Networking Principles

October 11, 2009

Many people ask me about “networking”. One of the basic observations I make is that “networking” isn’t useful unless you are doing it WITH CONTENT. (A friend of mine heard this concept from a mentor many years ago and I have adopted it.) Without content, you are simply annoying people. There’s nothing to talk about other than what you want from them. That’s not networking, it’s begging. I’ll give a specific example that frustrated me this week and then give a few words of advice.

I just received an email from a friend describing a recent experience they had with students at a career conference. The students were networking for potential job opportunities and potential employers were there scouting talent. I had such a visceral sense of frustration from the feedback that it’s making me post immediately on this topic (over the “figuring out what you want” post promised last week).

So what happened and why was I aggravated? (head shaking…)

Here’s the paraphrased and summarized feedback: I really wanted to help these students, but they did a few things that made it impossible to support them. First, they hadn’t prepared. They simply didn’t know anything about my company. Second, they wanted an informational interview but expected to set it up and conduct it while I was working an event. Third, several students represented to my colleagues that they knew me well when in fact we are not close.  

I have a few snarky rhetorical questions based on the feedback:

1 – How can you possibly think that not researching your target company will work?

Networking with content means actually having something to say. You don’t need to be teaching targets something. Simply understanding their company and asking smart questions about how you might fit or what their major issues are can be enough.

That assumes you’ve done some basic homework.

By the way –I bet there were candidates at the conference who did do research. They made better impressions. In many of these situations, recruiters are going to see hundreds of resumes to make 5-15 offers. In normal hiring situations it’s for 1 position. You don’t even get a second look if you mess up basics.

2 – What do you hope to gain from asking a target to go out of their way to help you?

Develop a sense of what to ask for and when to ask. I always coach people to ask for help. Most people will want to help reasonable requests when they can. Make them reasonable. In the case I cited, people who were planful could have reached out in advance, had a phone conversation etc. Rather, they were last minute and trying to bend their target’s schedule to their needs. That is NOT how to win friends and influence people.  It smacks of lack of preparation and opportunism. It’s shallow.

Genuine interest is shown through proper due diligence, professionalism in communication and cementing that impression in excellent live conversations.

By the way 2 – shallowness in networking is patently obvious to the targets. Authenticity is as well. Be authentic.

3 – Do you think that overstating a connection to get play will work out well in the end?

The prior two are attributable to laziness or lack of common sense. This one leans towards ethical issues. NEVER misrepresent your relationships to gain an advantage. It will kill you eventually.

Do you think people at companies don’t talk? If you drop a name, you better be sure that person will back you up.

Enough said.

Conclusion

In closing, my advice is networking 101 but apparently needs to be regularly re-enforced. 

First – Network with content. Be prepared and have some good (open ended, conversation starting) questions prepared. Make sure they reflect a basic understanding of the company. DON’T try to be “too cool for school” and act like you really understand the company. You don’t work there yet, so you don’t. But do show that you’ve thought about the target in some detail and are genuinely interested. Lacking this, you will appear shallow and merely in search of whatever you can find.

Second – Be planful and respectful. Your targets are doing you a favor. They may be very generous and open, but they are still giving up their time to help you for no immediate return to them. So MAKE IT EASY! Meet them where they are on their schedule. If they have 5 minutes on the phone while at the airport, then you make that work. If you don’t understand why this is important, talk to someone who can explain it to you. (Sticking tongue out…)

Third – Don’t be a tool. Nobody likes them and being one will destroy far more value for you than it creates.

 I want to reinforce how valuable and fun networking can and should be. Just remember to use common sense and good judgment when doing it.


Figuring Out What You Want – Part 1

October 4, 2009

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately that end up being about helping people think through what they actually want. I thought I’d hit on a few themes that I think are important and seem to be consistent across these conversations. I’ve written about this in past posts, but my thinking has evolved over time. I want to dig a little deeper.

This will be a multi-part column with the first post focusing on the traps I see people fall into. Part 2 will discuss how to think through your actual goals.

The Trap(s)

There are a number of common traps that I see people fall into.  Almost all of them come down to some form of getting caught up in externally driven expectations.  It’s important to name some of the common traps to help identify WHY you are perhaps off track.

1 – Others’ expectations – Anything that is driven by your perception that other’s goals for you matter more (or even as much) as your own.

Examples: My parents (or family) have certain expectations of me.  I can’t major in (fill in the blank) because it isn’t what I’m supposed to do. They won’t pay for that. What will other people say?

