Navigating the “Career Jungle Gym” – Managing Your Career in the New World of Work

As many current mid- to late-career professionals will testify, proactively managing one’s career in today’s world of work is challenging. And, in these post-Great Recession years, recent graduates of undergraduate and graduate programs—even from top MBA schools like Darden—will readily recount the anxieties and challenges of landing that first job. It is old news that job security is a thing of the past and no secret that today’s labor market holds some harsh realities. The traditional “career ladder” of the Corporate Man era morphed into the “career lattice” of the 1980s through the early 2000s, and in the most recent decade has evolved into a “career jungle gym.” To add to the career challenges of professionals, today’s managers operate in thinly staffed and highly matrixed organizations that focus on short term financial results and allow them little time or budget to offer career coaching or professional development to their reports.

The jungle gym metaphor was referenced by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook in her 2013 book, Lean In, when she described her own career, “A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career. I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.” Experienced career consultants who have coached professionals from all career stages can easily relate to the jungle gym metaphor. The climber my go up a few rungs initially, and then find it easier to move laterally, and at times necessary to move down a few rungs in order to get to the desired position. The mental image of this metaphor conjured for those in the career management business will likely not resemble the newer, safety-proofed jungle gyms with the synthetic soft-landing underground surface, but rather the monkey bars of yesteryear, constructed of solid metal that stood on blacktop playgrounds and were much more unforgiving when the climber lost his footing.  A fall from the old-fashioned monkey bars likely guaranteed that the displaced climber would arise bruised, dazed and unsure of where to get back on. This powerful metaphor is illustrative of how the generations in today’s workforce will experience their careers throughout their work lifespan.

Career obstacles and setbacks are frustrating, and require resilience to rebound and tenacity to get back in and stay in the game. Today, no combination of education, experience and natural ability can ensure an obstacle-free navigation through the career jungle gym. That is why many professionals find the need to reach out to a career coach for guidance at some point in their trajectory. Absent of a career development initiative or a mentor within one’s organization, seeking outside advice can offer the safe harbor of confidentiality for exploration without worry about repercussions from self-disclosure. Counsel from a competent career coach can illuminate possibilities and remove the emotional logjams that people face when they try to go it alone. Progressing to the next appropriate step in one’s career takes self-awareness, knowledge of the labor market, employing focused job search techniques and the execution of a strategic search plan. Of course, these efforts must be supported by the willingness to be accountable to one’s coach and invest sustained energy in the process.

Darden Alumni are fortunate to have access to the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services which offers them free career consulting services for life.  This incredible resource was made possible by the establishment of the Alumni Career Services fund in 1998 and was developed with the inspiration and vision of Mr. Armstrong, a Darden School Foundation trustee and lead donor at the time of its founding. As the summer months come to a close and the final quarter of the year approaches, there often comes a time of reckoning for professionals impacted by the year’s corporate events or who feel the need to make a change. We thought it timely to reach out to our alumni as we enter into the fourth quarter of 2015 as a reminder of the value that the ACS can provide when you get “stuck” in your career.

Here are some examples of a few of the recent inquiries that have come into our ACS coaches:

  • I was just laid off—where do I begin in ramping up a job search?
  • I’ve been in my role in this company a year now and I’m miserable—I can’t figure out if I chose the wrong career path, or this is just the wrong company for me….”
  • We just learned that our company is divesting my business in the coming months, so I need to update my resume
  • I just found out that I am a final candidate and have a face-to-face, on-site panel interview scheduled —how should I prepare?
  • I did not get the final offer—can you help me rekindle my search?
  • I’ve been at this search for several months and I’m not getting any traction—what am I doing wrong?
  • Can you look at my LinkedIn profile and help me improve it so I that get more interest?
  • I know that networking is the key, but I am very reluctant about reaching out to people in my network—can you help me get past this?
  • I am stuck at my current company—it is evident that there are no more growth opportunities for me —what should I do?
  • I am trying to “re-launch” my career after being out for several years to attend to family matters. My confidence is ebbing—can you give me some advice on things I should do to increase my chances of success?

Do any of these issues sound familiar?  If the answer is “yes” or you could use support with navigating your own “career jungle gym,” consider reaching out to the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services to schedule an appointment  with a career coach.

