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The Career Center of the Future: Recruiting Exceptional Leaders

Three years of high unemployment for recent graduates have convinced senior leaders in colleges and universities that they must pay greater attention to preparing their students for life after college. Increasingly, that means re-visioning the role of the career director and her department.

Many long-term career directors have recently observed significant increases in their 403B accounts and are choosing to retire. That means colleges now have the opportunity to go from vision to action.

Deans and vice presidents embrace the idea of finding new career leaders who think broadly and strategically about their role inside and outside their institutions. They are excited by the prospect of finding candidates who are “connectors”—leaders who are adept at bringing many parts of their institution together to support student career development, whether that development happens as part of a course, through internships, study abroad or leadership on the athletics field. And, senior leaders increasingly recognize that their career directors will be doing work that directly affects institutional strategic objectives.

Sadly, hiring managers often find their applicant pools lacking in appropriate candidates. It’s not surprising: In this economy, when selling a house or finding a job for a spouse is tough, good candidates are staying put. They will only move for a position that looks significantly better than their current situation. On paper, many of these new career director postings do not look inspiring.

Recently, I was sent job descriptions for career directors at three forward-thinking universities. With the exception of references to technology, the descriptions could have been written in the 1970s. For a search to generate good candidates, descriptions must reflect institutional excitement for a new model of career preparation, along with a clear articulation of what constitutes success.

The Career Center of 2012 demands a leader who understands both academia and the world students will enter when they graduate. It requires someone who is equally at ease presenting to students, the College’s trustees, and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And, the director must be an “orchestrator of opportunity”, who leverages institutional relationships for the benefit of students. Leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit are critical.

Typical job descriptions have a brief summary of the position’s function, followed by sections for responsibilities and minimum qualifications. To attract good candidates, I recommend writing a new kind of description that answers the following questions:
1) Why does this position exist?
2) What are the expected results for the position?
3) Based on what metrics will success be determined?
4) With what departments, and with whom, will the position collaborate?
5) What is the organizational structure (both up and down)? Which positions are direct reports?
6) What are the key strategic functions?
7) What operational tasks will the incumbent perform herself?
8) What functions does this position oversee?
9) What percentage of the time will the incumbent devote to strategic, operational, and management functions?
10) What special needs or opportunities exist?

Candidates should be cognizant of what knowledge, skills and abilities are required. Rather than putting very high educational/experience requirements on the position, however, I recommend giving candidates the opportunity to truly understand the position and explain in a cover letter how their background and experience qualifies them to do a stellar job. It is incumbent upon hiring managers to carefully check references –and not just those references initially provided by the candidate.

There are talented and diverse candidates who could be exceptional career directors, but we have to get away from thinking that the only path to the position is through a master’s program and prior employment in a career services office. We must keep an open mind about applicants with different backgrounds, recognizing that few candidates will possess the ability to walk on water. Regardless of background, the new director will likely need support and coaching for success.

A Model for College Grad Career Success in 2012

In 2008, Brittany Haas left college with a newly minted degree in Apparel Design. A few months later, the stock market took a nose dive, leading to years of double-digit unemployment for young college grads. Hit worst have been those with degrees in art and design and liberal arts. But this is not another story of doom and gloom. At age 24, Brittany is US Retail Planner for a world-renowned fashion house, managing a multi-million dollar budget—along with her own business.

So how did the youngest daughter of four, who grew up on Long Island without any connection to the fashion industry, come so far, so fast? Brittany’s story is a model for any student who wants to find meaningful work in a tough economic environment; unwittingly, she followed the five smartest moves identified in Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career.

1) Figure out who you are and where you want to go

2) Get experience

3) Build social and networking relationships

4) Identify your competence gaps

5) Find your hook

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

From an early age, Brittany was good at math and science. But she also had a strong creative side. In high school, dancing was usually Brittany’s activity of choice, and she often spent six hours a day in class or at practice. But at 16, Brittany attended the Pre-College program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and fell in love with fashion. So, when it came to applying to college, RISD was a natural first choice. Brittany was devastated when RISD quickly rejected her application, telling her that her portfolio did not meet the requisite standard. Fortunately, Brittany had a Plan B: the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, where Brittany could study Fiber Science Apparel Design along with a huge dose of liberal arts. It was a blessing in disguise: in-state tuition, an education that combined rigor with practicality, and an Ivy-League degree. Brittany relished the academic work, taking eighteen credits per semester, instead of the required twelve. She also had an active social life and joined a sorority.

