Getting Tactical about Your Next Job

Sr. Lecturer Trevor Fetter

In his column for the Harbus, Professor Trevor Fetter shares his thoughts on the issues facing HBS students.

Last month, I wrote about the primary colors of the career spectrum (advisor, investor, operator) and the strategic considerations that go along with them. Judging from recent meetings I have had with students, summer and post-MBA jobs are top of mind. So, let’s get tactical. I have a few suggestions. 

First, take advantage of the full resources of the HBS Career Planning and Development team. The school cares deeply about helping you with your career, starting when you first enroll and continuing after you graduate. You must take the lead in your career discovery, but you do not have to do it alone. CPD knows what they are doing, and they have seen your situation before. They can help.

While we are talking about HBS resources, don’t forget your classmates and alumni. Are you interested in a particular industry or firm? Use directories or LinkedIn to find people who have experience in the companies or industries that interest you. Ask for their advice or help in making useful connections. One student pointed out to me that there is so much career-switching at HBS that many students aspire to switch into jobs that others are leaving. Get their perspectives.

Consider the aperture through which you are viewing your career. Setting the aperture either too narrow or too wide will make things harder. I have encountered students whose objectives are extremely specific and are conducting a very focused search. Being narrowly focused is great…if you can find an employer that fits your criteria and is hiring. I have seen these students being thrilled when they find a match. I have also seen them having to pivot and reconsider their objectives late in the process. If you know exactly what you want to do, where you want to do it, and with whom, then don’t delay. Go for it! Just have a Plan B and a clear idea of when to activate it.

I find more students are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with apertures all the way open. They are not sure about the industry in which they want to work or even whether they want to be an operator, investor, or advisor. Being unfocused can be energizing, because you are open to all sorts of opportunities, but it can also be hard, both for you, and for those whom you ask for advice. One suggestion for those who have broad interests or are not sure what they want to do: consider roles and firms that have established MBA recruiting programs. Taking this route can give you time early on in your career to discover what you really want to do if it turns out that your initial choice is not right for the long term. And here is a better suggestion: try something non-corporate, like working for a non-profit organization or a government entity. Early or late in one’s career are the best times to try this.

Having a broad aperture can make it hard for people to give you good advice. Here are a few suggestions about how to get advice. Make good use of the advisor’s time. This seems obvious, but it is worth mentioning: don’t wait until the last few minutes of a meeting or call to bring up an important subject. If you have got an agenda, make it clear at the outset. Also, do your homework in advance. Be well-prepared about industries and even specific companies or organizations that interest you. If there is follow-up, do the work for your advisor. If you are asking for an introduction, draft an e-mail the advisor can forward. If you are asking for a recommendation, provide the advisor with all the information they need to write it. Try to focus your interest and questions. An example would be if you are speaking with someone in healthcare about your desire to pursue a career in that industry. It is one of the largest sectors of any economy, so asking generically about healthcare is not likely to be as productive as asking about certain sub-sectors or companies that interest you most. Don’t expect an advisor to do the narrowing for you. 

One part of focusing your interest involves knowing your appetite for risk and your willingness to pursue an initial job that does not maximize your earning potential. You may have taken some risks in your career before coming to HBS. Maybe you took on an assignment that you were unprepared for, or you jumped from a safe employer to a start-up. Others have yet to take a risk. Consider not only how much risk to take, but when is the best time to take it. It may be now, because (other than student loans) you may have lower overhead, fewer obligations and you may be more flexible about where you live. But it also may be a few years from now, after you have gained experience, some financial resources, a network to use and even an employer to fall back upon if you need to. The first big career risk I took was not until thirteen years after I graduated; some of my classmates took big risks right away, and others have done so relatively recently.

The downside of taking risk is a lot less than you think. You can learn from setbacks, mistakes, and failure, and you can bounce back. You can recover easily from working for a failed company; it is harder, but not impossible, if you bear responsibility for the failure. Dean Nohria is fond of distinguishing between failures of competence and failures of character. It is quite possible to recover from the former, and very hard to recover from the latter.

You are inundated with opinions on what you should do. As you listen to these voices, try to ignore what the crowd thinks is, to borrow a favorite phrase from Zoolander, “so hot right now.” What matters most is what is right for you and the life you want to build. It is great to get in early on a trend, an emerging industry, or a company that you can stay with and grow. On the other hand, avoid getting swept up in a fad or a bubble. The hardest part is to distinguish between a trend and a fad in the early stages. Turn for help to the tools you are acquiring at HBS. After all, you are making an investment decision—you are investing precious time.

Since what matters most is very personal, reflect on where you think you can add real value. Where will you shine? Where will you be happy? Where will you continue to learn? These crucially important but softer-sounding aspects of work tend to be driven most by the people you work with, the purpose of your work, where you live, and the day-to-day nature of your work. Recognition and reward is also satisfying, but if you choose a job primarily for financial reasons, other than out of necessity, please think very hard about whether there is a better answer.

It is only natural to place a lot of weight on brands. We derive satisfaction from pride in our employer, and there is no denying that an employer’s prestige and reputation affect how others see you and affect the way you feel about your job. But in considering alternatives, make a distinction between a lesser-known company, a second-tier company, and one that is tainted. Lesser-known or second-tier companies may offer earlier and greater opportunities for advancement and satisfaction. Sure, they require a little more explanation than working for a globally recognized top-tier firm, but better job content and earlier opportunities to gain responsibility may be well worth the trade. A tainted employer is another story altogether, and unfortunately it can be a story that sticks to you. There are many good reasons to join a tainted company, the best being the opportunity to be part of new leadership in a turnaround, but the risk/reward ratio is better when you are more established in your career.

(Re)building and maintaining bridges is one of the most valuable things you can do in any job search. It is always a good idea to keep the door open to your former employer. Even if you are not going to return, your former colleagues, clients you met, and people outside of your firm with whom you worked can all be helpful in giving you advice, providing introductions, acting as references, and even hiring you directly. The professional networks you develop early in your career can be helpful for decades as you and people in your network attain increasing levels of responsibility.

The choice of summer jobs presents an opportunity to build some variety into your career. If you know what you want to do after graduation, try something different for the summer. If you do not know, then focus on finding a summer job doing something you are likely to want to do full-time after graduating. Getting deeper into what you have already done is most useful only if you are going to stay in that industry and want to experience a different firm.

As you consider your early moves, please don’t try to reverse engineer your career. I encounter students who have a clear idea of what they want to be doing in the future and are convinced there is one best trailhead for making the hike as short as possible. Nearly 35 years out, my HBS classmates are finishing the main chapters of their careers. I can think of only a very small number who are with the same firms they joined at graduation, and if they are, it is generally because they are very senior in those organizations. Luck and circumstances, both good and bad, are an enormous force in your career journey. You can improve your odds by performing well, behaving well, having a strong network, and having a good sense for opportunity, but random events outside of your control will affect your career enough to defeat the purpose of even the best-intentioned TOM-like mapping exercise of how to get from today to a desired endpoint. 

Finally, please relax. I find myself giving that advice a lot during office hours, and not just because it is another Zoolander reference. You will graduate with skills and knowledge that give you tremendous advantages as you build your career. You will be fine.

Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86) is a Sr. Lecturer in General Management at Harvard Business School. He teaches FRC, LCA, and the SIP: The Life and Role of the CEO. Before joining HBS, he was Chairman and CEO of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a Fortune 150 company. Earlier in his career, he was CFO of the movie studio MGM and an investment banker. In addition to teaching at HBS, he serves on corporate and non-profit boards and advises several early stage healthcare companies.