what works for you.

i) There is no substitute for practice and preparation. The only way is through.

ii) Try and do 3 interviews over 2 weeks with 1 person whose opinion you trust. While it is important to get as many mock interviews under your belt, I’d highly recommend doing 2-3 interviews over a 2 week period with 1 person whose opinion you trust. This way, you’ll be able to monitor your progress better than just doing 5 mock interviews with 5 different people.

iii) Pace your preparation. It is hard to sustain intensity over a long period of time. So, pace your interview preparation as far as possible. You will have peaks and troughs. If you pace yourself well, your peaks will come on your most important interview days.

Bringing it all together. If I had to look back at the past few months and give myself advice for the next time I did this, I would tell myself three things.

First, it is a team effort. So, take the time to build and nurture this team. Any successful process has a team of people who worked on it, e.g., your applications to school  were successful because of recommenders, parents and mentors. Similarly, it helps to have a support system of folk who want you to succeed. Ask for help when you need it (and you will). And, remember those who help, say thank you often, keep them informed of your progress (or lack of it in case of people who’re very close to you), be nice and commit to helping them in any way possible and/or paying it forward.

Second, allow luck to find you. In all of these processes, there is always a certain amount of dumb luck involved. Just remember – chance favors the prepared mind. So, be prepared.

Finally, aim to be the best version of yourself. We often attach ourselves to outcomes we don’t control. I’ve written about how admissions and hiring is largely a crap shoot after a certain point. Neither of these are easy processes. That said, they can be very educational. Just aim to learn and celebrate the fact that you’ve given it your best shot. In the long run, the habit of being prepared, showing up and giving it your best tend to matter more than most other things. And, besides, it is my belief that good processes lead to good results.

All the best. I hope it helps.

The truth about admissions and hiring

Thanks to the MBA learnings series, I’ve been hearing from many who’re going through the business school applications process. In these exchanges, I always try to make sure I share 3 points that I find helpful.

1. After a point, it becomes a crap shoot. I’d highly recommend taking a couple of minutes to read Seth Godin’s excellent post on ‘The truth about admissions‘. Here’s my favorite excerpt –

Worth saying again: In admissions, just as in casting or most other forced selection processes, once you get past the selection of people who are good enough, there are few selectors who have a track record of super-sorting successfully. False metrics combined with plenty of posturing leading to lots of drama. 

The winter and spring quarters are internship recruiting seasons here in school and it is easy to spot similar dynamics. I remember asking a friend how he thought HR picked cover letters out of a competitive pool. He imitated a person throwing a dart on the wall. That’s not to say it is completely random but, echoing Seth’s view, I think there’s a fair bit of pseudo science at play once you cross the threshold of competence.

2. It is a tough process and one that never fails to touch our insecurities (“Am I not good enough?”).  That’s just part of the process. We just have to expect it and be aware of it when it happens. In some ways, we’re always going to have such questions pop up when we ship. It gets easier when we’re shipping a product we designed vs. ourselves though. But, it is a worthwhile process and can be educational if we treat it as such.

The one thing that does help here is to be a bit self centered and just focus intensely on your own process. We’re all on different paths fighting different sorts of battles. Focus on what you need to do and make sure you ask for as much help as you need. These sorts of challenges are hardly ever overcome alone.

3. You only need one to work out. A close friend gave me this perspective and it is one that has stuck with me. Whenever we get started on a job search-like process, we always begin by pinning our hopes on a number of options. And, as these begin to disappear, we get disheartened. The only perspective we need to maintain here is that all it takes is for one to work out. Ideally, it’ll be the one we want. My experience has shown that it almost always is the one we need (and, every once in a while, the two intersect).

All the best. And, if I can be of help in any way through your search processes, do send me a note (rohan at rohanrajiv dot com) and I’ll do my best to be of assistance.