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Recruiting lessons

image If the sudden increase in emails from my company’s recruiting staff are any indication, the recruiting season is back in full gear! For many, this will bring enormous amounts of stress, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For starters, I’ve posted a number of tips in the past about:

But, while I’ve focused a great deal in the past on advice for how to land a job you want, I’ve spent relatively little time talking about how to select a job. On that front, I have four tips:

  1. Reputation matters. A lot.
  2. Find out what people actually do. Including the bad parts.
  3. Determine what sort of training and mentorship is available.
  4. Understand the working environment.

The practical minded out there (this blogger has been guilty of this many times) will say, “I’ll worry about that after I get a few offers.” And, on some level, especially in college/business school, that is true. But, the fact of the matter is that recruiting is a very time consuming and tiring process. The cycle of going to company presentations, chatting up people who are constantly sizing you up, preparing resumes and cover-letters, and interviewing took up valuable time which I would have preferred to spend with my friends or on things of greater interest to me. Worse than the opportunity cost of spending all your time applying for jobs you’re not interested in, it can leave you in a position where you, at best, are apathetic towards an offer and, at worse, leave you in a place which can actually be detrimental to your professional development. Instead, I would advise that you focus very early on in narrowing your search so that you can tailor your resume’s, cover letter’s, and conversations to fit the firms you’d actually like working for.

image 1. Reputation matters. A lot: If there is one thing that I learned during my two years in consulting, it is that the reputation of a company is everything. While this may seem a bit obvious, I think what most people don’t understand is the magnitude of the impact that reputation can have. It dictates things ranging from the money that a firm can make for a particular engagement or project to what sorts of engagements a firm will get to handle. Some informal conversations that I’ve had revealed that firms with stronger reputations will not only land more interesting, longer-term engagements (e.g. multi-month strategy projects vs. 2-week fact-finding projects), but that for the same project, a firm with a strong reputation can charge significantly more (I’ve heard gues-timates of pricing varying by over 50% between top-tier/specialist firms and second-tier shops). When you also consider the weight that the reputation of your previous employers has when you’re looking for new jobs (there are quite a few private equity/venture capital firms that require applicants to be from top-tier banks/consulting firms), it should become pretty clear that the reputation should be a very important consideration.

To be 100% clear, this doesn’t mean that you should only focus your time on “big name” companies. After all, while McKinsey is a great consulting firm, they may not get you where you want to go if you’re interested in PR or marketing or even in a specific type of consulting, like IT, or a specific industry expertise. What it does mean is that you should figure out what you want to build credibility around and find companies which can help you do that. This will help you develop your own skills and capabilities and position you well for the next job.

2. Find out what people actually do. Especially the bad parts. The recruiting process is as much a process for companies to find out more about their applicants, as it is a process for prospective applicants to find out more about the firm. This means that you shouldn’t be the only one answering tricky questions.

While you can ask direct questions like “what do you do?”, “how much travel do you do?”, and “what sort of hours do you work?”, you should be aware that any firm with a half-decent recruiting process will have already prepped its people with answers to those questions. While those answers won’t be outright lies, they are oftentimes couched in “spin” to mask un-pleasantries about the job and are generally too unspecific to help you understand what you really need to know about a job to determine if you like it (or, perhaps more correctly, if the rewards outweigh the bad aspects of the job).

Instead, ask strategic (“tricky”) questions, like:

  • What were you doing last week/month/yesterday at work? (More difficult to “apply spin” when you’re trying to recall something specific)
  • What do you do for fun outside of work? (Indirect way to get a sense of what sort of control people have over their work-life balance)
  • If you could change one or two things about your job, what would they be?
  • What was your best day at work? (Get a sense of what sort of on-the-job rewards, responsibilities, and recognition are possible)
  • What was your worst day at work? (High probability of “spin” in the answer, but still valuable to understand)
  • How many people stay at the firm for longer than 3 years? Why? Where do they go? (Good measure of whether or not people like the job and why)
  • Where do most of your non-college recruits come from? (A good way to assess what sort of person fits in and what sort of skills the firm can help you develop)

image 3. Determine what sort of training and mentorship is available. Success in your career is highly dependent on what sort of skills you can pick up over time and what sort of opportunities you choose to pursue. To that end, understanding what sort of formal training programs are available and how the firm’s more senior members think about mentoring is something that should be on top of every recruit’s mind.

I personally did not even think about mentorship when I did recruiting in college, so I am very lucky that I wound up at a firm with a wide range of training programs and where partners and managers place emphasis on providing advice and coaching to more junior folk. This sort of luck is not something you (or I) should ever count on, and I would highly advise you to find out:

  • Does the firm have ongoing training programs throughout an employee’s career? What sort of training? (Or are there just introductory programs at the start of employment and routine training on rules?)
  • Who conducts the training? (This can help establish whether or not the firm values training and mentorship enough to take senior staff away from their day jobs to do it, or whether or not training is an after-thought)
  • Who do individuals at the firm turn to for advice about their careers? (Is management willing and able to help their workers?)
  • Does the company let employees switch between different roles/divisions? (This is usually a good sign that the firm cares about developing its people by exposing them to more things)

4. Understand the working environment. There are a lot of little things which really can impact how you feel about a job. The challenge is identifying these things. Below, I’ve attached a list of things which I didn’t realize would matter to me so much:

  • Dress – Being required to wear a suit and a tie every day would be a nightmare for me, and so I am fairly grateful that my firm only requires me to dress semi-formally.
  • Location – I love the Bay Area. If you want me to work for you, you better be in the Bay Area.
  • Food – I strongly believe that offices should have breakfast cereal available. Some of my coworkers could pass on breakfast cereal, and complain that we don’t have enough in-office lunches. To each their own.
  • Face-time – Some people (like this blogger) would rather leave the office early to work from home, while some people want work to be only conducted in the office. And some people would rather not show up at all. Understanding where you lie on that spectrum and where the company you’re interested in working at lies on that spectrum is important.
  • Non-business Internet use – Consulting hours are very variable. Some days you’ll be in a rush all day. Some days you’ll have nice valleys of work intensity. As a result, at least at the firm I work at, nobody really minds if you’re on YouTube or Facebook or an RSS reader, as long as you get your work done on time. Some companies do mind. I don’t think I could work for one of those.
  • Socializing at work – Different firms have different approaches to socializing at work. And sometimes, within the same firm, different divisions and groups have different unofficial policies on socializing. If you are the type of person who can’t socialize at work (or stomach other people socializing while you’re working), then you definitely need to know these things.
  • Parties – Are company parties loud and crazy? Or soft and subdued? Are employees friends outside of work?
  • Start/End of day – Some companies have no set start time. Other companies expect you in by 8 AM. Other companies don’t mind as long as you’re in by 10 AM. Depending on how far you plan to live from the office and how late you wake up, this may be an important criteria.

These are just a few examples of things to ask about. What’s important is that you consider what sort of working environment you need to be productive, and find out whether or not the firm you’re talking to can deliver that environment. If they can’t, then it doesn’t really matter how much you like the company: if you’re unproductive, your career will suffer.

Hopefully these four tips help are helpful for people pursuing recruiting. Anyone else have any other tips on how to identify companies that fit you?

(Image credit – Freaking News) (Image credit – gossip) (Image Credit – Mentor)

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