2 – Competitiveness (ie: I have to “win”) – Any motive that is driven by your need to be “the best” if it is in an area you don’t have personal passion around. Competitiveness is perfectly fine if it’s directed purposefully into things of your own choosing.

Examples: I’m going to get that position because it’s the hardest one to get.

3 – Cultural Influences (ie: Keeping up with the Jones’) Decisions driven by your perception of income levels, standard of living or “coolness”.

Examples:  It’s the best paying position I was offered. That career path is what I’m supposed to want (everyone else wants it). If I take that I can afford a new Acura.

4 – Laziness (ie: Path of least resistance) Any decision predicated on the fact that you haven’t worked at generating more interesting options. You’re following the well trodden path because it’s easy, not because you want to.

Examples: I just applied for the positions that were posted. I don’t have time to go meet with people outside the company given my busy schedule. I don’t have time to think about what I want.

5 – Our own illusions – Sometimes we haven’t re-thought our own goals in awhile and are holding on to some path for reasons that are no longer valid.

Examples: It’s always been my dream to do x (except it really isn’t anymore and I won’t let myself off the hook).

Conclusion

I want to make two points in closing out.  First, we all get caught up in other’s expectations to some degree. The point of this post is to get you to think through your motives and make sure there is a big part of the direction you’re headed that is YOU.

Second, any of the above reasons may be a perfectly appropriate motive if it is in line with your own internal compass. It’s great if you and your parents and friends all want you to be a doctor. BUT, if everyone wants you to be something that feels like the wrong track to you then I would start thinking through your direction.

My next post will be about ways to think about what YOUR goals are.


Case Interviewing

September 19, 2009

A major stressor for a bunch of my students at this time of year is case interviewing. Many of the top recruiters of both UG and MBA students use some form of problem solving interview to gauge candidates’ analytical skills as well as their grace under pressure. I’ll lay out a few of the major themes I review with people as they prepare to go through this process.

What are firms looking for?

  1. Analytical abilities – How clearly can you develop an analytical framework, dissect a problem, create clear alternatives and effectively communicate a recommendation?
  2. Poise – How well do you handle stress and intense questioning? Do you get lost in a sea of data or do you understand what’s important? Do you stand your ground when appropriate or cave under pressure? Do you hard headedly stick to ill conceived positions? How comfortable are you in your own skin?
  3. Fit – Are you one of us? Do you think like we do? Am I comfortable with you in front of my clients on day one?

Each of these is important and falling down on any one is a killer. Keep in mind that you can do really well on all and not get an offer based on how competitive the field is for these roles.

How do I handle the case?

1. Frame the problem

You are typically asked a question or presented and introductory slide or two with data. Make sure you understand the question and then take a few minutes to collect your thoughts and commit them to paper in a logic tree.

Success (failure is the inverse of these):

  • You clearly repeat the question and understand any clarifications the interviewer offers
  • You lay out a reasonable approach

Traps:

  • DO NOT assume too much. I see candidates try to be too clever and jump to conclusions. This is death in a case. You will waste time, spin wheels and not be demonstrating any of traits 1-3 above.

2. Dig for details

Once you’ve laid out a framework you start asking good questions. This is a narrowing process to eliminate potential problems of avenues that don’t apply. You are trying to show your breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your ability to synthesize in real time.

This is where you are showing your analytical skills. How well do you handle challenges? How well do you respond when what you thought might be the answer has no data and so (obviously) isn’t a useful path?

Also important is how curious and intuitive are you? Stated differently, do you demonstrate an aptitude for being a driving problem solver? Too many people are trying to be formulaic in digging. I call it “wielding frameworks.” Don’t tell me you’ll do a Porter’s 5 Forces. Do it. When I pose you an interesting conundrum, be curious and dig until you’re satisfied you’ve reached the bottom of the information well.

Also, think about what you’re saying here. Many people simply talk too much without good information. You can put waayyy too much out there for your interviewer (or inquisitor) to jump on. Share pertinent information or insights. You definitely want to share your thinking. Just be careful what and when you share it.

