How to land your first major role during a pandemic

LBS Career Centre’s Christian Dummett and Patricia Keener discuss how students are developing the skills needed for a rapidly evolving world

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While 2020 brought with it unprecedented challenge, early careers students from LBS’s graduating classes of 2020 were still hugely successful in securing their first major jobs. Even in the midst of a pandemic, some 93% of the cohort secured employment within three months of graduating.

This is particularly impressive given the challenges of 2020 and the fact that the job market slowed in March and April – exactly the time when most students are usually looking for roles. LBS graduates responded to the challenge by remaining calm throughout a major test of personal resilience, and have reaped the rewards as a result.

Here, Christian Dummett, Executive Director and Head of Career Centre, and Patricia Keener, Head of Early and Mid-Career Programmes, Career Centre, share their advice for those searching for their first major role in virtual times.

Embrace the technology – it’s here to stay

Patricia Keener: Many of our key employers are saying they won’t be doing in-person hiring until the end of 2021, which means virtual skills are here to stay – and not just virtual interviews but virtual networking, virtual assessment centres and everything that comes with virtual job-seeking. Our message to students is that it’s a matter of mindset. Virtual job-seeking isn’t so different from in-person job-seeking; you just have to be comfortable with the technology and know how best to use it.

Christian Dummett: Virtual processes can sometimes work better for our more introverted students. At the end of a face-to-face event, for example, it can feel overwhelming to be in a room where people are all rushing to talk to a speaker – the virtual space allows for a different kind of interaction altogether.

Get networking – virtually

Keener: Students have rapidly adjusted to virtual alumni breakfasts and club events as well as online employer presentations and recruitment evenings where they have the chance to join speakers in a breakout room at the end of the event. When it comes to this kind of virtual networking, there are some basics to remember: we always tell our students to have their cameras on. Don’t lurk in the background; be present. On video calls, it can actually be slightly easier to interact online because there’s more ‘netiquette’ around behaviour and different ways to get your thoughts across.

“There are many businesses thriving in this environment; it’s about identifying where they are, being flexible and agile in your search, and thinking about your transferable skill set”

If you’re asking a question, thank the panel, introduce yourself and be ready with questions (this can really help a virtual event flow). And make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date and interesting; this is now your virtual business card so it needs to showcase your skills in an engaging way.

The current situation also offers a great chance to show emotional intelligence and empathy. It isn’t just candidates who are struggling today; everyone’s going through a challenging time, and job-seekers can show they understand this by mentioning their appreciation of companies keeping their recruitment process going and accommodating them online, and being understanding when response times are slow.

Dummett: In our 1:1 coaching sessions with students, we encourage them to do their own networking by approaching alumni or contacts in sectors they’re interested in via email or LinkedIn. The aim here is for them to share an insight that will give that person a reason to want to meet or start talking. Maybe the student has an idea that they want to share with them, or a relevant project they’re working on. It’s about finding a mutual interest that gives the alumni or expert a reason to want to engage. It’s about saying: “I’d love to have a chat with you about X, Y or Z,” rather than just asking them for a job.

When it comes to finance, students worry that they can’t suggest a stock pitch or an investment idea to someone very seasoned because they’ll already know all about it. But you just need to demonstrate that your idea is well thought through and interesting; the expert in question doesn’t necessarily have to agree with you.

In some ways, networking is now easier today because although people are insanely busy, they can usually find 15 minutes for a Zoom call. In the past, it would have been about meeting for a coffee and the individual in question would have had to leave their office to come and meet you, which all takes time, but now it can be a 20-minute chat at a scheduled time over the phone or on Zoom.

Keener: Online is great for reaching different geographies too. It’s often easier for alumni and speakers from around the world to join a virtual panel rather than a physical event on campus, which has given our students new opportunities to connect with some really impressive international figures.