Shelby Olson, Interim Director of Alumni Career Services, The Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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Technology, Startups – Broad Insights from a Conference in the Bay

I was in the Bay Area last week for a conference with an alliance of peers who provide career services to working professional MBA’s (Alumni and Executive or PT students) at top business schools around the world.  The annual meeting is always an energizing and rejuvenating experience as we take a deep dive into MBA careers in specific industries or markets, engage with experts and share knowledge with each other.  Since we were in San Francisco this year, we concentrated on Technology and Startups, hearing from Venture Capitalists, Entrepreneur coaches and experts while visiting Google and Plug & Play during the week.  I confirmed many of my tips, had some new insights and learned a ton.  Here I’ll share some of my thoughts:

  1. If you want to enter a new space, reaching out to people who are already in that space is invaluable. You won’t only learn about the environment, specific companies and roles, but you will also develop relationships with people who will be in a place to help you connect with others in the space and grow your network.
  2. It is imperative to know the language (and recognize the dialects) of the space where you want to play. Doing research online is a great start before talking with people who might be able to indoctrinate you or be a “translator” of sorts.  The intricacies and nomenclature of the tech space can be unique – some words and titles mean different thing than they do in other environments.  For instance Project Managers, Product Managers and Program Managers have specific (and sometimes different) meanings from company to company in Silicon Valley.  [A good overview of some of those meanings was provided in Subha Shetty’s guest blog here last year.]
  3. To get involved in the startup space in the Bay Area one really needs to be physically present in the area. The startup ecosystem available in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley is quite robust and runs the gamut from programmers, to fellow risk-takers, to lawyers specializing in technology and/or startups, to marketers, to the all-important investors.  Seeing this mature environment, I recognize what is beginning to flower in Charlottesville with the iLab and burgeoning startup ecosystem in Charlottesville.  In addition, we are fortunate that Darden has relationships with both Plug and Play in Sunnyvale, CA and 1776 in Washington DC.
  4. No matter how much experience you have in your field there is always a lot to learn from fresh eyes and new blood. I have been coaching mid-career business executives in job transition and career management for 14 years.  I love sharing knowledge with people new to the profession because I learn so much from them in return.  During this conference I had a great conversation with someone about reverse-mentoring … a 60 year old business leader interested in learning about digital marketing who found a 26 year old fledgling MBA to share her wisdom with him.
  5. Failure is valued and should be embraced as a positive. Mark Coopersmith and John Danner authors of The Other F Word proclaim that “failure is the sibling of success” and showed that smart leaders find a way to reframe success by pivoting (as in the failed burbn’s evolution to the successful Instagram) or riveting (as in the case of the makers of WD-40 – finally finding the hugely successful formula on the 40th try!)
  6. Presentation style can be as important as the content in making an impression. Stanford’s Dave Evans presented a design thinking approach to career decision making, in which you “build your way forward” through defining, ideating, prototyping, testing and finally implementing solutions.  The content was intriguing, but his funny, engaging and entertaining approach to presenting had us on the edge of our seats as if we were watching an Improv show!
  7. Passion counts, one way or another. Saeed Amidi, CEO and Founder of Plug and Play, cited obvious and authentic passion as one of the most important things he looks for in choosing which new business founders to support.  On the other hand, Dave Evans is a self-proclaimed “non-passion guy” proclaiming that passion is usually “the outcome rather than the input.”  I believe both men are right about passion – it can be instrumental to success, but it often develops during the building process even if it wasn’t there when the foundation was being poured.
  8. Product Management is the hottest, sought after experience in technology sector executive talent recruitment arena, according to both top name executive recruiters and venture capital partners. Companies look for technical skills and education in addition to business skills when filling product manager roles.  If a person doesn’t have an engineering or programming background, another path to product management is to prove oneself in another role and get promoted or transferred within the same company.
  9. Being an ACTIVE member of a professional organization is so much more beneficial than being a passive observer. I took over as executive director of the MBA CSWP Alliance last year, and in doing so have gained valuable leadership experience and widened my network with stronger ties to industry, to academia and to resources.  The extra work pales in comparison to the benefits of this volunteer assignment.  If pursued and approached with energy and passion, relevant volunteer projects and roles can be as career enriching as the stuff you get paid to do!

Flying back to Charlottesville, I reflected on the value of stepping away from my regular routine to learn and interact with experts in a focused area and network with peers to enrich my abilities as a career advisor.  I am excited to get back to working with alumni!

Connie Dato English (MBA ’91), Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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Preparing for the Case Interview

“I have an interview in three days and the recruiter said it’s going to be three case interviews!”
Many of us have traditionally thought of case interviewing as only something that consulting firms do to torture potential candidates.  However, over the last decade or so, case interviews have become a part of the interview process for many more industries and employers.  The style of case interviews may be different, but the purpose is the same: to give a real time test to see how you approach, analyze, and decide a business problem in a simulated client-like environment.

If you are currently searching for a position and are invited to interview, it is appropriate to request the interview format from the recruiter coordinating your interviews.  If he notifies you that you will have case interviews, the most important thing to remember is to remain calm! As a Darden grad, you did hundreds of cases during your time at school and a case interview is usually just a mini 30-45 minute version of one of those cases.

