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Companies are increasingly looking in top MBA programs for finance talent.

Recruiting MBA students is one thing, but hiring the right ones is something else entirely. At most companies, anyone who makes it to the second round of interviews has already been screened for basic skills, interest in the program, and leadership capability. How companies structure this process varies, from PG&E’s two one-day blitzes to several small dinners of four candidates each at Chevron to a three-day Florida weekend for all the “bring-backs” at Johnson & Johnson. The objective, though, is always the same: find out how well candidates perform under pressure and how they would fit into the company, both culturally and professionally.

“We have gotten very, very targeted about who we’ll recruit into the firm,” says Peter Hong, vice president and treasurer at Avaya, a communications software and networking company. “The first question to an MBA is: ‘What do you want out of your career?’” Five years ago a mere interest in finance would have sufficed, but now Hong and his colleagues are listening for someone who wants to build a well-rounded skill set. And, like most recruiters, Hong wants specific examples of how a candidate has led change, not just a list of his or her technical skills.

In fact, the level of technical skills desired varies quite a bit across companies. PG&E would gladly take someone without specific finance skills, while Raytheon wants people with proven experience in finance. At Johnson & Johnson, a background in finance isn’t required at the start, but “we always encourage MBAs to become CMAs [certified management accountants],” says program director Don Kohlhepp, since a working knowledge of key technical areas will soon become necessary.

Equally important at most companies is cultural fit. Since corporate finance departments usually can’t compete with investment banks or consulting firms on pay, they’re looking for people who care about the company’s products and opportunities for advancement, and who value the work/life balance an office job is likely to give them. Candidates who waver too much over which path to choose or who seem like Wall Street wannabes are usually discounted. “You can tell if they’re leaning toward [investment banking or consulting] from how they describe previous experiences in those fields,” says Judy Durkin, vice president of financial planning for Raytheon and head of its MBA development program. “Those who didn’t like it are usually pretty vocal.”

What MBAs Want

As discerning as companies might be, MBA students hold a lot of power in the process, considering some 75 percent have at least one offer in hand by the time they start their second year of school. One lesson most employers have learned is that the content of the jobs they are offering is king. The most popular companies have fairly structured programs, says Chris Higgins, career director at Wharton, typically rotating MBAs through an assignment or two per year in various areas of the company with lots of feedback and executive attention along the way. Alumni networks play a big role in a program’s success, too; prospective hires will often consult recent graduates to find out if a leadership-development program is all it’s cracked up to be.

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