Career Management, Career Transition, Job Search

‘I Felt Lost,’ But a Call to ACS Helped Get This Alumnus’ Career Back on Track

By Jonathan Harris-
i-felt-lost-but-a-call-to-acs-helped-get-this-alumnus-career-back-on-track

I hung up the phone and my spirit hit rock bottom. I had just finished a discussion with a vice president at the American subsidiary of a major international conglomerate, a company I had worked for as an overseas expat in its global headquarters. I realized what I had known for a while but was unwilling to admit to myself — the American office did not have any openings that fit my background. I sat on a couch and cried as my wife tried to console me. I don’t cry often. I felt empty and clueless. “Where did everything go wrong in my career?” I wondered. “How did I mismanage my path so badly? Wasn’t I supposed to have everything figured out when I graduated business school?”

I had been back in the U.S. for a month, staying at my mother’s house in northern Virginia after five years living in Asia post-MBA, an incredible personal experience surely but one which left me spent professionally, in career limbo. I needed to get out, but I did not know where to go next. I felt lost. Even though I sometimes felt like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole in my former company, I had planned to find a position in its large U.S. office while I reconnected with my home country and I figured out what I really wanted to do next with my career. My plan had failed. I quit cold turkey — with no prospects, an inadequately maintained network and, most importantly, no clear direction. I had let my career blow like a feather in the wind for a couple years and I needed to reboot. I needed help.

Thankfully, Darden Alumni Career Services was there to help me find myself. I learned about ACS just before my graduation and had been in touch on-and-off since then, first to try to recruit experienced hires to my former company, then to help me get my resume together as I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to get hired by another company in Southeast Asia. I reached out again to ACS to set up a time to hone “my story.” What ACS quickly helped me realize is without a clear sense of myself and my goals that my story would fall flat with recruiters and hiring managers, riddled with inconsistencies and raising doubts in the minds of others about how committed I was to what I was saying.

I needed to set a goal in my job search. In my former company, I had a variety of roles in both internal strategy and operations. The internal strategy role had good breadth, and I enjoyed working with a group of smart people, but I had been frustrated at the lack of impact I was making. I sometimes felt that I would be hustling for 10 weeks to learn about a new subject area, build a framework, gather data and assemble a set of pretty PowerPoint slides, only for our recommendations to be printed and placed on a dusty shelf in some executive’s office. When I transitioned into operations, I enjoyed being near the front lines of the business, but I grew frustrated by endless corporate reorganizations and lack of strategic direction. Everything felt tactical and focused on the short-term. Putting this together, I realized I needed a job that had a blend of strategic thinking AND operational execution. I also wanted to be in the tech industry, which has a dynamism that is attractive to me. With my new job search goal created, I set out to use it as a North Star and stick to it even if I uncovered other shiny objects along the way.

At the urging of Alumni Career Services, I started reaching out to my professional network, much of which was Darden affiliated, with the goal of having at least five conversations per week. I made a list of target companies and compiled a list of people I knew at each one. I didn’t know what I would find, and I didn’t go into the calls with much expectation. I just wanted to reconnect with people and find out what they were doing in their careers. Fortunately most were happy to chat, especially as I had not caught up with many in several years. Within a few weeks, I had a few job opportunity leads in tech. I also uncovered some implementation roles at consulting companies, a new field ACS helped introduce to me. I quickly set up time with Alumni Career Services to practice interviewing, including case prep.

One of my Darden classmates was working at Expedia in a “business development and strategy initiatives” role. I had a great interest in travel since taking a couple months to jet around the world before business school, but I knew nothing about the industry. I found a job posting online at Expedia, which looked interesting, and a similar function to what she was doing. I sent it to her and she replied, “That looks like an interesting role, but my team is also hiring now so you should just apply to my group!”

The team was a mix of ex-consultants and experienced hires, focused on both developing company strategy and implementing initiatives across a series of strategic pillars. It was a tech company focused on the travel industry. There were also a couple other Darden alums as well. It felt like a great fit. My classmate’s referral unlocked a series of interviews for me — eight by phone and video chat over the course of four weeks, followed by a trip to Seattle HQ for speed-dating with team members and stakeholders. At the end of my visit, I had a verbal offer from the hiring manager, but I still needed to negotiate contract terms with HR, and ACS gave me some bargaining tips.

In the meantime, I was in final round interviews with a couple name-brand consulting firms. I felt consulting was always a backup option because I knew the lifestyle would be an issue for my wife and me. Consulting would pay more, but I also knew not to optimize solely on compensation. I had been very impressed by the people I interacted with at the consulting firms, but that didn’t supersede the connection I felt with the people and culture of Expedia when I visited Seattle. Ultimately, I needed to follow Professor Bob Bruner’s advice to “go where you believe you can do your best work.” I needed to stay true to my job search goal. After a couple weeks, I received a suitable contract offer from Expedia and broke off my interview processes with the consulting firms. Two weeks later, the moving trucks arrived and my wife and I relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

Four months have passed and I am still very happy with my decision. I have had a lot of new people and projects thrown my way, and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the growing pains of a new company and new industry. However, I am confident that if I continue to bring high energy and drive to my new role at Expedia that I have the talent to make a big impact here, which I think is the most important consideration at this point in my career.

For fellow alums looking to make a big career shift, do not be afraid to connect with ACS for support. The ACS team members are knowledgeable, experienced and their advice is FREE. You will still do all the work to make your jump, and like any good coach, ACS will be there to test your assumptions, uncover your blind spots and introduce you to new ideas. If you are feeling off-track in your career and wake up in the morning feeling you need a new direction but do not know where to start, then do yourself a favor and ask for help. Be thankful that Darden’s connection to you did not end when you received your diploma.