It is incredibly important, however, to do some case interview preparation and practice because so much of the case interview process depends upon knowing the cadence and “script” of a case interview.  Unfortunately, if you are stumbling through the process or uncomfortable with the format, it won’t matter how well you solve the problem presented. The firm will assume that you aren’t interested enough in the position because you didn’t prepare well for their interview process.  The script includes things as simple as confirming the major facts and objective of the case after the interviewer reads you the case prompt.

For most interviewees, the most common fear with case interviewing involves mental math.  It has been years since many of us did math without the assistance of a calculator or Excel.  Fortunately, most interviewers want you to do “back of the envelope analyses” to simulate a conversation with a client or senior executive. There are two tricks to keeping the math manageable in a case interview.  First, while it seems obvious, remember to round to whole easy numbers and pick easy numbers (when given a choice).  Second, make sure you know some major benchmarks to use as reference (U.S. population, world population, average U.S. life expectancy).  In addition, if you can spend some time refreshing your basic high school math (e.g. multiplying zeroes, calculating percentages) almost all interviewees end up passing the math portion just fine.

The final thing to realize about case interviewing is that there are many styles.  They range from market sizing (how many mailboxes are in Manhattan) to brainteasers (fortunately these seem to have gone out of favor) to interviewer led cases (McKinsey & Co.) to interviewee led cases (most other major consulting firms) to marketing cases (CPG) to written cases, group cases, and presentation of cases.  If your recruiter specifies that there will be case interviews, make sure you understand the number of cases, the timeframe for the cases (is this a 30 minute case or a 2 hour case with written reports and white board presentations at the end?), and the style of cases that will be conducted. In addition, it’s always helpful to check to see what other interviewees who have interviewed recently with the firm have said.  Just make sure you sort by “recent” only because firms are notorious for changing their interview style from year to year as they gauge the success of their hiring and recruiting processes.

The good news is that there are some excellent case resources available to help with your preparation.  Within our Case Interviewing page, we have a list of books and websites that can assist with your case interview process.   In addition, a quick Google search can often turn up case workbooks from various other business schools that have posted sample cases online.  Most major consulting firms also have interactive cases on their website that can guide you through the process.  Finally, we are always available in Alumni Career Services to do a mock case interview with you to help you prepare; contact us to set up an appointment.

Lindsay Guthrie MBA ‘04, Career Consultant for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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Dealing with Non-Compete Agreements

“I have an incredible offer, but they want me to sign an aggressive non-compete agreement, what should I do?”  “I was just let go and now the company wants to prohibit me from getting a job anywhere else, is this legal?”  With a great deal of movement in today’s executive labor market, we are getting many questions about non-compete agreements.

Non-compete agreements (NCAs) can bewilder even experienced executives.  Sometimes eager new hires sign NCAs along with an offer letter without any thought, only to be forgotten until a great opportunity elsewhere comes along later. There are so many variations and issues around NCAs, and laws differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (countries and states).  I‘ll cover some of the basics here, but it is always best to consult an employment lawyer if you are confronted with an agreement that makes you uncomfortable or that may limit your career options.

Generally, a non-compete agreement or clause is a contract entered into between two parties (usually an employer and an employee or a buyer and a seller) that restricts one party from doing business with or going to work for the competition. According to US law, since an NCA is a contract, some kind of “consideration” must be provided in exchange for the promise not to compete. That consideration might be a bonus paid at the time the agreement is signed or a payment (sometimes in the form of a severance payment) at the time the agreement goes into effect.

Sometimes companies require employees to sign an NCA as part of the initial employment agreement – the consideration, therefore, is employment.  In other instances, due to increased threats by competitors or to a change in leadership of the company, NCAs are presented after an employee has been at the company awhile.  Another tactic is for companies to request a promise to not compete when an employee is leaving their employer.

We have seen recent graduates through top level executives encounter NCAs, and more frequently with business development or sales professionals.  Logicallly, non-compete requirements vary with a person’s access to sensitive data and exposure to clients.  Companies invoking NCAs typically limit competition by geography, by scope/industry/market and by duration.  If you are asked to sign an NCA, ensure that it covers a very specifically defined set of  limitations. If the contract is too broad or vague it can lead to an unfair situation if /when invoked.  It is true that the more general an NCA is, the harder it is to enforce, but to dispute a contract can be a costly legal battle that you probably won’t want to endure.

Like any contract, an NCA also requires “agreement” to be legally binding. I recently worked with an alumnus who, as part of a reduction in forces, was being let go from a small division of a very large diversified company. He was asked, as a condition of receiving a generous severance package, to sign an NCA that would preclude him from doing business with any competitor of the larger organization. As offered, the agreement would have prohibited him from working with any food, beverage or related CPG company, the exact markets where our graduate had built his reputation throughout his entire post-MBA career. Clearly, the terms of the agreement were unduly restrictive and would have severely limited his career options. He negotiated the terms of the agreement and ended up signing a more reasonable contract – one that ensured that he would not be in a position to use trade secrets against his former employer, yet allowed him to seek employment with companies outside the small segment that the division with which he worked for the last two years was competing.

