This week, Linkedin sponsored a “How a Hire” series, where contributors shared their strategies for choosing the best employees. Among the contributors was Thomas Eisenmann, a Harvard Business School professor and co-chair of Harvard’s Rock Center For Entrepreneurship. In his essay, “How I Hire: What MBAs Should Know About Startup Jobs,” Eisenmann outlines the complaints that entrepreneurs hold about MBA applicants – and how they can better position themselves to work for startups. Here are some highlights:
- “…To improve the odds that they’ll be referred when a startup is hiring, MBAs cast a wide net, reaching out to as many people as possible who can influence recruiting decisions, Aggressive networking is crucial with a startup job search, but you can spread yourself too thinly. Overextended, you’ll lack the time to prepare properly for initial meetings, and as a result, you may make a poor first impression. Startup CEOs complain about MBAs who ask them for information that is readily available from a Google search, such as “Can you tell me about your business model?” or “How are you funded?” Founders of consumer-facing startups will be disappointed if you’ve never used their products. They’ll be annoyed if you haven’t checked their website to determine whether positions are open in the function you’ve targeted. Finally, entrepreneurs will lose interest quickly if you aren’t up to speed on sector trends…”
- “In positioning themselves for startup jobs, MBAs often fail to convey that they understand what’s required of startup employees. This raises doubts about whether candidates have been thoughtful about their motivations for seeking a startup job…. Every hire on a small team is a high stakes event, so founders need to ensure that new employees bring:
- Tolerance for ambiguity and for lack of structure, in particular, around roles and career paths.
- Independence and a “can do/will do” attitude. Early-stage startups often lack processes and routines. In contrast to business-as-usual in big corporations, nothing happens in startups unless someone makes it happen.
- Resilience and passion. Startups encounter inevitable bumps as they try to build something new in the face of severe resource constraints. Rolling with the punches is easier for employees who are passionate about a startup’s mission or about the space in which it operates.”
- “MBAs routinely fail to demonstrate how they can immediately add value in a startup. They emphasize the same generic strengths that they’d cite in an interview with a consulting firm, for example, “I’m smart, analytical, hard working, and a superb team player. Point me at any problem and I’ll deliver great results.” From a founder, this is likely to engender the response: “That’s cool, but what can you actually DO?” As one entrepreneur said, “I do value an MBAs’ analytical skills and their ability to troubleshoot strategy problems. But focusing too much of the recruiting conversation on strategy or asking for a strategy/biz dev job in a 5-10 person startup shows a lack of understanding of our most urgent priorities.”
- “Founders also complained that MBAs show little interest in or ability for sales roles. One entrepreneur said, “In a startup, you are selling ALL of the time: to customers, partners, prospective employees, and investors. A startup does better if more of its employees are able and willing to sell. MBAs’ classroom training encourages a dispassionate, analytical perspective. That’s not what sales is about, so MBAs need to unlearn certain attitudes to succeed in startups.”
- “Founders are in strong agreement about the best way for candidates to make a strong impression: they should propose a bold idea for improving performance —one that is germane to the position they are seeking… You may be thinking, “Isn’t my proposal likely to be off target?” Indeed, founders said that 90% of the time, such proposals had already been considered and rejected, or were fatally flawed in some way. But they maintained that receiving the pitch demonstrated that the candidate was a self-starter; showed that she could sell; gave a sense for what the candidate knew and could do; and crucially, showed how she reacted on the fly when told that her idea wouldn’t work. Did the candidate listen well, and adapt the plan in intelligent ways? Did he become too argumentative and defensive? Was he too quick to abandon his idea? Balancing bold and creative ideas with a willingness to listen demonstrates a killer combination of passion, confidence, and humility.”
- “MBAs often expect too much seniority and have unrealistic expectations about becoming a general manager quickly—especially in later stage startups. For example, a founder in a startup with 300 employees complained about a candidate who wanted to know, “How much exposure will I get to the board?” Founders acknowledged that some degree of ego and impatience are valuable traits in employees—after all, pursuing risky opportunity when resources are scarce does require self-confidence. But the best candidates are self aware, able to modulate their egos, and always focused on how they can contribute, rather than what they can extract from a new job.”
Five Tips For First-Time MBA Application Recommenders
“This should be easy,” you think. “They can just list my virtues and share some examples.”
These days, getting a solid letter of reference takes more than finding an advocate with a kind heart and some spare time. It requires a strategy. You probably feel like a recommender is doing you a favor by writing a letter. Unfortunately, their arguments can introduce questions and doubts about your candidacy. So how do you get a letter that consistently reinforces who you are and what you can do? Here are five tips from F1GMAT, a leading research and consulting firm for MBAs:
1) Supply Background Information: You want recommenders to know who you are, not just how you contributed in a few contexts. Provide them with your resume and personal details.
2) Share Your Essay: Supply your essays with your recommenders, so they can corroborate and elaborate on your key strengths. Also, encourage them to incorporate examples you didn’t already cite that align with your overall message.
3) Match Rating With Examples: Make sure your recommenders are clear and consistent on why they gave you particular ratings.
4) Quantify Results: Numbers speak volumes! Use figures like dollars and avoid including percentages as stand-alones. At the same time, recommenders should emphasize how you helped achieve project and company goals.
5) Include Criticisms: This may seem counterintuitive, but noting areas for improvement makes a letter seem more genuine. As before, these critiques should align with what you’ve written in your essays. Including ideas for overcoming these weaknesses, such as specifying particular campus activities in the letter, can help alleviate any concerns about your candidacy.