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Career Services Director Q&A: VK Menon of the Indian School of Business

vk-menonVK Menon has served as director of Career Advancement Services at the Indian School of Business (ISB) since 2004, a role in which he helps to build and strengthen relationships between the school and the corporate world. He leads a team of 30 executives who help ISB’s class of 770 students secure top jobs in India and elsewhere.

Prior to joining ISB, Menon was a professor of marketing and sales management at SDM-IMD, a business school in Mysore. He spent more than a decade before that devising marketing strategies for some of India’s most recognized corporations, including BPL, Philips and Nelco.

In the interview that follows, he outlines the recruitment process at ISB and talks about the valuable role alumni play as part of a program called Knowledge Transfer Sessions by Alums. Clearly, he and his team must be doing something right. The school had its best-ever placement record this year, with 425 companies making 820 offers to ISB students.

Clear Admit: How do you view your role as director of Career Advancement Services? Is it to administer workshops? Counsel students? Counsel companies? Manage the entire office and oversee its various functions? All of the above?

VK Menon: The primary objective of the head of Career Advancement Services is to manage three interests: 1) That of the recruiters, who would like to hire the talent that best fits their requirements; 2) That of individual students, who would like to get a role that they would love to work in, in a company of their choice, and 3) That of the business school, which would like to ensure that the entire class gets placed within three months of graduation.

To ensure the above there are three critical requirements. First, a thoroughly professional outreach team, who would partner with companies, understand their requirements and match the same with the talent available in the class. Second, a strong Learning and Development (L&D) team, who brings in industry expertise and also counsels students, coaching them to put their best foot forward to get the jobs that they desire. And third, a meticulous Process team, who works “zero defect” to ensure a smooth flow of activities. The head of Career Services needs to ensure that all three of these components are working seamlessly.

CA: Now, about your team. How many career advisors do you have? Is this a relatively constant figure? If not, how has it changed in recent years? How might it change in the near future?

VKM: The team currently has 30 executives including one senior director and three directors. In the last three years, the team has grown from 25 to 30 members. This growth has come primarily to cater to the growth of the school itself – the class size went up from 560 to 770. Going forward, we plan to increase the marketing team (we call this team the Corporate Relations team, and they are the ones who are in touch with recruiters) from 16 to 20. This team works from different locations in India and also has a separate wing that deals with international recruiters.

CA: Can you provide prospective applicants with an overview of the recruitment process at ISB? When does it start? How does it unfold?

VKM: The process starts as soon as the new class settles in. In the first month itself, our Learning and Development (L&D) team has one-on-one sessions with all students. From here we get an aggregate idea of the areas on which we need to focus with companies. The Corporate Relations team is thoroughly professional and works based on the best practices in the B-to-B industry. They are not sales oriented but are equipped to form partnerships with recruiters, understand recruiter needs and counsel them on ways in which they can get the most appropriate talent for their roles. For this to be done, deep understanding of both the functions and industries is a must.

Industry stalwarts come to campus on a regular basis. Last year saw more than 100 CEOs visiting campus and interacting with students. Some of these interactions are in the large format, as in a lecture, but many of these are focused meetings, where the students come prepared so they can have individual interactions at a deeper level. In one of the interactions, named “Gurukul,” top managers stay over for a weekend and meet with interested students on a one-on-one basis.

Alumni play a key role in the all-round development of students toward placements. Again, many of these are programmed interactions. Knowledge Transfer Sessions by Alums (KTSA) is a program wherein alums come over to acquaint students about the industries that they currently work in. They help with résumé reviews, mock interviews and counseling and also are buddies with the current students.

Recruiters also help out in significant ways. They are eager to ensure that the students are well prepared and that they are in a position to hit the ground running when they are hired. Senior managers come over, normally during weekends, and train student on industry, job roles and also in skills like interviewing.

The Corporate Relations team is able to generate a fairly clear idea of recruitment for the year by around October. The process starts around this time, with companies coming over for pre-placement talks. Interviews start from December. The process is what we call “rolling placements.” Given that the average work experience of the class is five years and that the range is between two and 30 years, sometimes multiple interviews are required across several days before an offer can be made.

A student can take two offers. However she is off the placement system once she accepts one offer.

More than 425 companies participated in placements for the class of 2013. These companies made a total of 820 offers. All students were placed within three months of graduation. Consulting, technology, sales and marketing and finance were dominant sectors, but there were many niche roles and new trends. For example, early-stage companies with VC funding showed particular interest in ISB students this year. These companies not only made offers matching the remuneration of established and major recruiters, but they also offered challenging senior to top management roles, with stocks thrown in. The challenge to become the “next big thing” was taken up by many. It appealed to their spirit of adventure and confidence.

The entire placement process is done over an e-platform, so that there are no clashes or mistakes. It is very important that the whole system is error free. To give an idea of magnitude, on one day there were more than 1,000 interviews to be scheduled smoothly, ensuring that the shortlisted candidates reached recruiters on time and without any clashes.

Incidentally, ISB had our best placement record ever this year.

CA: How has the economy impacted recruitment at ISB? How have you and your staff remained flexible or adapted in order to help students navigate a more challenging job market? Have you encouraged flexibility on the part of students themselves?

VKM: Placements are not as dependant on the state of the economy as they are on outreach efforts and on having a clear understanding of the needs of the customer. In an economy which was seen by analysts as “cautious” at best, we grew by 32 percent in terms of offers made over last year and by 30 percent in terms of the number of companies that participated. The students do get a lot of support from the L&D team. This team is divided into verticals, and each vertical has specialists. It is the role of these specialists, who are very senior professionals from industry, to guide students to their destinations. The result of such conversations with students is that they get to be more grounded and are able to negotiate a win-win deal with the recruiter.

CA: How does your team counsel students regarding the interview? Is there a formal mock interview process? How are interview schedules administered? Is there an established policy regarding how closed and open interviews should be conducted? What facilities are available for interviews?

VKM: There is certainly a lot of focus on preparations. The simple fact is that a student should not lose out just because he or she is not prepared well. Mock interview schedules are drawn up in advance, and students get prepared for the same. They are then met in a formal setting by senior in-house professionals. Alumni also come over and participate in these sessions. We also leverage technology, like video conferencing.

CA: What kind of role do alumni play in ISB’s recruiting process? How integral are they to your office’s success? Is alumni participation a major part of your placement platform?

VKM: Alumni are not just an important factor, they are the critical ones in this process. They connect Corporate Relations with companies and within companies to the various business leaders, they explain the lay of industry through the Knowledge Transfer Sessions by Alumni (KTSA) program, they participate in all the preparatory processes, like mock interviews, résumé reviews, the buddy system and so on. They are fully committed to the school.

CA: Do you have any advice for prospective applicants in terms of what they might do in advance of the MBA program to be better prepared for the job search process? In your experience, do you find that students who have done x, y or z before arriving on campus have a more successful experience with career services and the job search as a whole?

VKM: Let us look at the three components that are normally assessed by the recruiters – attitude, skills and knowledge. Applicants need to be aware of the requirements for various roles. For example, let’s say that an applicant wants to join a consulting company post the MBA program. The more she tunes her mind with the requirements that consulting companies have, the better off she will be when the interviews finally happen. Students need to sharpen their skills in problem solving. They need to be able to present well. They need to be able to logically put forward their views and convince others. They need to listen well to the viewpoints of others and take in their views in their replies. They need to be abreast of what is happening in the world around them. These are not skills that can be mastered over a short term. The more they tune in with the requirements of their potential recruiters, the easier their path to success will be.