It may feel awkward to question the terms of a non-compete agreement when you are just joining a company, but it is smart to review the agreement carefully. Ensure that the agreement provides for adequate severance pay in the case of separation – suggest payment for the same duration of the non-compete. If you are asked to sign an agreement after you are already employed, don’t take it lightly. Even if you can’t imagine ever working for a competitor, know it could happen. Be sure the terms of the agreement won’t leave you unable to get a job or preclude you from later accepting the “dream job” you’ve been coveting for years. Don’t be afraid to find an attorney specializing in the corporate laws in the state where the company is based, to get well informed advice.

If you have signed an NCA and you are laid off, ask to be released from the agreement and if they agree, get the release in writing. If you are considering an opportunity with another employer it is important to let the potential employer know that you are under an NCA. Carefully choose the timing of this disclosure. Typically, I would advise that you give a company the chance to absorb your value proposition and become sufficiently interested in bringing you on their team before you bring up the possible hassle of getting you onboard.  The new company’s legal department might be helpful in evaluating the limitation of the NCA in reference to the new opportunity.  Of course, in a small industry where a company knows they are “stealing” away talent from their competitor, it might be the first thing you talk about with them.  A good rule of thumb is to be upfront and honest and apply the “assume it will be published on the front page of the newspaper” saying.

If you are dealing with a non-compete situation (and you are an alumnus of a Darden degree program) and would like to talk it through with a career advisor from the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services, please contact us to schedule an appointment.  We also have a website that includes resources for those negotiating a job offer, starting a new job, resigning and being terminated.

Connie Dato English, Executive Director of Alumni Career Services, The Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services, University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

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Healthcare Calling: An Alumna’s Successful Career Transition

There’s no disputing that Healthcare is a hot sector.  These days we see an increasing number of Darden students with healthcare experience and more alumni want to move into the field of management in this interesting, challenging and growing field.  One such alumna, Anna Maria Anthony from the Darden Class of 1996, graciously shared her experiences as part of a panel of Healthcare MBAs at Darden last spring and we asked her to share her story as a Career Corner guest blogger.  Anna Maria now manages client relationships for athenahealth  and her journey to this point highlights many of the concepts and skills needed to successfully navigate an evolving MBA career:  the need for resiliency and flexibility in the face of mergers and acquisitions, the power of a strong and well-tended network, a logical progression that aligns with personal interests, and a commitment to continuously apply training and learning to grow deeper skills and knowledge in a field.   

I’d always planned on transitioning careers at 40. However, two weeks before my 39th birthday, the fates (read, “the banking crisis”) intervened, and my hand was called a year early.  Lehman Brothers collapsed, the DJIA dropped more than 1800 points in a week, and it seemed that U.S. economy came to a complete and abrupt stop. My employer—a $600M IT consultancy– eliminated its entire strategy group.  After consulting for about 15 years, I was out of work, and needed to find something quickly in a very bleak job market.

As much as I wanted to think I would now switch careers, I had no idea how to make it a reality—especially on such short notice, and in that climate. First, there was the financial aspect. Stepping back from 15 years in consulting meant starting over in a potentially big way.  Not so appealing.  Second, my family needed to get new healthcare insurance quickly, as my son had just been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. Three, I had no idea where to focus. After Darden, I had joined a boutique strategy consulting firm that was eventually acquired by an IT services firm. During the dot-com boom, I jumped to an Internet strategy firm…acquired by, you guessed it, an IT consulting firm.  The firm that had just laid me off was the third IT consultancy I had worked at after being acquired. I had this very odd mix of market research, product strategy, organization strategy and program management experience.  I’d been successful in all these roles, enjoyed all of them and had proven myself as the consummate generalist when no one wanted generalists.

The first thing I (in this case “we”) addressed was finding new healthcare insurance.  Since my husband was a small business owner, I had always carried the health insurance. The timing turned out to be great—Massachusetts had just launched universal coverage, and he was able to find an affordable plan.  Next I called the founder of the last strategy firm I worked at and asked for help; he couldn’t believe I didn’t want to stay in consulting. “What do you want to do?” he asked. “I want a position in marketing at a venture backed firm,” I said. I had made a decision, just like that.

Within three weeks, a company funded by one of the country’s leading venture capitalist firms called me. No joke.   (Yes, David has an amazing network).  In another three weeks I had a consulting gig at a firm repositioning itself as a provider of healthcare IT (HIT) services. They were “hot,” had great backing, and didn’t require me to relocate.  Unfortunately, I hated it. Marketing was not my thing.  I didn’t love the culture at this particular company.  Going to the same small office every day made me feel claustrophobic.