More business students than you might think have gotten great grades, but aren’t “savvy”. They can lose sight of what matters in unstructured problems. Solving an undefined case is much harder than getting to the crux of a pricing case when you’re in a pricing class and the case relates to this week’s reading. In that situation, you already have the problem domain narrowed way down. Here you have to figure out the problem

Success:

  • Asking good questions that are on point
  • Taking direction and guidance from interviewer. Most are trying to assist you. Don’t treat them as adversaries.
  • Demonstrating curiosity
  • Demonstrating good business acumen/intuition/savviness

Traps:

  • Not listening to guidance
  • Talking too much in advance of intuition and/or data
  • Failing to follow through on useful paths (this is where “curiosity” matters)

3. Develop the math/reach insight

There is typically a key insight in the case. It might be quantitative – I’ve given you numbers and you reach a financial conclusion (ex: Product line A isn’t profitable) It might be qualitative – based on asking good questions it turns out that you learn a new competitor has entered the market. Either way, you reach an insight that can then drive you to conclusions about sensible recommendations going forward.

It is critically important that you demonstrate comfort with number for those firms that care. Assume McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting and Deloitte all care a lot. Do you get what direction the numbers are moving and at what scale? Also – don’t make it harder than it has to be. My emphasis is on understanding. Don’t worry about the 3rd decimal point here. If someone says 190,000, do the math with 200,000. It’s easier and you’ll still get to the right conclusion. Keep it as simple as you can.

Success:

  • Obviously, getting the “right” answer matters. But it’s not the only thing.
  • Understanding the insight you’ve reached. Again this sounds obvious, but many candidates don’t understand what they’ve just learned.
  • Demonstrating comfort with the scale and direction of numbers.

Traps:

  • Thinking you are done. You’re NOT! This is only partial credit. You have to move on to step 4.
  • Blowing the math. People get wrapped up in the math and can fluster.

4. Make recommendations

Take time to think through what to say. It’s an opportunity to regroup and spend 60 seconds jotting down your ideas. You are trying to show the comprehensiveness of your thinking on solutions to the problem as well as the implications of the solutions.

As an example, I use a case that is about profitability. One of the potential recommendations a candidate could make amounts to “eliminate this customer segment because we lose money on them”. Perfectly good recommendation if qualified by some statement like “understanding that I’d want to know more about our fixed vs. variable costs (and then why)”. In essence, do you understand that the financial accounting for profit might be different than the managerial accounting of it? Unqualified you leave the impression you don’t understand the cost accounting implications of what you’ve said and I will proceed to dig until it hurts. On the other hand if you don’t even mention cutting this segment you are missing an obvious potential solution.

The idea is to frame all the available actions that could be promising, walk the interviewer through them and the implications of each.

Success:

  • Getting the bulk of the potential recommendations
  • Responding well to challenges of your logic

Traps:

  • Missing major potential solutions
  • Not understanding the likely implications of your recommendations
  • Thinking your done at “insight”
  • Being shallow

Closing thoughts

  • Practice. A lot.

Successful candidates have typically done 10+ practice cases and I have some students who’ve done 25+. Some people may be clever enough to just stand and deliver w/o this practice. I wouldn’t count on you being one of them. In many case it takes a 3.8 GPA and very high standardized test scores to be considered for a 1st round interview.

A Bain consultant recently told me (paraphrased) that “everyone we interview is super smart. It’s more about how they handle our process and culture. Then it’s how they stack up against other candidates what are all awesome as well.”

Practice can take many forms. Get in the habit of asking your self “why?” a lot. Read the WSJ with a clinical eye and try to understand what’s going on behind a particular story. Find a few friends and grill each other on mini cases etc.

  • Relax and have fun – If you don’t find this at least a little fun, you are probably not well suited to the industry.
  • This discipline is directly applicable to ANY problem solving situation. The same skills apply to work place, classroom and any other environment that requires organizing your thinking to solve a problem.
  • Find contacts at the firm who’ll practice a case with you. They all have slightly different styles. Most alums want to help you. Let them.
  • Resources: The best selling case prep book is Case in Point. It’s a great resource to start with.  Don’t get too wrapped up in the frameworks and drilling on them independently. Practice matters far more past a basic understanding of the method.

Good luck. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Related Post: Case Interviewing Feedback


Best Places to Start Your Career

September 16, 2009

Here is Businessweek’s assessment of the best places to start. A few caveats: 1) It assumes you want to be at a big place, 2) all lists like this gloss over lots of intricate details that are important to you as an individual. Ernst & Young may be a great place to work for accountants, but not if you don’t want to be an accountant. You get the idea.

Never-the-less, its an interesting list and set of articles that get at the realities of big company life and how the workplace has changed over the last few years for new hires.

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/toc/09_37/B4146career.htm


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