The Leading Independent
Resource for Top-tier MBA
Home » Blog » Careers » MBA Career Strategy » The Importance of Sequencing in Your MBA Career Plans

The Importance of Sequencing in Your MBA Career Plans

Among the questions I’ve been asked by MBAs, there are a number that tend to revolve around a set of common, universal concerns. Here are some of the most frequent:

  • Is working for a big company better than working for a small boutique?
  • Is it more important to work for a name-brand employer, rather than a niche, boutique firm that may lack equivalent credential-boosting power?
  • Is it wise / necessary to undertake a couple of years, or more, of banking or consulting work post-MBA, even if that’s not my long-term desired industry choice?
  • Is there any universal rule that allows you to label one job or company as “better” than another?

The answers, of course, depend on the circumstances, on the student’s background and goals, and on a range of other factors, but that doesn’t mean that the questions above can’t be solved at least to some extent. There is, in fact, a single method and key one can use to help unlock these related questions: the concept of sequencing.

Earlier in this weekly series, I discussed the role that evaluating industry, function, and organization plays in deciding which job is “better,” and/or the right one for you (see Three Categories for Choosing the Right Job). Adding the element of time – of sequence – to this model is an additional way to cut through the clutter and to arrive at a good career path decision.

Part of an MBA’s career sequencing strategy has to do with the timing and ebbs and flows of the MBA recruiting process itself. If you know that you’re pursuing opportunities in banking or consulting – industries whose recruiters tend to compete vigorously for MBA talent, and who thus put a premium on being on the early side of attracting applicants, interviewing candidates, and making offers – MBA recruiting is very much a first-year MBA exercise, in the sense that landing the right banking or consulting internship (and then doing well in that internship), increases your chances of getting a full-time offer at that firm somewhere close to 75-80%.

… This is an inexact science, but history shows that there is a lot of inertia involved in companies seeking to retain their MBA interns, and one can, in fact, reverse-engineer the number of full-time offers that second-year MBAs received from a particular employer either as: 1) new candidates in the full-time recruiting process, versus 2) interns who completed that employer’s MBA internship. (The balance is invariably tipped towards the latter.)

But sequencing is more than a matter of knowing whether the premium of one’s effort and execution timing occurs in year one or year two, or in the fall or spring of any given year of business school. It involves connecting one’s career prior to business school with one’s career after business school. And, in this instance, it is possible to generalize. Individual exceptions to the norm aside, my experience has been that for MBAs as a whole – and in only a broad and general, “all else being equal” sense – the following appears to hold true:

Working at a large, name-brand employer first, and then transitioning to a smaller, niche organization afterward tends to work best and to deliver the most value to the employee.

This is the case because careers at many of the most sought-after, most demanding, and perhaps most rewarding, jobs tend to be unsustainable. If I had to choose a metaphor to describe what I mean by “unsustainable”, I would say that working in highly sought-after jobs that require exceptional mental acuity and inordinate physical stamina, in a context in which there are many other extraordinarily talented people across the world willing to perform your job (including, in your stead) is akin to being on the starting roster of an elite soccer club such as FC Barcelona or Manchester United. One has to win one’s position and prove one’s fitness and competence from game to game, and no one takes his starter status for granted.

If pursuing a career in finance or consulting, a demanding role at a Fortune 500 company, or a job in any organization (including non-profits and government agencies) that happens to be the acknowledged leader in its field, represents the equivalent of striving to make the team as part of an elite soccer club (pick your favorite sport here as a proxy), the point in common across all of these roles is that the number of professionals who are able and willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get there and stay there is, ultimately, smaller than the number of people who use the opportunity to gain valuable experience, grow as professionals, and then move on to a context that can be more readily tailored to balancing work with personal life, or that allows the individual to job-sculpt in other ways (discriminating work content, selecting one’s colleagues, choosing a different home city, etc.).

While there are professionals who clearly are meant to be in the elite soccer club-like jobs and organizations, and to stay in them for the long-term to become partners, managing directors, or general managers of business units and of whole companies, the similarity across these roles is that they are often a short-term means to arrive at a more personally sustainable long-term “solution” (especially true if the organizations employ an “up-or-out” performance management strategy).

To return to the concept of sequencing, more often than not it helps to start first at a big organization, where one can be exposed to a multitude of projects, clients, colleagues, and functions (without necessarily specializing in any one area). It’s likewise helpful to have worked at an organization that is recognized as being performance-oriented and demanding … a good training ground for strong managers and leaders … before moving on to a role and organization that is perhaps smaller, has a lower rate of turn-over, and offers a less relentless cycle of proving oneself against an ascending performance bar.

Despite the fact that one learns and does different things at different stages of career progression in any organization, it remains a generally valid notion that if you, the MBA student, have excelled in one of these high-intensity roles prior to business school, then being in an MBA program affords you the opportunity to “graduate” and move on to something more well-tailored to the individual, and, conversely, that if you’ve not experienced that level of professional rigor prior to business school, then doing so during and immediately after school can serve to round out your education … to provide you with the post-MBA work equivalent of the residency program that physicians undertake prior to settling into their long-term medical specialty and specific type of organizational practice.

Hence, although it’s not truly possible to say that one job, or one type of job, is “better” than another, without qualification and without addressing the specific abilities, goals, and preferences of the individual MBA student, it is possible to identify specific types of experiences – the highly “athletic” professional roles – that tend to serve a valuable developmental and credentialing function, and that are easiest to pursue either when one’s baseline fitness and ability to absorb new skills and knowledge is highest (in the years between college and graduate school, for example), or when one is investing time and effort in a natural inflection point and a specific training ground – business school – that provides a good segue and preparation for that demanding career track.

Thinking of sequence and of where one is on the developmental path from big to small, general to specific, and temporary to long-term is a helpful way to tackle the broad questions mentioned above, and to come that much closer to making the right decision about what career path to pursue during business school. Of course, that picture changes somewhat if one of the options under consideration is entrepreneurship. More on that topic in the coming week!

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.