However, a couple of interesting things happened.   Former clients and colleagues started calling me for consulting projects.  And I discovered that HIT was really, really interesting– especially given my experience caring for my son.   My career transition started in earnest. I decided that I would consult independently until I found a full time position in HIT at a company I loved.

It took four years, and was probably one of the best professional experiences I had. While selling and managing my own work, I improved my sales, negotiating, client management, and yes, marketing skills. Many of my clients understood where I was going, and found ways to connect me to the healthcare sector.  To accelerate my ramp up on HIT, I took a class at Harvard, where we evaluated changes in the healthcare sector from multiple stakeholder perspectives.  Class readings and discussions offered me an opportunity to develop well-articulated views of the most significant challenges each sector was facing, and their approaches in addressing those challenges. Of course, I focused on issues associated with IT. Ultimately, this research served as the foundation for my employer research.  At events hosted by the Mass Technology Council and the Massachusetts Hospital Association I learned how providers were deploying the latest technologies, broadened my network, and increased my ability to speak like a HIT native.

For a couple of years, (yes, years) one of my mentors had been suggesting I look at athenahealth, a provider of cloud-based services and mobile tools for medical groups and health systems.  Four years after she initially made the suggestion I took her up on her offer. She introduced me to a former colleague who worked there, and in 2013, I started in account management. Professionally, I’ve never been happier. My search took a while, but making the transition was completely worth it.

Anna Maria’s path from strategy consultant to successful Healthcare IT account executive shows how career transitions require planning, networking and knowledge growth.  If you’re in transition, call Alumni Career Services for guidance and resources to support your career journey. 

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Drop Me a Line or Give Me a Ring

With all the choices of correspondence methods today, it is not always clear how to best communicate.

I so enjoy receiving traditional holiday greetings from friends near and far.  Beautiful cards, photos, updates, stories, contact information and sometimes entertaining prose often serve as a lifeline to friendships made through many moves over the last 30 years.  There’s something heartwarming about receiving snail mail; whether it be a thank you note, a greeting card or an old fashioned letter, postal correspondence (other than marketing clutter) really grabs a person’s attention.  I know I’m not alone in that sentiment because, just in our Darden community we have at least two alumni working on ventures dedicated to the art: Alexandria Drohobyczer ’07 started and Nathan Tau ’09 runs Forgetful Gentleman, a company that was incubated in the iLab while he was at Darden.

Before 1993, people simply chose between a phone call or a written letter to connect on a business matter. Email then entered the scene and the prevalence of the digital note completely changed the way people conduct business and the way they communicate with each other.  With the number of mailed letters in the U.S. down 25% from 2007 to 2013, it is no secret that written correspondence is rarely used for business correspondence. Like the letters of yore, business emails project one’s professional image.  Proper punctuation, grammar and capitalization are always appropriate for business correspondence.

When choosing email to communicate, realize that your message likely will be read on a phone screen, perhaps while someone is multi-tasking.  Keep your message short and ask for specific action to allow for an easy answer from the other party.  If an unsolicited email requires a time consuming response, the chances are high that you will get no response.  The recipient may have good intentions of getting back to you when s/he has more time… only to end up buried beneath thousands of other emails.

People 40 and younger seem to avoid verbal communication for business, whether by phone or in person, all together.  Last month, I was coaching an alumna of the Class of 2011 through a job offer negotiation.  She had a position of power – the company really wanted her and she had other options.  As we talked about her desired outcomes, she started to draft an email.  I suggested she ditch the email and negotiate either in person or on the phone.  She was, quite frankly, stunned and thought that would be very “awkward.”  My response was that in a discussion, you are able to hear (and see, if in person) the tone of voice and the reaction of the other person to what you say.  In negotiating, that knowledge can allow you to adapt to the reaction and/or strengthen your position.  Also, the other person will need to respond, in the moment, to your requests.  In a discussion, you are able to build rapport and make a positive impression – that is very difficult to do in a back and forth email exchange.  She ended up picking up the phone and both parties were happy with the outcome.

People often avoid phoning as they don’t want to disturb the other party in the middle of something.  Keep in mind that if someone is unable to talk, they probably will not pick up the ringing phone.  Be ready for voice mail, prepare to leave a crisp, articulate message that will entice the receiver to call you back.  If a live person does answer, be courteous and ask if this is a good time to talk or would it be better to call back at an alternate time.  Most people 50 and older grew up doing business by phone, so they may be more comfortable with this interaction than with extended email threads.

