The COVID-19 storm has had a severe impact on all of us, taking millions of lives and crashing economies and livelihoods. Businesses went under or down-sized, and jobs were lost. Many more froze ‘perks’ like bonuses and put a freeze on any new hiring.
In this context, the career plans of young professionals have understandably come under strain, those of MBA graduates included. Typically spoilt for job offers and promotion opportunities, MBAs have felt the pinch in the past year as offers have either been rescinded or put on hold in the wake of the pandemic.
However, the latest data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) points to a silver lining. Most companies are once again looking to hire MBAs in the year ahead. Why? Because they recognise that graduates of good business schools are adaptable and resilient to change – perfect for a post-pandemic world where companies are looking to find their footing in the new normal.
But rather than resting on their laurels and waiting for the phone to ring, recent MBA graduates can do much to position themselves to be at the front of the queue when the hiring picks up.
It needn’t just be Hollywood celebrities who put their off-time to good use amid the pandemic, be it learning to paint, launching podcasts or, in the case of one ‘Star Wars’ actor, becoming a doula. There has been perhaps no better time to do a skills audit. The pandemic has forced all of us to find new ways to live and work and acquire new technical and soft skills and we need to assess what’s been useful and what we need more of. MBA graduates could ask themselves what they can learn now that will enhance their abilities as leaders, as mentors, as teachers, and peers in the new normal. This may be uncomfortable. As I have seen in my job more times than I can recall, the greatest obstacle to overcome in learning new skills is the elevated sense of anxiety that comes with taking on the new and unfamiliar. Our inner critics tell us that we’re not good enough or don’t have the time. And the everyday challenges of working from home over the pandemic – no dedicated home office, trying to balance work with home-schooling of children or being a caregiver to others – simply ramp up the obstacles. At the same time, MBA graduates may also be suffering from learning-fatigue. They’ve just come through an intense and demanding programme and it may seem counterintuitive to go straight into more learning. But the idea of lifelong learning was not an invention of 2020. If anything, 2020 just reminded us how critical this is. Given the challenges that the world now faces, this is not the time to say we have nothing more to learn.
There are many experiences that can add new dimensions to who you are as an individual and an employee or employer and leader. And these experiences will also add to your skillset as you grow in your role. For instance, millions of people around the world have taken up meditation as a means of coping with lockdowns. People are volunteering for feeding schemes or, more recently, vaccination programmes, giving them a deeper and intimate insight into the impacts of the pandemic. However altruistic our intentions, these experiences also expand our view of the world, and make us more attractive candidates for employment. Such opportunities exist even within the workplace. Put up your hand to assist in projects not directly related to your job. Maybe your company wants to run a diversity workshop or host a meeting on mental health. These are all opportunities to gain new experiences and broaden your horizons and skillsets. And if spotted in a résumé, who’s to say what possible chords it may strike with the reader.
MBA students are more familiar than most with the importance of networking – and most good MBA programmes make sure to give students a plethora of opportunities to hone these skills before and after graduation. Though it’s changed, networking has not stopped just because we are mostly working from home and graduates should not stop looking for opportunities to network. Virtual networking opportunities have sprung up across sectors and industries. In fact, in some cases, networking opportunities have expanded. We suddenly have a chance to engage with international peers we may not otherwise have met, for example. Virtual Breakout sessions at meetings are ideal for striking up deeper conversations at a conference or meeting. And if you are going to send out your résumé, the pre-pandemic rules still apply – no scattershot emailing. Be as calculated and discerning as ever. Also, keep your professional online profiles updated; LinkedIn has become an even more important source of connections and networking. Optimise these channels and leverage them to your advantage. The UCT GSB has a global student and alumni body; tap into these networks.
The desire to return to 'normal' is understandable. We are all a bit tired of the pandemic and the restrictions it has imposed on our lives. But we need to accept that things have changed irrevocably. Prepare for the new normal. Some things haven’t changed; an opportunity to reflect and take stock is always an advantage. It is when we hit pause and take a deep breath that our minds come up with the most creative and sustainable solutions to our challenges.
Candida Sisam is the Head of HR at LRMG. She graduated with an MBA from the UCT GSB in 2012.