Thursday, October 11, 2012

How to get a job at your favourite company

With MBA recruitment in full swing, having been on both sides of the table now, I thought I’d share some thoughts. This would be most helpful for those seeking Industry employment because this is where I come from.

On campus recruitment is brutal. All the companies come at the same time and you have to attend 5 presentations in one afternoon and then submit 10 applications in one night. Career services gives you helpful, but often conflicting advice (“Focus on what you want”, “Don’t put all the eggs in one basket”). But their goals are slightly different from yours: they need as many of you employed as possible while you want to get your dream job, whatever “dream” means for you.
Why is it that some of your classmates collecting multiple offers while others are left with nothing? Because on campus recruitment is aimed at picking superstars (superstar CV, superstar story-telling/analytical/case-cracking skills). This is bad from the candidate’s perspective, and this is bad from the company perspective as well (we are going after the same small group of people ignoring the larger pool of brilliant folks who don’t know how to sell themselves).
So – how do you stand out?
First, think, in 20 years time, who do you want to be? An automotive executive? A clean-tech energy expert? A brand strategist? An entrepreneur (in which field)? A partner at consulting firm? A retired banker? Pick a few if you cannot decide and work backwards on what steps you need to take you there. I know, this is not a quick fix. But you will have to prioritise. If energy is not on your short list, don’t apply to Shell. Even if they have a great rotational program and pay above market rate.
Second, research the sector. Who are the main players, where the market is going, what the challenges and opportunities are, who the disruptors are. People who work in the industry live and breathe it  every day, and your research (or lack of it) will be very apparent in the interview. But we are not at the interview stage yet.
Third, identify the companies. Find the contacts you may have in these companies (friends, current students, alumni contacts, LinkedIn 2nd degree acquaintances). What roles they have? What background are they coming from? Is there someone there who has a similar background to you? Where do employees in the company come from (which companies or sectors – is there anything you can do in the interim to strengthen your CV)? Reach out to these people. Ask for a coffee or phone conversation. Suggest you come to their office (you can get an office tour and it shows your dedication). Don’t wait to reach out until you have an interview invite. The earlier you do it the better. Alums often participate in CV screening.

  • Don’t send the same email to all the alums in the same company. Personalise. Guess what? We talk to each other.
  • Don’t write a long email with a long list of questions. You can outline 2-3 questions, but suggest a personal meeting (or a phone call if they have no time). Give them a couple of options, if you have a deadline – share it.

Fourth, when you get to the meeting, have good questions. This is where your sector research comes in handy. You are there to learn about the company and culture, the application and the interview process, not to become their best buddies. Get the best use of the time you have.
Fifth, let your career services know of your interest in specific companies. They talk to the company recruiters. Sometimes they can help get you on the shortlist if you don’t make the initial cut.
Finally, you don’t need to attend the company presentation if you have done the steps above. By this stage you will know enough about the company and culture to be able to write a good cover letter. And half of your classmates will quote the presentation anyway. 
Oh yes, good cover letterIf the company asks for cover letter – write a cover letter. If you don’t, it will come and bite you. Even if you get the first round interview, there is always competition for the second round, and I bet the person who gets through have written the cover letter.
There are brilliant cover letters, OK cover letters and bad cover letters. 
Brilliant cover letters usually have the names of people you’re spoken to, share your personal connection and passion for the company, and (bonus points) are written in the company style (i.e., using the language employees use). These are the letters that get me excited. 
OK cover letters are usually the ones from the common template: I am interested in position X. Here are three paragraphs about my skills that you mentioned in your company presentation (you see – I’ve been there!). I am interested in working at your company because you are X. These ones are respectable. If you have a strong CV these will not shoot you down. If your CV is not relevant to the company, you've missed your chance to get an interview.
Bad cover letters are bad in different ways. Check for the do's and don’ts below.

  • Spellcheck. Not just MS Word, but actually read it (and your CV too). Every third Spanish speaker is “costumer focused” (rather than “customer focused”).

  • Don’t write too long or too short cover letter. Good size is between 1/5 - 2/3 of a page.
  • Don’t focus your letter on one specific topic. Even if you are passionate about one specific product or recent news about the company, mention it once and then use the space for something else. After all, you are telling your story, not reciting our press release.
  • Don’t extract a fact about the company from 1999 case from HBS and tell us that this is what makes us real innovators. In fact, don’t play back the marketing message the company gave you – find out what the company employees are actually focusing on and play that back.

Interview. Probably worth a separate post, but to round it up. Things that make you stand out: energy, passion and knowledge of the sector and company. And good stories from your past experiences: where you succeeded and where you screwed up (and what you learnt from it). Also, know yourself. If you are generally loud, tone it down a bit (your interviewer has probably seen 5 other candidates before you). If you are quiet, tone it up: have some Coke, and don’t conceal your interest and passion.
If you don’t get the job – seek feedback. Reach out to the recruiter, ask what you can improve. Reach out to the contacts you spoke to. Some of them may be able to get you an unofficial feedback. There will be other roles later – 6 or 12 months down the line (or even years – good research and contacts pay off, if this is indeed the sector you want to be in long-term). Figure out what was missing and try to bridge the gap by getting the experience in other companies. After all, your career is a long-term game. And this is just one step on the long and successful roadtrip.
Happy job hunting!