From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

3/14/09 — For Finance Students About to Graduate

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On March 6, I had the real pleasure of meeting with a room full of Washington State University finance majors, most of whom are getting ready to graduate in the Spring. This may be one of the toughest markets to graduate into in many years — perhaps tougher than any since the mid-1970’s (when, coincidentally, yours truly graduated). Ever cognizant of the metaphores which will stick with college seniors, I offered up a Six Pack of Ideas for their consideration. Since then, I’ve had a couple of inquiries about this list. I’ll admit right up front that none of this is particularly magical or original. None-the-less, I’ve reproduced my comments here for any and all to read or ignore, as the case may be.

1. The economy will rebound. The real question for fresh graduates, at the beginning of their careers, is how to react both during the slump as well as during the recovery. The latter of these is probably more important than the former — there will be tremendous opportunities during the recovery, and choices made in preparation for that will really set the stage for the trajectory of their careers.

— Network: I was at a Seattle Hedge Fund Society meeting a few nights ago, and the panel of speakers were all from institutions or “funds of funds”. They were fairly unanimous that very few deals would get done this year, but that it was a great time to build new relationships and to line up funding and investment banking sources for 2010. The very same thing is true for individuals in their careers — 2009 and particularly the first half of the year) will be a survival time for businesses, but networking during these lean times will pay huge dividends during the recovery.

— Don’t Compromise Your Resume: It’s OK to take “a job” during this recession to pay the bills, but make sure that choices fit into the overall career trajectory. For example, one woman asked if now was a good time to go straight into an MBA program. I counseled against this. Even though it may be convenient right now, the MBA is best left for a point 2 to 5 years into your career, when you have built the experience on your resume to fully take advantage of the advanced education. Instead…. well, see point #2

2. Position yourself in the best environment possible, even if you have to take a huge cut in financial expectations. At this point in your career, a very high level internship is better than a high-paying job out in the corporate boondocks. Network with people who can jump-start your career, get mentoried by people who understand how to do this, and contstantly be on the lookout for opportunities.

By the way, it’s almost trivial to mention mentoring — everyone talks about it, but very few do it right. In the arc of a successful career, you’ll need more than one mentor. Looking back on it, at the end of your career, your best mentors won’t be the folks who held your hand and made you feel good about yourself. Your best mentors will be those bosses (and sometimes collateral people) who stressed you, who made you think outside your comfort zone, and who made you react to messy situations and clean up the messes. THOSE mentors are golden. You’ll learn to treasure your time with them.

3. Chase the money — not personally, but within the business. Where is the firm’s core business? Stick close to that. Last month, I was talking with a woman who’s in corporate sales with a major, 5-star hotel chain. She reminded me that even though we’re in a recession, her job is safe. The marginal revenue generated by one additional room-night is huge, so the sales force are the star players during the recovery.

Lee Iacocca was a graduate student in engineering at Lehigh University. At the time, Lehigh was basically a training ground for Ford Motors — they hired neary every engineering graduate. At the end of the program, Iacocca realized that the core of Ford wasn’t engineering, it was sales, and he requested a lateral transfer. Needless to say, his superiors weren’t happy, but he managed the shift anyway. Indeed, his engineering background gave him great credibility with the dealership network. Iacocca, of course, is the only person to ever head two of the big-three auto makers (Ford and Chrysler). He gave us not one but two category-killer new autos (the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler Mini-Van), is credited with saving Chrysler from bankruptcy, and was seriously considered as a candidate for President of the U.S. All because he chased the money.

4. Tackle the tough jobs.

Douglas MacArther was one of the greatest generals in the history of warfare. One of his biographies — written by William Manchester, who really didn’t like MacArther — is titled American Caesar. MacArthur not only became the highest ranking general of his time, but also was the son of one of America’s great generals, Arthur MacArthur. The two of them are the only father-son team to ever both win the Medal of Honor (father for the Civil War, son for WW-II). When the younger MacArther graduated number one in his class from West Point, he could have any job in the Army. As was the practice at the time, he rotated through a number of small posts, and at each one, his commander was a bit in awe of the MacArther name. Nonetheless, whenever the post commander would offer MacArther the job of heading up the best platoon or company in the regiment, MacArther would instead ask to be given the worst assignment. Why? He noted that if given the best platoon to lead, then the absolute best he could do was stay the course — keep them #1. On the other hand, if given the worst platoon to lead, simply moving them from the bottom up one notch would be a huge success.

5. Develop communications skills. Business leaders consistently stress the need for excellence in this area. It really is a career-maker (or breaker!) for young business students. Three areas need to be stressed:

— Get that “elevator pitch” down pat. Be able to say what you do or who you are in a short, forceful way. Be prepared to sit across the boss’ desk and give short, direct answers to tough questions. This is essential for a good job interview, but in fact essential every day of the rest of your career.

— Hone your presentation skills. Learn how to get up in front of an audience (of either ten or a thousand) and make that killer 15 minute presentation with as few notes as possible. Taking a drama class or two isn’t a bad idea for learning stage presence, body language, and eye contact.

— Learn how to write a succinct, pithy, and compelling one-page memo. No one ever reads page 2.

6. “Stay ahead of the airplane”. The U.S. Air pilot, Capt. Sully Sullenberger, has been in the news lately for his amazing landing in the Hudson River, saving all of the passengers and crew. Every pilot, starting with the first day of flight training, is taught to stay ahead of the airplane — anticipate where the plane is going and what it’s going to do, and be prepared for the next curve, the next bump, or the next potential thing to go wrong. This doesn’t just apply to pilots — race car drivers, athetes (particularly people who “run with the ball”), surgeons, and for that matter everyone on the front-lines of everything develop the skills to be prepared for the next thing that will happen (both good and bad). A lot of this takes practice and experience, but a lot of it is just thinking ahead — what can happen from this point? Donald Trump says to always understand the downside of every decision, and the up-side will take care of itself.


I jokingly noted to the students that a six-pack never seems to be quite enough, so I offered one more…

RELAX. Have some fun. Very few people, in their 50’s or 60’s and at the peak of their career, wouldn’t swap places in an instant with a 22 year old just getting started. It’s a great adventure. The people who do the best at business are the ones who learned to enjoy the journey.

Written by johnkilpatrick

March 14, 2009 at 6:29 am

Posted in Business Students

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