With the onset of free video conferencing capability on computers or mobile devices, people are using Skype (or other application) to connect. For pre-arranged meetings, video enables people to see body language and facial expressions while exchanging information and building rapport. For this reason, more and more companies are conducting video job interviews.  Many of our career coaching sessions with alumni are conducted using Skype.  For tips on how to make a good impression in a video business meeting or interview check out the tips provided in the Interview section of our website.

As we all learned in FY Management Communication, at the core of good communication is understanding your audience.  Always consider which medium would be most comfortable, effective and appropriate for the person you are trying to influence.  It might be a LinkedIn message to someone you know through a mutual friend that will get the notice, or it might be a personal visit to a skeptical potential client that will get the job done.

I would so enjoy a personal visit with each of you to wish you a wonderful holiday season and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.  Since that is not possible, my heartfelt message is relegated to this less personal forum.  With this wish please also accept an invitation to come see us back in Charlottesville, we’d love to connect in person!  If that is not possible, give us a call (+1-434-924-4876) or send us an email ( to set an appointment.

All the best for a happy holiday and a wonderful 2015!


Connie Dato English, MBA ’91  Director of the Armstrong Center of Alumni Career Services, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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Putting You to the Test:  Trends in Candidate Assessments

We are an increasingly data-rich, data-driven society. Although “big data” is garnering most of the media hype these days, using personal data to drive hiring decisions is on the rise. If you have pursued a new job in recent years, chances are you’ve encountered some kind of pre-employment test. Also known as psychometric tests, most pre-employment tests are developed by behavioral psychologists to apply standard scientific measurements for individuals’ cognitive abilities and personality traits to help identify how well a candidate can perform in a given job. In addition, employers collect data from some psychometric tests to reveal hidden characteristics of an applicant that face-to-face interviews might miss and to screen out unqualified applicants while seeking out those most likely to succeed.

It makes sense that we are seeing a rise in pre-employment testing. The relative ease of developing secure, online testing software coupled with advanced data analytics have given rise to a number of outsource testing providers. Test makers pitch their approach as a way to gather more relevant candidate data and improve the odds of hiring the right person. Cloud-based software makes the use of these tests practical and easy for nearly all job candidates. Indeed, the Washington Post reported earlier this year that two of the larger providers in the testing market, IBM and CEB, each administer over 30 million pre-employment tests each year. Researchers also reported in the Harvard Business Review that service firms are spending over $750 million a year globally on assessments, with potential for much more testing and a push to use them earlier the hiring process.

In Alumni Career Services we are hearing about more frequent use of screening tests for Darden alumni job-seekers.  This includes assessments at every stage of the interview process and at all levels of management hiring.  C-suite candidates are not exempt from screening tests, and in fact the pressure for executive hires to have the right “fit” is even greater. In my alumni coaching, I’ve seen a marked increase in testing, but no precedent for the type of test or timing. Some have been required to test as an early screen in the process; others have had assessments added to the line-up of formal on-site interview days.  One recent alum encountered multiple tests for a single job opportunity.

What exactly are these tests measuring?  There are myriad tests with different perspectives, assessing job skills, critical thinking, personality, emotional intelligence, language proficiency, and even integrity. Most tests fall into three broad categories:  1) Cognitive Abilities – these include problem solving, reasoning, writing samples, mathematical calculations, etc.  2) Personality or Behavioral Tests – these might assess interpersonal or leadership characteristics, motivations, ability to work in teams, and other personal traits, and 3) Dependability Tests – these are meant to predict things like honesty, reliability, impulsiveness, work ethic, etc.

How do you prepare for pre-employment tests? Generally speaking you can’t study for these type tests, but it does help to approach them with the right attitude.  Don’t be intimidated, or irritated, and follow these tips to be prepared:

  • Understand the Purpose – ask the employer about the type of testing and how they plan to use the results.
  • Take it seriously – even if you feel the test isn’t necessary, show respect for this part of the employer’s evaluation.
  • Anticipate the time and place – some tests are administered at the employer’s office during the course an interview schedule; more commonly tests are taken on-line as the candidate’s schedule allows. Either way, it helps to anticipate the length of the test, and whether you’re expected to finish. Taking an assessment independently, you’ll want to set aside the appropriate length of time, without distractions, and try to take the test when you have your peak mental energy.
  • Practice – most psychometric tests don’t have ‘right or wrong’ answers, so studying isn’t really necessary; however, some of the larger vendors, like CEB and Criteria, do offer ways to practice tests;  practicing will get you used to answering questions under time pressure, and can familiarize you with various testing approaches.
  • Relax – it’s in your best interest to be open and honest; trust your instincts, give difficult questions your best shot and move on.
  • Request Feedback – ask the recruiter whether, how and when the company will share results of your tests.

Remember that pre-employment testing is only one element of the complex hiring process.  Consult our Job Search Toolkit for more information on how to succeed in interviewing and landing a new job.

