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Friday, February 12, 2010

Start Up the MBA Job Search Right

Two weeks ago there was a little bit of an on-line smackdown about MBA's job searching efforts in the start-up field and how they approach companies. Charlie O'Donnell wrote how he has experienced many mediocre outreaches by MBA's who are interested in working in the start-up arena and what they can do differently. An Harvard Business School student, Rafael Corrales responded with a post about the number of MBA's who are doing well in the start-up arena. I found all this on Sam Huleatt's blog where he wrote a measured response that shows a very good third way as an alternative to the arguments.

Now that we have the players assembled, here are the plot twists. O'Donnell and Corrales are really making two separate arguments and both are mostly right. MBA's are approaching O'Donnell with the pick up line equivalent of "Can I borrow a quarter so I can call my mom and tell her that I found the perfect girl?" and he offers advice on how to develop some game. Corrales talks about MBA's working in the start up arena that are probably not talking to O'Donnell.

It's similar to the Pacific Northwest argument where we complain that Californians who move to our beloved forests are resource-sucking, horn-honking jerks who drive up housing costs. However, the counter argument is that Californians who have not moved to the Pacific Northwest are sophisticated entrepreneurs who spend their time trotting the globe rather than navigating our mountain roads. Same argument but different people. It also reminds me of the old joke, "What's the difference between a b!tch and a ho? A ho does it with EVERYONE. A b!tch does it with EVERYONE but YOU." With that joke, I'm not sure who would be the b!tch and who's the ho.

My b!tch and ho joke are about my only contribution to O'Donnell's post and other MBA responses. If I were on Jeopardy and the categories were Famous Scandinavian Military Leaders, Engineering Equations that start with the letter E, 16th Century Russian Literature, and The Start-up World and MBA's, I would buy a vowel.

Since I have high expectations of my blog posts, I am certainly not going to stop with a few links, my kneejerk opinion, and a joke or two. What I do know is the MBA admissions process and MBA experience and I can provide that kind of insight from this argument. After all, MBA admissions and experience are two of my more common tags. O'Donnell's post and subsequent responses from mostly MBA's do offer a valuable lesson on how MBA's can waste a lot of time on a poorly planned job search strategy. Here's what current and aspiring MBA's can learn.

First, O'Donnell is right. MBA's like us have been following the herd to trendy industries ever since the first herd of wildebeests thundered across the hot and humid Locust Walk on Penn's campus. We take valuable time out of our career game plan to just check out the Venture Capital sector or the Start-up arena or whatever the latest hot industry is. The thought is that Hot Industry X looks like a great field so why not do a little networking and maybe we'll catch that hail merry pass and get lucky with a job offer?

That approach is similar to trying out for an NBA team because there might be a chance that our jump shot might be on fire that day. However, that time spent in that NBA try out is time that our more focused classmates are spending on finding a job in the industry where will most likely want to work. We fall behind to those classmates and risk missing opportunities that have a much more likely chance of success. The time spent trolling in hot industries hoping to snag something is wasted time.

Second, Corrales is right. There are some very smart MBA's that the herd is usually following. Being on Learning Team's or working with these really smart MBA's has helped me understand how an average NBA player feels playing with or against Kobe Bryant. That average NBA player was always the best on their team, has talent, and works hard. However, Kobe is always one step ahead. We always feel like we can hold our own on the business case team with the smart MBA but they are always a few steps ahead.

What this means for aspiring and current MBA's is that unless we the Kobe Bryants of our class, we should not waste time trying to get lucky in the hot industry of the year. Instead spend time getting a job in the industry where you really want to work and have a realistic opportunity. That is why the "What do you want to do with an MBA" essay is a really useful exercise and where I spend the most time with applicants. For example, a good portion of applicants have short-term career goals of management consulting and a long-term career goal of starting their own business. I ask the following questions:

Why not start a business now instead of going into consulting?
How will consulting help you start your business?
Why not work for a corporation?
Have you ever done anything similar to starting your own business or anything that would make you think that you would enjoy it?
What kind of business do you want to start or what's your idea?

For those candidates who stumble over those questions, I suggest that we think about what they really think more before starting the essay. That time spent thinking and writing this essay will save lots of times during an MBA program by having a focused career path.

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