Despite the occasional contrarian voice, the MBA degree has stood the test of time and circumstance like few other qualifications. And, while even MBA graduates saw job offers dry up during the global COVID-19 lockdowns, their business leadership and management skills will once again be in demand as economies seek to recover.
Even with its global pedigree, the MBA is not a magical open-sesame to any job your heart desires. A liberal application of elbow grease is still required – as is a clear vision of what you want to get out of it and a focused strategy for networking.
I started my MBA in 2015, after some nine or 10 years working as an account manager and sales representative in the pharmaceutical industry. I had no real career game plan when I first started at the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), but through my studies – my first formalised business training – I became increasingly fascinated with new technologies and the digital space.
The question I was thus faced with was, how does a qualified geneticist now armed with an MBA (but only pharma experience) make the move into technology?
The following practices worked for me, but other graduates may need to tweak them to suit their own objectives. And, it’s worth adding that I probably didn’t get everything right, at least not the first time.
- Embrace the skills, technical and soft, that you already have: I took stock of the skills and strengths I had and which could be transferred to another industry, once enhanced by my MBA studies. For example, I had worked in numerous other African countries where infrastructure – from roads to internet access – was not always optimal and this showed I was agile and could adapt to working and thriving in less-than-ideal environments. Identify the skills that could showcase your employability, and lean into them.
- Accept that baby steps are fine, but optimise the opportunities: I accepted that it was unlikely I could leap straight into the open arms of a tech company, based on my résumé up to then. After I moved out of the pharmaceutical industry and, for personal reasons, worked as a freelance consultant, I started with a healthcare technology company that was operating in international development. Not quite the tech job I’d wanted, but a step in the right direction. It brought together my existing experience of public and private healthcare and my new MBA-acquired skills set. So desperate was I to learn as much about technology as I could that I would often be found sitting on the same floor as the engineers. Within time, I felt ready for an all-out move to a tech company. This experience taught me that transitions may require two or even three moves, so be patient.
- Mine what you can find online: I would be lying if I said that on finishing my MBA I had a job at LinkedIn in mind. (Things just worked out that way once I set the company in my sights.) But I certainly knew of LinkedIn as a tool and was determined to use it strategically. In identifying which individuals to connect with and which companies to follow, I looked for common ground. A first step is always to seek out other alumni. Also, follow the companies you imagine yourself working for and engage with their posts. Look at their articles and comment when you feel you have something of value to contribute. As a rule, I never commented when I thought I had nothing of substance to say; I wanted to maximise my impact. On top of this, regular interactions with companies do show up in algorithms, and are very useful if you want to stand out above the crowd.
- Network your heart out: There surely hasn’t been a more powerful tool in any career plan than networking, even amid a pandemic. I went about it in a very calculated and determined manner. I would even say that networking was the backbone of my career-transition plan. I took whatever opportunity the UCT GSB afforded me – which are plentiful as anyone who has ever studied at the school will know. Beyond the regular platforms that the school hosted, I also availed myself of networking opportunities through my role as chairperson of the Consulting Club and my participation in the John Molson MBA International Case Competition. I had a simple rule – I never left an encounter without a business card. I would then call up the person I spoke to for a chat and, when geography allowed, an informal meet-and-greet over coffee. When I briefly visited Dublin a few years back, I set up a couple of informational interviews. The pandemic has obviously pared down face-to-face encounters, but it has presented us with unprecedented opportunities for more personal meetings – it becomes easier to strike up a rapport with someone as you’re now ‘inside’ their home when you have an online meeting. On top of this, geographical proximity – or remoteness – is no longer a concern. As one Forbes writer pointed out, networking is “about connection and conversation. And so, while now is a terrible time for events, it is a great time for connection and conversation”.
- Find a mentor: Don’t underestimate mentorship. My own mentor has proven invaluable, introducing me to the new industry I was entering and connecting me to people around the world. At the UCT GSB, students and graduates again have access to a wealth of potential mentors among alumni.
Pivoting into a new career or industry is no mean feat. It takes determination and plenty of application. But it is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career; sitting in a room in Dublin with little chance to interact with others in person may not be quite what I had imagined for my first year working at LinkedIn. But I do now have a job that gives me immense satisfaction and has made every minute I have spent conducting research online or reaching out to someone worth the effort.
Joy-Mare de Wet is the Enterprise Talent Development and Engagement consultant for the Benelux region (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg) at LinkedIn, and based at the company’s EMEA headquarters in Dublin, Ireland. Joy-Mare moved to Ireland in March 2020, just as lockdown measures kicked in. As a result, she hasn’t been at the offices once, she reports. When time allowed over lockdown, Joy-Mare listened to audio books, started playing tennis with fellow UCT GSB alumna Samantha Coom – now a service provider to LinkedIn – and found the best falafel delivery in Dublin.