Marty Speight MBA ‘96, Associate Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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A Season of Change – Contemplating Why You Work

Fall is here – that means the leaves change colors and begin to gather on the ground.  Days are shorter and darkness comes earlier.  For many, it also means the beginning of the school year and the change that comes with a new school, a new grade, a new teacher and a new schedule.  Fall represents, for many, a time of change.

The onset of autumn often prompts people to contemplate their current career situation and to consider change.  In the past week, I have spoken with an entrepreneur who is trying to figure out what new venture he should go after,  a mother who has been on hiatus for over ten years and is looking to reenter the paid workforce, two people who have each decided to escape the long hours and demanding lifestyle of a top tier consultant, as well as a corporate executive looking for a new challenge.  In fact, during the last month over 70% of the career conversations that Darden Alumni Career Services had were with employed individuals thinking about change.

People are often sure of what they don’t want to do next, but they struggle to figure out what they want to do.  When working with this situation, I usually ask the question “Why do you work?”  Seems like that should be a straight forward question.  After all, we don’t usually start a project or make an investment without first contemplating what we are striving to accomplish.  So, why is this question often received with surprise?

For many, the question may never come up as it is simply an expectation of society: you are smart, educated and capable – you will work.  Many of us work to earn money to support our desired lifestyle.  But that isn’t always the driving reason to work.  And even if it is a major reason to work, it is rarely the only reason.  Taking time to contemplate what you want out of work and determine what purpose you are seeking will help direct you in your efforts.

A couple of weeks ago I worked with an alumnus who determined that he sought work that allowed him to feel the satisfaction of helping a particular social cause move forward.  He had also determined that, in terms of compensation, he only needed to make about $35,000 to live the lifestyle he desired.  Answering the question “why work?” allowed him to go after a job that would make him happy without the societal presumptions placed on someone with his level of education.

When an employed alumnus is seeking change it is usually because something is missing from their current situation.  It might be fair compensation or it might be the lifestyle demands (schedule, travel, lack of flexibility, location) or it might be the actual content of the job.  I look at this as a “three legged stool” which is most steady when all three legs are solid but, with careful attention to positioning and balance, could remain upright with two legs.  You can sacrifice compensation to achieve lifestyle and content, but it is near impossible to be “happy” with only one “leg” in place.  For instance, the validity of the mantra “Money isn’t everything” becomes very evident when a person lacks job satisfaction (content) and control over their lifestyle demands.

Priorities are important and change with stages of life.  Mary Burton and Richard Wedemeyer wrote In Transition over 20 years ago.  While much has changed in that score, their approach to “Getting to Know You – the Product” is as relevant today as it was in 1991.  The book includes a discussion of Life Mission, Priorities and Tradeoffs including some very practical exercise.  Likewise, our own Jim Clawson has taught and advocated a thorough self-assessment process to inform one’s career decision making.  In fact, his process can be followed using the Darden interactive learning tool Finding Fit.

If you have graduated from Darden, Alumni Career Services can help you think through career changes as well.  Email us to set up an appointment.

May all your changes lead to wonderful beginnings!

 Connie Dato English, MBA ’91  Director of the Armstrong Center of Alumni Career Services, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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Bridging the Gap: When Temporary Work Makes Sense

Job transitions are common – most professionals will face a lay-off, leave a bad-fit job or take a hiatus for personal reasons at some point in their career. A gap in employment can be a good opportunity to pursue temporary or project-based work. Even if you’re conducting an active full-time job search there are many advantages for balancing that quest with some kind of flexible interim work.

In 2012 I coached an alumna, Julie, MBA ’08, who found herself out of work and frustrated as the search seemed to drag on. She knew that patience and persistence in her job search was necessary, but also that it wasn’t productive to spend 40+ hours a week on search tactics.  She decided to seek out temporary projects to occupy some of her free time, to keep her management skills fresh, and to shore-up her confidence in the face of an unknown length of unemployment.

Julie landed her full-time job after about six months of searching, and in the gap, two projects became very rewarding. She looked for things that used her MBA talents – one project was very analytical and numbers oriented, the other focused on developing a strategy, structure and training plan for a service-based philanthropic concern.  She listed the work at the top of her resume and on her LinkedIn profile, so hiring managers could see that she was active and engaged in the community.   It also allowed her to demonstrate to hiring managers that although she’d been laid off, someone else was impressed enough with her skills to engage. In interviews she talked about the initiative she took to find projects and how she was using her time to contribute to the welfare of other organizations. She stretched her skills in new and exciting ways but later realized that the real satisfaction was seeing her recommendations have a positive impact.

Freelance work can give you some flexibility while you search or even if you want to delay returning to a permanent post. Julie’s work was strictly volunteer, as her immigration status restricted her from being paid in temp positions. Some alumni have pursed paid projects in order to take the pressure off of accepting the first offer of permanent employment. Others have used project work to try out new interests or deepen their experience in a particular area.

