“What internship (or full-time) offer should I take?” “What’s the right first step now that I’m finishing up my MBA?”
The life of an MBA student is demanding. Managing the classwork and interviewing process today is much harder than when I was an MBA student. Outside of class, students must spend more time networking and preparing for the interview gauntlet to live up to the expectations of recruiters and compete effectively against impressive peers. You can have dozens of smart, talented, exceptional students vying for one or two coveted positions. It’s simply not easy.
However, what I’m noticing is that with all of the preparation to get the offer(s), there isn’t much time or energy left to think through what these first jobs mean to a 40-year career. Often times, when I ask students where they want to work, the response is: “On a brand I love." I also find a number of students who want to pursue the Mark Zuckerberg career path and start their own company or work for a small start-up.
As somebody who did neither of these things, I want to provide a different perspective on how to consider job opportunities. This is obviously biased by my experience, and I recognize there are many paths to success and happiness, but I do believe these are important aspects to at least consider before rejecting a Blue Chip company opportunity. What follows is an open letter to students who are grappling over which job offer to take.
An Open Letter to Marketing Students
If I may, I’d like to provide you with some thoughts about this opportunity. I’m going to give you some perspective on how these early decisions will impact your entire life – thoughts you may not have had. These are considerations I didn’t make when I accepted my internship offer at Procter & Gamble in the 80s. I got lucky and had the right mentor, Chris Puto, who pushed me in the right direction. He convinced me to turn down exciting offers (I turned down two internship opportunities to work at Ogilvy & Mather on Microsoft – the Google of the late 80s – and Mattel – the fun brand at the time) to take a “corporate” and less exciting job at Procter & Gamble, where I spent all summer working on Dash, the world’s smallest and most insignificant laundry detergent brand. On day one, my boss (Rick Thompson – a great coach and mentor) asked me what laundry detergent I used and I said “I don’t know." That’s how excited I was to work on laundry detergent. But here is some perspective:
1. Your work “brand” is enduring. Procter & Gamble was and still is considered a top-tier general management/marketing company (see here for a list of the top-ranked companies for MBA marketing students). Just like Harvard and Darden are “ranked” higher than many other schools and have greater prestige, companies are also ranked (see here for a top-ranked companies that develop C-level marketing leaders). However, while your educational “brand” influences early job opportunities, your work “brand” will dominate over the course of your career. It endures. When I talk to executive recruiters who place C-level executives in different roles, they care about the “training” and “experience” a job candidate has had, particularly in the formative part of their career. Working at a great company (I mean businesses that are successful, that have a pedigree for being leaders in their industry over time and that have a reputation for creating best-in-class businesspeople) is a brand stamp that will follow you for the next 40 years. It can open doors that otherwise would be shut. I learned this when, during my second year of the MBA program, every company I wanted to interview with wanted to interview me. Why? Because I now had P&G on my resume.
2. As a result, your internship and full-time employment after the MBA program have “annuity-like” benefits. As an example, in a review of C-level marketing job specs I did, 70% of C-level marketing jobs list as a requirement that the candidate have “P&L/brand management experience." Nearly 20% of the job specs overtly stated that the candidate should have had prior “Blue Chip” company experience. In reviewing the work history of more than 100 C-level marketers, most had a “Blue Chip” company early in their background. These early experiences provide you with greater opportunities later to pursue whatever path you choose. I have many Procter friends who have become CMOs, CEOs, consultants, entrepreneurs, PE partners, executive recruiters, faculty, etc. Early brand stamps (great companies) provide a broader and stronger launching pad from which to consider later opportunities.
3. Real-world training matters …. a lot. Why do recruiters and companies look for C-level marketers with Blue Chip companies on the candidate’s resume? Because they know that they received best-in-class training. MBA programs are not designed to train you to be a marketer. They hone your strategic thinking skills, your communication skills (especially if you come from a case-based program like Darden), and your leadership skills. MBA programs can help develop you into a business leader, with an enterprise-wide decision making perspective. However, your company experience will train you to be a marketer. If you go to a start-up where you are the only marketer, who will help coach and develop you? And if you want to be a CEO, what skills do you need first to increase your chance of success? The rigor and discipline with which a great company approaches marketing is like nothing you will find any place else.
4. What will your network look like at 50? Your MBA network is important. However, many of your peers will not end up in marketing. Most executives who reach the C-level have had a Blue Chip company experience at a formative point in their career. And this network of connections is as valuable as your MBA network. If you want to start a company at 40, who will you turn to for advice? Or to become a partner? If you need to learn about a new technology, from which successful marketers will you seek advice? I’m working on a new series for Forbes, interviewing C-level marketers. Who did I turn to but an army of Procter folks. I would have not been able to predict the importance of the P&G network 25 years ago.
5. The more limited your geographic target, the more limiting your opportunities. A decade ago, I conducted a survey with individuals who made it to the VP level (or higher) fast. They had to be less than 35 by the time they reached the VP level. The No. 1 factor that they indicated enabled them to achieve success fast was geographic flexibility. They took the jobs based on the job … and what it could do for their career. If your priority is location, then understand that there is a cost associated with the choice, and it can be career satisfaction (i.e., the compensation, the company you work for, the job you have). Very few people “have it all” at the same time – the location, the job, the company, the compensation, and the hours that they want. It comes down to trade-offs and if you prioritize location, then you will invariably sacrifice something else. Also, please do not interview for a job in a location that you wouldn’t move to. It robs others of the opportunity.
6. Loving your job is NOT about the product. By the way, I LOVED my job. I didn’t care much for laundry detergent, but I really enjoyed understanding consumers who did. I loved figuring out how to identify new and different insights, and position new products successfully so that we could steal market share and grow the category. I loved thinking about how to create a world-wide pipeline of products that could excite laundry detergent lovers and push back our competitors. I loved working with the ad agency, marketing research, product development, and finance … and learning from very smart people and bosses. Rick Thompson was my internship boss. I rewrote one recommendation during the summer 77 times. He taught me how to “think” through writing. How to persuade on paper. What a gift! Deb Henretta was my marketing director. She had a talent for assembling the most diverse thinkers and leading / inspiring us to want to deliver. While many bosses surround themselves with what I call “mini-me’s” (academics call it in-group bias), Deb surrounded herself with people who had different skills. I don’t think the joy of the job or the work is really about “the product." It’s about the learning, the business challenge, the ability to create solutions that excite the target and the opportunity to be around talented people who help you become smarter. If the goal is to be successful then surrounding yourself with talent early on will drive you further, faster.
Last piece of advice. Students often agonize over the “right” school to attend for their MBA. They are concerned with how the MBA school choice will impact their ability to get a great job...or to have a great career...or to do what they want to do in the long run? The decision regarding internship and full-time job offers can have a similar, if not greater impact on the answers to these questions. As Colin Smyth, marketing director, talent management at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, suggests: “Your career is a journey and you need to think strategically about each step along the way so that you end up at the right final destination.”
This is your decision and you have to make the right one for your circumstances. But think through it and make sure you choose your first company wisely!
Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler
A special thank-you to the Darden School of Business (University of Virginia) MBA students Amy Appleby and Matt Purdin who provided important perspective and feedback that helped strengthen the article; to Jack Oakes, Assistant Dean for Career Development, who helped ensure that my perspective is consistent with what the experts in career services at Darden advise; and to Section E, a rare collection of students who are so Extraordinar-E that they inspire their professors to be better.