Get Experience

Brittany knew the key to her success in the fashion world would hinge on understanding the way the industry worked. And, from the time she entered college, both her parents and professors encouraged her to get internships. Brittany found all her internships using a very low-tech approach: she simply wrote personalized emails to sixty companies for whom she wanted to work. The first year Brittany received very few responses, but as her experience grew, so did the response rate. Brittany’s first internship was with the Israeli designer, Yigal Azrouel. It was unpaid and very low level, and she recalls hating it. But, in retrospect, Brittany was grateful for the opportunity to observe all aspects of a small company.

The first paid internship came the following summer, when Brittany worked for bridal boutique, Kleinfeld. This time, Brittany chose her internship specifically to gain experience in marketing. Finally, during the summer after junior year, Brittany found an internship as assistant manager at Nordstrom, which she describes as a “real job”. It gave her great experience on the retail floor, while paying her an excellent salary. To gain additional funds, Brittany also waitressed during the summer—often for four days a week.

Going to the career fair in her senior year, Brittany was an attractive candidate to the few retailers who came to campus. After two on-campus interviews, a retail math test, and a “Super Friday” at the company site, Brittany went to work for Ralph Lauren. Since then she has learned the department store side of the business by working for Saks Fifth Avenue, and started her third full-time post-graduation job in retail planning at Hermes. Asked whether Brittany is concerned that she is now totally on the business side of fashion, she replies that she takes care of her creative side by also running her own business, SomethingBorrowedNY, which rents out designer bridal accessories.

Build Social and Networking Relationships

Much of Brittany’s success can be traced to her uncanny ability to form relationships. Even so, she recalls that networking did not initially come easily to her, and she had to force herself to make the effort. If her business was to be successful, Brittany knew she had to find ways to get advice and publicity, so she started going to networking events in New York City. Organizations like Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., Women 2.0, the NY Entrepreneurs Business Network, and General Assembly, have been particularly helpful. At first, Brittany attended events with a friend and business partner, a strategy that made it easier to play off each other’s comments while discussing their new business with strangers. But, after a few years of meeting large numbers of people and talking about what she does, Brittany is now a networking pro.

Social media also plays a big part in Brittany’s life. In common with many small businesses, SomethingBorrowedNY grows through frequent use of blogging, and the effective use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Brittany reports that LinkedIn is also by far the best way of finding work in the business side of fashion—at least once you have experience. No longer does she have to seek work; now, companies and headhunters look for people like Brittany on LinkedIn.

Identify Your Competence Gaps

From the time she entered Cornell, Brittany was intent on entering the fashion world, and made decisions about academics and work experience based on what she would be able to learn. She had an interest in business, but believed she could learn those skills on the job. So, when given the option of majoring in Fashion Design Management or Apparel Design, Brittany chose the latter. She wanted to understand fabrics and garment construction—something it would be hard to do simply from working in the business. Brittany selected internships based on her desire to see all sides of fashion—from design, to planning, to retail. The variety of these experiences allowed her to relate much more effectively to potential employers. It didn’t hurt, of course, that one of those prospective employers was a Cornell grad and sorority sister.

Find Your Hook

Brittany doesn’t have one hook; she has dozens. They include:

* A work ethic second to none: she usually works from 9am to 6pm at Hermes, and from 7pm to 11pm on SomethingBorrowedNY.

* A clear focus on fashion, with an understanding of both design and business.

* Excellent math skills and a good knowledge of French—a real plus for her semi-annual business trips to Paris.

* An entrepreneurial spirit combined with the ability to get things done.

* A winning personality and unusual maturity.
None of these “hooks” are extraordinary, but few candidates possess them all. In Brittany’s case, she simply took advantage of her natural aptitudes and interests.

For most college students and grads, finding or pursuing a career in 2012 will not be easy. But it can be done. In this economic environment it pays to focus, devote the requisite time for the job search, and persevere.