Here are some tips for finding meaningful temporary work:

Be Curious, Stay Local.  Julie’s first project evolved out a comment she overheard from the owner of a local food truck, “there are too many French fries left over at the end of the day.” That got Julie thinking about how a food truck could operate profitably, so she sent him an email with some thoughts about how to solve that French fry problem. A few weeks later he reached out with a request to analyze his operation.  She jumped at the chance to dig into his data, and she used her knowledge of the food industry gained in her Darden summer internship to guide the analysis and recommendations.

Contribute to a Cause.  Julie’s second project came through an organization where she was already a volunteer and passionate about the mission. Helping solve thorny staffing and strategy issues gave her a hands-on perspective about managing people. Another alumna who served on the board of a non-profit conservation agency was able to step into the vacant Executive Director role during her job search; acting as interim Executive Director lent credibility to her bid for a job in a related industry.

Use Unique Expertise.  Some alumni recognize that they have reached a milestone in their careers where their deep industry or functional expertise makes them ready to become a freelance consultant.  Our ACS webpage on Independent Consulting digs into this topic and gives plenty of resources. Work/Life Balance has additional resources for alumni who want to consult without setting up their own business.

Pursue Fledgling Ideas.  A break from full-time work can open up the time to flesh out your own ideas for a product or service start-up.  Our page on Entrepreneurship has more tips for researching, writing a business plan and seeking funding. Not everyone becomes an entrepreneur but the experience of pursuing your own interests as a business can be enlightening in many ways.

Use a Match-maker.  A recent WSJ articled outlined how MBA-level project matching sites are gaining momentum (“For Smaller Projects, Try Renting an M.B.A.” Feb 5, 2014). Sites like ExconsultantsAgency, HourlyNerd, MBA&Co, and SkillBridge attempt to pair projects to talent.

Notice that most of these tips require a clear objective, networking and self-promotion – the very same elements of a solid job search. Temporary work can bridge the time till you return as well as build momentum in your career.

Marty Speight MBA ‘96, Associate Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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Starting Early — Setting Up for Success

On vacation last week, I had to start early in the day to get my run in and avoid the extreme heat.   I woke at 6am and got to watch the sunrise over the ocean as I ran on the secluded beach.  Hmm, starting early certainly has benefits! 2014-07-26 06.35.15 In the quiet of the morning,  I followed my own advice (from last month’s blog entry) and did some reflection before anyone else woke up.  I read an intriguing blog about how people ask great questions in exit interviews  and how, at that point, it’s a bit too late.   The author was suggesting that managers would be more effective starting earlier …  if they conducted more “stay interviews,” they would be able to act on issues and make corrections before losing an employee. Stay interviews can help you understand what motivates employees and keeps them invested in the firm.   Don’t wait until your valued employees are out the door to ask them what’s wrong.  Seems obvious, but somehow we tend to get caught up in the urgency of the day-to-day business that we neglect our most precious resources.

I also read an article from PBS’ Next Avenue about how to recover from getting a late start in saving for retirement.  I remembered, with gratitude, the sage of advice I received  from a friend’s father about saving for retirement.  He showed us a chart (similar to this retirement fund growth calculator) illustrating how putting $500 a month starting at age 25 would grow to $1,000,000 by the time we were 65.  Another example of how starting early pays off.

As MBA’s, we all know you can’t wait to start saving until you need it… so it should be a no-brainer that career development works the same way.   Starting early in nurturing your network sets you up for opportunities down the road.   Last December, Evan Powers (MBA’09) opened a new office for Cypress Financial Planning, a business his classmate, Ben Pitts (MBA’09), started with a former Goldman Sachs colleague. Countless other stories have been shared about how staying in touch with the people you meet along the way opens unexpected opportunities and can be crucial to your ultimate business success.

The key is not to wait until you are out of a job or need a favor to engage your network.  Start early!  No matter how well you are performing in your current job, it is always beneficial to nurture your network and project your desired brand both internally and externally.   With LinkedIn as the “go to” database of professionals, people will go there to find someone they know (or don’t know) who has a particular set of skills or experience.  So, it’s important to contemplate what image you want to put out there.  Everything from the picture, to the headline, to the experiences and the skills you list will make an impression on those who look you up or who find you in a search.

Developing a powerful profile on LinkedIn isn’t difficult, but is very important.  Check out the video tutorial we have created to help you in this endeavor.  Do it now, even if you don’t think you “need” it right now, starting early could pay off…who knows who might find you or what great business deal might result!

August tends to be a month of “starting early” — why not add nurturing your network to the list and set yourself up for success!?!

Connie Dato English (MBA ’91), director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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