Thursday, April 27, 2006

Conducting a successful off-campus search: An Indian perspective

I know for most people, off-campus search is something that the "few others" do. Business school, that too a top-ranked one is supposed to have a career center that can take care of bringing companies, and so many of them, that you won't really have to go out of the school looking for a job. Most people think that way, I certainly thought that way, and I think it is natural to think that way. Here is the point of this post: As you join a business school, be prepared to go off-campus, because you will be doing off-campus searches... and a whole lot of it. The good news is, in hindsight, it is not really as daunting as it seems; it is a matter of applying some brute force, and then some... This is especially true in a good industry situation as today. (No idea how it would be or would have been during tough times, but I can only think it will be the same to a higher degree!)

Let me start with a short story.

A man walks into a low-ceiling office with rows of tiny cubicles shared by many people. He is wearing a badly-ironed white shirt and a trouser with straight pockets. He crosses over and at the end of the row is a desk with a receptionist sitting with papers strewn all over the desk, phone almost hanging out from her table. The man walks up to her and says "I am here for the sales executive interview from the newspaper". The receptionist looks up and gives a bored look, asks him his name and jots it down. Maintaining the same expression in her face, she points behind him. The man turns around and suddenly realizes that there is a small waiting area behind him, almost full with people!

He takes his seat, next to a stout, smiling bloke wearing a crisp suit who strikes up a conversation almost instantaneously. Within precisely 5 seconds, it is made abundantly clear that our protagonist is sitting next to and idiot! After what seems to be an eternity, the bloke's name is called out. He enters through a door and comes out smiling after a few minutes. He leaves the area, wearing a triumphant look on his face and waving a final goodbye to our friend. Our friend's name gets called next and he enters the office. It is a tidy little office, with brown wooden furniture and he takes the empty seat opposite a middle aged, unshaven man.

After what seems like a very productive interview, where our guy rattles off a series of stellar achievements from his college, prompting vigorous nods of approval from the man, the man finally says, "Look Mister, your achievements are really great and you are a great candidate for this job. However, I cannot extend you an offer". The expression on our man's face turns into disappointment and then quickly into quiet rage. He points at the man and says, "I see how it is! You are giving this job to that jerk, aren't you? Why are you doing this? Because he was recommended by someone you know? Because he has the money and the resources to pull strings?" In a fit of rage, he rushes out of the office, angry with the whole system, angry with himself to have even tried.

This is an all-too familiar scene from many Bollywood movies of the seventies, when movie makers finally came down to topics dealing with Indian masses from the elitist and westernized characters in the sixties movies. The dreaded word in that era was "Sifarish" (Recommendation, referral). It was how the bad guys and the un-deserving lot got their jobs. There was no place on this planet for the well-deserving, academics-cracking, outgoing and smart graduates.

The reason I bring this all-too-familiar and dramatic (maybe over the edge) scene is that all of us Indians have been brought up with these images in our mind. Reaching out to people to make relationships that might bear fruit later on in life is wrong. Asking a favor is accepting your inability to do it on your own! And getting a job through recommendation? Sacrilegious!

Life as a business school student will strike at the very foundation of this value system. No longer is the referred candidate a symbol of un-deserving, rich kid, who can pull his weight around and displace a perfectly meritorious candidate from a position that he was born for! That referred candidate is you, a perfectly meritorious, outgoing and smart individual. As one of my good American friends here said, "No one is going to give you a dollar 10 million business unless he knows you well". Knowing you is not knowing personally, but seeing your commitment to the professional relationship that you have developed with him or her.

When I started at Fuqua, my biggest frustration (and so of other Indians here and perhaps other communities as well) was how to get around this networking business. Many a time, you feel awkward about contacting someone and setting up a phone call to talk about his or her background and experience in the company. For the first two terms, many of us avoided the thing completely. It is extremely uncomfortable to make a connection with a stranger and then maintain it. Reaching out is probably one phrase you will hear again and again all through your recruitment season. The truth is, most of us Indians are not wired to do it. We rely in the old-style exams and objective interviews. Not any more.

A common adage here is that anyone here can do the job that you applied for! While that statement is definitely a stretch, there are two elements that this statement captures. One, there are defnitely many people who are very qualified to do that job. Two, your predisposition to do that job. It's not that anyone doubts your ability to do it, but are you really inclined to do it? Given perfect conditions, would you still pick that job? Or is it even one of the top 2-3 choices that you would make? Given the choices and options that an MBA from a top school has in front of him or her, will you stick around because you are really interested, or will you defect? What is it that you want to do in the long run that makes this job relevant to you?

What I have said so far is not schmoozing. It is simple, proactive relationship building. Schmoozing is not something that is expected of everyone (except banking, but I am not the expert in that. I am merely relating what I have heard). You certainly don't have to schmooze in order to do good networking. Networking is about relationships; genuine ones. As an Indian, ask yourself if you can strike up and sustain a decent conversation with a stranger... only remember the following: they don't know Cricket, you don't know (or don't care about if you are me) about Baseball or Football. You have a very sketchy idea about US geography and no idea about the weather here. Talking about family is a no-no, about friends is... nah... what else? Marketing and Strategy, it sounds stupid coming out of a first year student; Dhirubbhai Ambani, Amitabh Bachchan? nah... Quality of Airtel connection in your house? Your schooling? Booooring! You see where I am going with this.

There are things you can talk about: Travel, hollywood movies perhaps, ummm... help me out here, will you?


Anonymous said...

Very well put and I whole heartedly agree! Being able to maintain these relationships take you far in your career..

Only yesrteday, I receieved an email from a client after about 3 months, with an apology that he couldnt rely earlier! People remember you when you are able to relate to them in some way.. America is a lot about small talk!

Anonymous said...

Another important point to remember is that networking can only get you the interview - a chance to present yourself but will never get you a job. So anyone who thinks networking is "sifaris" is mistaken. It is simply - "Why don't you talk to this person. I believe he/she may be able to help you" and not "Hire this person".

So it is possible that after getting the interview through networking you may still get rejected if you are not prepared or do not present yourself well or just don't match up to the expectations.

Shivesh said...

That's a good point! Thanks for pointing it out. No amount of networking can actually land you a job! In fact, in on-campus, I think it is overrated. I have seen many instances where people who have done no networking get interview calls, with good resumes that show relevant transferable skills. Off-campus, it is relevant as a way to get your foot in the door.

Hopefully, I will get to post more on this, I am travelling now!

Keep rocking!

Anonymous said...

A very informative post on networking...Keep up the good job Shivesh! You've people hooked to your site:)


Keven said...

Excellent post. Coming from England I had/have the same opinion of networking as you do. It's something I really have to get over going into my second year.

About finding things to talk about, a friend of mine decided to read the stories from the front page of Yahoo daily, in particular sports and entertainment. Seems to do the trick.

random said...

Nice post. Though am not doing an MBA right now it will help me.

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