“So the gloomy outlook that this economy is offering so many of America’s brightest young people is not just disconcerting, it’s a cultural shift, a harbinger. “Attention,” as the wife of a fictional salesman once said, “must be paid.” …These recent graduates have done everything society told them to do. They’ve worked hard, kept their noses clean and gotten a good education (in many cases from the nation’s best schools). They are ready and anxious to work. If we’re having trouble finding employment for even these kids, then we’re doing something profoundly wrong.” (Bob Herbert, New York Times, Oct. 30. 2009)

The difficulty with which even the strongest graduates are finding work is certainly a sign of the times. This is the late stage of a recession: the economy is growing but there is so much excess capacity that it will be a while before companies will start hiring again in any volume. I’m interested in Bob Herbert’s assertion of a cultural shift, a harbinger. Who or what is shifting?

Thus far in 2009, I’ve made 60 calls on companies to promote our students and discuss how to engage with the Darden School. My main point is that the hunt for top talent is not a sometime thing—the best corporations stay in the market all the time. It is an error to believe that you can turn on the flow of talent like a spigot. When firms take a holiday from recruiting, they hurt themselves. After a break, it may take years to rebuild a strong recruiting franchise on Grounds. From companies, the feedback I hear is universally warm, respectful, and engaging. I recall none unwilling to simply consider our students for possible employment. Darden is fortunate in that a large majority of companies is returning this season to recruit. The only difficulty is that they don’t have as many jobs to fill.

But of what are these circumstances a harbinger? I see five ways in which this environment may be shifting the culture of employment:

  • Greater reliance on a social network to get leads and offers. A lot of solid research reveals that the success of a job hunt depends on the ability to tap into acquaintances who are rather far out of your immediate social circle. ((The party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” challenges players to find an actor separated by a link of no more than six movies to the actor Kevin Bacon. You can play this game at the UVA website, http://www.cs.virginia.edu/oracle/, where out of more than 18,000 actors, the average is about three degrees of separation (the maximum is only 8). This astonishing degree of proximity was identified in the late 1960s by Harvard psychologist Stanley Milgram and his student Jeffrey Travers, who tested the linkage of acquaintances in the U.S. by asking a sample of people in Omaha, Nebraska, to send a letter to a stranger in Massachusetts by passing the letter to an acquaintance considered somehow closer to the stranger. Each acquaintance was then instructed to do the same. Milgram and Travers reported that the average length of the chain was 5.2 people: this is the origin of the phrase “six degrees of separation.”)) This is the strength of weak ties. In a study of how people find jobs, Mark Granovetter discovered that three-quarters of the successful connections to a job offer were through “weak ties,” people whom the job seeker saw “occasionally” or “rarely.” Commenting on this, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book The Tipping Point, “Your friends…occupy the same world that you do. They work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, do they know that you don’t know? Mere acquaintances, on the other hand, are much more likely to know something that you don’t….The most important people in your life are, in certain critical realms, the people who aren’t closest to you, and the more people you know who aren’t close to you the stronger your position becomes.” Darden’s Career Development Center is the conduit for many good leads. But candidates will need to supplement this kind of institutional support with considerable personal networking. Ironically, this is the way it has always been, at least before the Internet and real estate bubbles. The best jobs don’t usually show up on your doorstep. You must prospect for them.
  • Technology plays a greater role: email exchanges, digital resumes, interviews over the phone, Skype, and Live Meeting. A job candidate needs to master techniques of good self-presentation over these media. Companies need to recognize that technology gets you only so far—much of business is personal: the strength of a handshake, manners, mannerisms, communication skill, and self-confidence are best detected in person. This is crucial in looking to fill jobs requiring “front office” work such as client relations, presentations to executives, and leadership of any kind.
  • Focus becomes decisive. I personally assisted a few students in their searches last year and found that those who had the greatest clarity about what they wanted, tended to get it. And those who didn’t, didn’t. Career switchers might fret about this, but there is nothing about career switching that is inconsistent with focus. The focused candidate displays clarity of purpose, determination, preparation, and accumulated learning, all of which come through in the interviews to establish the focused candidate as the one to hire. Lack of focus breeds uncertainty about the candidate. Candidates need to understand that the hiring company is not a monolith. Competing factions within a firm may be looking to fill the position. With several candidates for each position, each one must have a champion inside the company. In the critical meeting where all the champions are gathered around a table, the focused candidates will stand out.
  • Less tolerance for error. Companies are less forgiving about typos on a resume, poor preparation, inappropriate attire, and rude manners. Above all, ethical lapses are fatal. One firm shared with me the story of an applicant (not from Darden) who blatantly misrepresented his credentials. When confronted with the facts, he brashly insulted the executive and the firm. Word of his behavior has spread. He foolishly spiked his employment chances in that company, and possibly the industry, city, and region. Conduct your search with absolute integrity.
  • Entitlement gets hammered down. The sense that the world owes you something can be a big handicap. I’ve written about the problems with entitlement in a previous posting and won’t repeat it here. A key idea in all of business is the importance of focus on what customers and markets need, not on what you may feel like offering. A stiff recession is a humbling reminder of this idea. Our culture and pundits serve to reinforce a sense of entitlement—note that Bob Herbert says “we’re having trouble finding…we’re doing something profoundly wrong,” which implies that society owes bright students a job. The social contract is a subtle concept; it is problematic to assert that employment is part of Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But as a practical matter, one gets a job the old fashioned way, one earns it. My casual observation of students reveals less entitlement talk than before the recession started.

These five shifts won’t likely be permanent. Wait a couple of years, and the culture of employment will have changed again. As the great investment manager, Sir John Templeton, said, “The four most dangerous words are ‘This time it’s different.’” Bob Herbert implies that a paradigm shift is taking place. I’m not so sure–in any event, big cultural shifts are really only identified in retrospect. The change I have seen in MBA recruiting has tended to come slowly and continuously. And recessions are perhaps the worst vantage point from which to opine on the employment outlook: Darden’s web site hosts podcast interviews of alums ((See the interviews of Greg Fairchild (D’92), Gene Lockhart (D’74), Carroll Warfield (D’81).)) who graduated in the depths of previous recessions—all of them went on to great careers and solid accomplishments.