12 Mar 2001  Research & Ideas

Wired and Black: Focus on Careers

New economy companies may be moving at the speed of light, but they still need managers who can get the job done, according to career development experts who spoke at the African-American Student Union conference, "The Digital Dilemma."

Panelists at the discussion called "Wired and Black: Career Development in the New Economy," said newly minted MBAs should be able to learn quickly, handle problems, and build relationships with coworkers over workplace divisions. The panelists also advised students to know the value of their degrees, opt for opportunities where they can continue to learn, and plan for the long term rather than retirement at 30.

"The economic changes allow us to change the rules and make new rules," said panelist and HBS professor David A. Thomas. "More students are really asking themselves, ‘what do I want to be?’ Dot-coms becoming as much an alternative as investment banks has led to students asking more fundamental questions."

Thomas said students are finding new ways to use their expertise as the workplace changes and the definition of business expands.

Surmounting the race barrier

Though race can be a barrier in the workplace, panelists agreed, people of color must learn to overcome it. Benaree Pratt Wiley (HBS MBA ’72), president and CEO of The Partnership, Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that attempts to increase the number of minorities in leadership positions, said reaching out to unfamiliar colleagues is always a struggle, but sometimes a rewarding one.

"I don’t think you have to trust just the people who look familiar to you," Wiley said. "Even if you’re the only person of color, that doesn’t mean you can’t test the trust ... or find a mentor in that environment."

I don't think you have to trust just the people who look familiar to you. Even if you're the only person of color, that doesn't mean you can't test the trust ... or find a mentor in that environment.
—Benaree Pratt Wiley, of The Partnership, Inc.

Thomas advised jobhunters to check for diversity in the leadership of any company they are thinking about joining, and not to fear getting to know others in the workplace. "Most of us are better at stopping ourselves rather than pushing ourselves out there when we feel [fear]," he noted.

Sengal Selassie (HBS MBA ’95), vice president of SG Capital Partners LLC, said minority-owned companies can make for a more comfortable work environment for professionals of color.

"Unfortunately, there are not as many as we may like," he said. Smaller, friendlier, less structured companies can also be an attractive alternative for minority job applicants, he said.

"The flatness of the organization gives a lot of opportunity. There’s much fewer people you have to deal with, and I think having fewer people to win over is a valuable thing," Selassie said.

But Thomas warned students against expecting corporate life at minority-owned firms to be easier than at other companies. "I think the negative side is when people go in expecting it not to be an organization with politics and everything else," he said, adding that the firms were still "a new set of viable options."

Up and down the ladder

Students should keep an open mind while looking for their first job, noted Timothy Butler, director of MBA Career Development Programs at HBS. "A lot of big companies have learned how to push responsibility further down the ladder," Butler told the group. "I often find myself saying that some of the best smaller companies are very big companies now."

And, according to Butler, the time of the manager has come.

"It seems like the limelight has gone a lot to the idea people and the people who find the money for the idea people," he said. "But now, when I talk to venture capital people, they say they are looking for people who can get the ideas done."

Old economy companies that had given up competing for top-tier MBA students are now returning to recruit on prestigious campuses, Butler added, citing the example of Ford Motor Company, which he said is planning a full recruiting schedule at HBS for the first time in years. Such companies, he added, are confident that their compensation packages, opportunities, and support systems rival newer, hotter companies.

Larger companies appreciate the benefits of an advanced business degree, he said, where smaller, more informal companies sometimes may need to be convinced. "You may find yourself selling what an MBA can do at some smaller companies," he said.

Big or small, Butler and the other panelists said job applicants should carefully research any company they apply to, and ensure they will have access to top managers and high-profile projects they can learn from.

"Try to have a clear view of what your focus is and what it is you intend to do with that particular position," Wiley advised. "If you feel the environment is not permitting you to get [from it] what you think you need to develop your career, then it’s time to move on."

Thomas, also, advised students to continually reevaluate where they are, and avoid unquestioning stagnation. But he also advised against jumping ship without searching for internal opportunities. "Test whether or not you can transform things where you are," he said. Good managers, he added, should "value what others devalue."

"If marketing is the priority, look at manufacturing," Thomas suggested.

Seeking balance

In the end, though, all the panelists said job satisfaction is complemented by a balanced life.

Selassie advised setting priorities for free time, to make sure important personal relationships and beloved activities don’t slip through the cracks. "It’s hard to do, because jobs are infringing," he said.

Butler said he has a policy of avoiding work on Sundays, and does not own a cell phone.

"The ways in which work can get to you and you can feel at work have grown and grown and grown," he added. "I don’t think that’s a positive. We’re working a lot more of the time."

"It really makes a difference at the end of the day," noted Wiley. "Just doing something different gives you ideas and energy on what to do in your job. You’ve just gotta make yourself find the time to do something outside of work."