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Three Categories for Choosing the Right Job

Now that it’s February – a time during which many first-year MBAs receive and evaluate internship job offers, and during which current MBA applicants begin to decide whether attending a specific business school will help effect the career change they envision – it’s a good time to examine a simple, three-step framework for evaluating any new job opportunity, one that can apply in any context (from choosing among large multinationals to deciding which start-up venture is the right ‘fit’ for you).

The good news is that there are fundamentally only three things to consider – industry, function, and organization. The bad news is that it’s easy to lose track of these simple criteria and tempting to overcomplicate one’s decision by focusing in on variables that tend to matter less in the long-run (such as differences in compensation or signing bonus at the start of a new job versus the long-term steady rise or increase in slope of one’s earnings).

Being able to compare and contrast job opportunities according to the simple variables of industry, function, and organization is important for MBAs, not least because changing these variables in the next stage of one’s career (during one’s 30s and beyond, rather than during one’s 20s) becomes both increasingly challenging and also, I would argue, unpleasant. It’s much tougher to change course at age 36 than at age 26, for example, to have to prove oneself in an entirely new line of work, and to compete with colleagues or other job candidates who may have already been working in that field for a decade or more.

With the exception of working in professional services such as investment banking or consulting for a 2-4 year stint after business school – the MBA equivalent of doing a ‘residency program’ after finishing medical school, and having another professional training ground and stepping stone before finally choosing a steady-state field – most job choices for newly-minted MBAs are meant to be a lot more sticky, and a lot less exploratory, than the career choices one makes coming out of college. Here, then, are the criteria …

Industry. Regardless of what you do for a specific organization (from managing its supply chain to overseeing its public relations), the time that you spend performing that work means that you’ve accumulated more and more domain expertise specific to that industry … and not in any other industry. Whether you work in telecommunications or in oil and gas, in private wealth management or venture capital, in higher education or in CPG and retail, your total accumulated hours in that field translate to both practical know-how and an ability to innovate and capitalize on change that would be difficult for a newcomer to replicate.

Therefore, a big driver of your MBA internship or full-time job decision should be the extent to which you would be happy being more and more deeply enmeshed in the creation and marketing of smart phones or in the act of teaching and managing curricula and student services, to choose from two of the examples above.

A quick tip: it’s critically important that your close friends and family are able to see you working in a particular field for a long period of time; if you’re hearing pointed feedback of the “I can see you truly loving that job” or, alternatively, the “I can’t see you doing that job for years and years” variety, please pay close attention. It’s likely that the people who’ve known you the longest, care about your long-term interest, and are less influenced by the hot industry of the day – whether private equity or cleantech – are likely to have a good read on the right industry fit for you, even when you yourself may feel that your industry choice is not obvious.

All else being equal, you’ve made the right choice, industry-wise, if 5-10 years down the line, you’re still excited about new developments in your field, about competition with other organizations in the same industry, and about your own contribution to that industry.

Function. Although one’s career choices with regard to function can sometimes feel nebulous (‘product management’ and ‘business development’ can mean many different things across industries), focusing on one’s functional choice – whether that function is finance, marketing, operations, etc. – can be a valuable way to not only build domain expertise (industry related know-how) but also an execution capacity and skill-set that can be applied across many different types of organizations and industries. And ‘function’ can be a nuanced concept … your function may be a specific type of M&A activity or IPO-related expertise, or even a conceptual category such as ‘change management’ and/or corporate restructuring.

Having functional expertise can be a great hedge against a downturn in a specific industry (for example, marketing skills one develops in the automotive industry, for example, could offer a good segue to marketing roles in consumer hardware and technology). When MBAs pursue post-MBA careers in banking and finance, they are developing their financial and strategy/consulting functional skill-sets primarily, though, given enough time, those functional abilities are more often than not linked to a specific underlying industry (e.g., ‘technology, media, and telecommunications’, or TMT, as a specific area of client service in banking). Over time, most MBA graduates experience a convergence of their industry expertise and functional niche … having an area of focus and a track-record within a specific field, combined with a broad general management education, is what enables MBAs to earn high levels of compensation for their specialized knowledge and skills.

Organization. It may seem obvious, but choosing the right organization … whether a private sector company, nonprofit organization, or a public sector agency … can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful career, and there are three things to consider when choosing the right one.

The first is the organization’s current and future competitive trajectory within its industry. Does it have a strong R&D pipeline, great intellectual property, contracts, or other marketplace advantage? Are its products and services good, and is the company’s reputation and level of integrity with respect to all of its business practices high? Does the organization have a talent strategy that makes it an employer of choice? Are management decisions characterized by long-term thinking and reinvestment of profits? Joining an organization that is on an upswing is almost always a better idea than joining one that is experiencing downsizing, layoffs, restructuring, etc.

The second thing to consider, and a factor not to be overlooked, is your own ‘fit’ with a specific organizational culture. Though fit can also seem difficult to define, here are some ways to test whether an organization is the match for you. Given the people you’ve met at a specific company, would you want to spend time with them outside of work, or not? Are the things you read in the media about your company things that you feel proud of, or that make you cringe? Do you aspire to be like the senior managers and leaders of your organization, or are they not role models for you? The overall goal is to choose that company where you will feel most intellectually stimulated and socially fulfilled, and where your contribution to its efforts will equate to a legacy and a set of memories and stories that you would be happy to recount years down the line.

I know that finding all of these positive variables at once can feel impossible at times, but it nonetheless makes sense to seek out and select those organizations that represent more pluses than minuses for you, personally. Your own nature, proclivities and interests should be a big variable in selecting an organization.

Last, organizations are made of people, and whether an organization is large or small, those few individuals whom you work with closely, including your direct supervisor, have an outsized influence on your ability to succeed and to be recognized for your contribution. It’s a smart business school student who realizes that his or her second-choice employer might trump the first-choice company due to the presence of a superior manager and a working relationship that is likely to evolve into the sort of mentoring and sponsorship that can truly accelerate an MBA graduate’s career.

When looking at the people of an organization, think about their own professional backgrounds, education and training. Variables such as the extent to which there other fellow MBAs, and whether your colleagues (at a VC firm, for example) are former bankers, consultants, lawyers, or engineers will greatly influence what sorts of skills and traits are expected of you, as well as what you will likely learn and gain from your peers.

Be thoughtful about the social networks and personal reputations of the people you work with … joining a small company, in which you are mentored by an industry thought leader with a broad social network who is likely to recognize and promote your abilities when you seek your next career step may be a better choice than joining a large organization simply for the sake of the weak ties with thousands of fellow firm members spread across the world.

If your choices are limited, and you’re forced to focus on only one variable in choosing an organization, my preference, more often than not, is to focus on the likelihood of success in getting along with your manager. Though this can be difficult in fields such as management consulting, in which you are initially rotated and assigned to different client projects and lead partners, it nonetheless makes sense to seek out and build relationships with those leaders in your organization that you would seek to emulate.

And that’s all there is to it. These three variables – industry, function, and organization, the fundamental building blocks and categories of comparison for evaluating a job opportunity – are all that you need to make a good career choice.

Ivan Kerbel  – bio:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.

Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.