Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - advice for MBAs still on the hunt

I can't tell you how often I shake my head at my own dumb luck. I started business school in 2005 for several very simple reasons:

1) I knew that I wanted to be a stellar performer in the nonprofit industry. Many of the donors that I worked with were from the business world and I wanted to understand their language, the circumstances they faced at their companies, and the way their minds worked.

2) I was 29, I wanted a graduate degree, and figured if I didn't go then, I may not go at all.

3) I wanted to live an extraordinary life and I wanted to help other people do the same. Understanding our commerce and financial systems inside and out seemed like a very efficient way to accomplish both of those things. Money, and heart, make the world go 'round.

I graduated in 2007, when it seemed that nothing could stop our professional lives from zooming to the top of the charts. I was blessed to be graduating in a very strong economy and alums I spoke to said I should thank my lucky stars. I did.

And then 6 months later, my beliefs, and everyone else's for that matter, about the economy were turned on their heads. The worst recession since the Great Depression. I have great empathy for fellow b-school grads who graduated the year after me, and more still for those set to graduate next month. You are facing extraordinary circumstances; we all are.

Today, I read Jack and Suzy Welch's column in Business Week and they see three possible avenues for newly minted MBAs. Quite frankly, their advice applies to everyone in the job market at the moment and it's very worthy of repeating:

1) Settle, work like heck, and learn to love it.
If you're looking for a new job, or thinking of moving on from where you are now, you might have to settle for a lower title, a new industry, slightly different job responsibilities, or less money than you had originally planned for. And that's okay. Make sure it's work you enjoy and that strategically you'll be poised to leverage it going forward into a position that is a better long-term match for you.

2) Put yourself out there full throttle. Decice the three dream companies or dream people you'd like to work for. Write to them, email them, call them and ask for five minutes of their time. Then prepare for that five minutes more thoroughly than you've ever prepared for anything in your life!

3) Go it alone, sort of. Sit down and make a list of the three things you're really good at and that you love doing. Then imagine the types of companies you could start with those skills. If you need to fill in some gaps, recruit a friend or colleague who has those attributes and see if you can make a go of it. In an earlier column, the Welch's said that this is the BEST time to start a company if you can deliver more value for less money than your competition.

Building on this advice, I'd say try two of the three. Actually, I think you should do all three, and here's why:

1.) Settle and like it. When I was 22 and just graduated from college, I loved theatre. I still do. In a lot of ways my work in the arts saved my life. I wanted very much to work in that industry so on my mother's suggestion, I wrote to every theatre company in NYC and asked them to hire me. I was willing to do anything from fetching coffee to taking messages to running errands. The Roundabout Theatre Company hired me as a customer service rep for $10 an hour and from there I built a career in that industry for 6 years. It was a great time in my life and taught me that a settle (strategically) and love it plan can and does work.

2.) Writing to people - My friend, Richard, has encouraged me for some time now to write to every person I admire that I'd ever like to have some type of working relationship with. He's relentless about repeating this advice to me. Case in point - I love the work that HopeLab does. They build video games for young people managing critical illnesses. I wrote them a letter, they responded, and I hopped on a plane to visit them in the hopes that some day down the line the time will be right for us to work together on some project.

3.) Do your own thing - we should all be working on doing our own thing! If this downturn has made me realize anything it's that I want to be in control of my career. I no longer want to just hand it over to someone else to evaluate and grow. Going forward, I'd always like to have my own side projects that I'm working on, and someday one of those side projects just might be a killer idea that I can build a whole business from.

In short, we all have choices and options. Even in these grim, tough times, we can all find a way to make ourselves useful, and with all the uncertainty a multi-pronged plan might just be the safest thing we can do.

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