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How to Tell If Someone Truly Loves His or Her Job

It’s a given, as most business school students in the midst of MBA recruiting know, that the alumni and employer representatives who visit campus for company presentations, coffee chats, and various other career-oriented events tend to be the ones who enjoy their work the most (and are the most successful at it). The end result, in terms of what these alumni and recruiters share with students who are evaluating their career options, is that almost every aspect of internships and post-MBA careers at “organization X” is described in superlative terms.

The amount of responsibility granted to MBAs who join the organization is outstanding; access to senior firm leaders and decision-makers is great; the work content is stimulating; the chance to achieve impact is awesome; your colleagues are talented and fun to be with; compensation and performance bonuses are off the charts, etc. It can seem as though, despite some concessions (long work hours, travel demands), careers across a wide range of employers are all rated “A++”.

Thus, a question I’ve often been asked by students is: how can you truly tell when an organization lives up to its projected image, when a job truly is fun? Are there tell-tale signs to zero in on and ways to tell when an employer experience truly does stand out from the rest? … How can you tell if an alumnus or alumna you speak with truly loves his or her job?

Although it may seem a purely subjective realm, I’ve found that there are three categories to focus on that can demarcate job/work experiences which are merely positive from those that are transcendent.

Look for internal value rather than external importance.
When an alum you speak with describes the nature and quality of his or her work, there is usually a difference between describing that work as having general importance or value that is externally validated by aspects of society (customers, clients, shareholders, etc.) and reflected in terms of compensation and prestige, and describing that work as having personal value and significance.

When an alum is speaking about the value of his or her role, is it in relation to a generic value – something like the size of an M&A deal, the employer’s total assets under management, or the market cap of a company (impressive in an external, impersonal way) – that is described as the “value” of the work? Or is it something that is clearly an internally-driven sentiment, such as the extent to which the alum takes intellectual pleasure in tackling a particular type of work problem (e.g., a complex options pricing question, or managing currency exchange risk)?

In my experience, MBA alumni who truly enjoy their work don’t couch their satisfaction in terms of the external worth that society or the economy places on their efforts, but on the degree to which they themselves find meaning and value in it.

Pick up on personal preferences rather than universal perks.
In line with this theme, is a particular job, working for ‘company X’, described as something that its employees as a whole enjoy, or as something that the person you are speaking to enjoys in a personal, highly-specific way?

There is a difference between noting that a company has great perks and amenities that are universally enjoyed (awesome cafeterias and nap pods, for example) and describing the singular, personal value derived from some aspect of work (being able to eat vegetarian meals at work if one is vegetarian, or making use of a generous maternity leave policy, for example).

When an alumnus describes the extent to which his own work style, philosophy, values, family or other personal needs match the values of the organization he is a part of – rather than the universal perks enjoyed by staff members – that information is worth listening to closely. In contexts in which it might make sense, it’s also worthwhile to ask about performance reviews and feedback processes, management structure, and other organizational fundamentals that tend not to be part of corporate presentations or company careers website pages, but that are significant drivers of workplace culture and employee experiences.

Stay attuned to choice of words as sources of authenticity.
Most of all, it makes sense to pay attention not only to tone, body language, and other physical cues that convey a speaker’s feelings, but to note the actual words employed. What is the emotional weight of the adjectives and adverbs employed?

When an alumna describes having reached certain revenue goals or performance targets, for example, are the words employed simply matter-of-fact and dispassionate, or do you hear words and sentiments to the following effect: “I am so proud of our efforts. I love taking on this challenge. I can’t wait to launch our new product line, etc.”

Though I realize some speakers are more emotive than others as a matter of personal delivery style, I believe that whenever someone discusses a topic that they find truly inspirational, you do hear words like “proud,” “love,” “excited,” “fun,” “looking forward to,” and “can’t wait.” The absence of words like these can also communicate a powerful message … perhaps that “it’s just a job.”

Of course, the one pitfall in focusing on the extent to which someone is genuinely passionate about his or her work experiences is the fact that that person’s preferences may or may not correlate with yours. You may in fact flounder in a position that someone else finds incredibly rewarding and interesting. It makes sense, therefore, to not only evaluate the authenticity of the person sharing a set of work experiences, but to try to match your background and personal preferences to his or hers, and to decide, ultimately, if the people you are meeting at MBA employer presentations are the sort of people you want to emulate, collaborate, and be associated with.

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.