Consider which new skills might be needed in the months ahead

Dummett: In recent months, companies have been trying to work out how to engage employees and get the best out of them in a virtual environment. And they may be looking for characteristics that they weren’t looking for before. One that has come to the fore is self-motivation; when you’re working from home, mostly unsupervised, you need to structure your own work and schedule. Similarly, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can prioritise and manage your time, and show how you do it.

Keener: Organisations also tell us that they’re looking for employees who can be comfortable with ambiguity. As the pandemic hit, firms of all sizes were scrambling to adapt and it was this that made them realise the value of skills like resilience, positivity and agility. And the current situation gives candidates the opportunity to demonstrate both these skills as well as a growth mindset – also highly valued by employers.

Our students have already been learning how to cope when things don’t go as expected and we urge them to make sure they have an example to hand that demonstrates this. If the interviewer asks them to talk about a time when they didn’t have a clear remit for what to do, they need to be able to discuss their response. The recruiter wants to know whether they’re going to panic, look for someone senior for instruction, or step back and think about what action to take for themselves.

Be prepared for the nuance of virtual interviews

Keener: As companies suddenly made the switch to online recruiting, it was inevitable that the interview process would take longer and we’ve found that the usual time between first and second interviews has slipped. But graduates just need to be patient.

It’s also important to remember that these are all real interviews – you need to be authentic and try to connect with the interviewers as much as possible and establish a genuine interaction. Don’t be afraid to let your personality come through: smile, pay close attention, and show interest in the interviewer. Practising with (and getting feedback from) someone who knows is really useful.

“In interviews, candidates should try to speak mostly about action and evidence rather than framing problems and solutions, and always explain the impact they’ve had”

Dummett: We’d also encourage people to keep their answers to a maximum of 90 seconds in a 30-minute interview; if you speak for three minutes, you’ve already taken up 10% of the whole interview. Try to talk mostly about action and evidence rather than framing problems and solutions, and always explain the impact you’ve had.

Spend time building your personal brand

Dummett: The key struggle for early careers candidates is demonstrating their skills – and it’s a challenge because they haven’t got the work experience to support their claims. A short internship is often about one task so doesn’t always provide the opportunity to demonstrate the varied skills they need.

We encourage students to see everything they do as an achievement – and to recognise the decisions they’re making along the way and the value in them. Our students are constantly making decisions every day without realising, even in their friendships and their personal lives. And these decisions and everyday achievements require certain skills that they might take for granted but which can be useful in the workplace – and need to be articulated properly.

See opportunity in challenge

Dummett: At the Career Centre, everything we do is about accentuating the positive because out of every crisis come opportunities. New types of businesses will form and different sectors will take priority. There are many businesses thriving in this environment; it’s about identifying where they are, being flexible and agile in your search, and thinking about your transferable skill set.

It’s particularly easy for early careers students to do this because they’re right at the start of their career. It might not matter whether the job is in technology, consulting, banking or some other sector, as long as they’re in a vibrant and dynamic organisation that’s going to respect them and give them a fulfilling role.

Keener: Have a long-term mindset: yes, this is a difficult job market but it will bounce back soon enough and students need to be working now on how to position themselves for that. Don't let current frustrations stop you from getting out there and making contacts and positive impressions.

And be flexible: rather than clinging to an initial plan that may not be feasible now, think about the types of roles that are available and how they could set you on the path for what you want to do longer term. This is sometimes difficult to determine when you’re starting out in your career, so seek advice and insights from a career coach or someone more experienced in your target field.

Learn how to start a new job – from home

Keener: If you’re starting a job virtually, communication (both formal and informal) is key and it’s important to be able to show your results in terms of productivity and time management. You’ll need to be clear how your boss and team want to communicate with you, and how much. You’re then going to have to think about how to be visible virtually. Go to online social events, get seen and get to know more people in the business.

“Don't let current frustrations stop you from getting out there and making contacts and positive impressions”

Dummett: If you’re working for a smaller organisation, don’t be shy about suggesting ideas around how to link up. We handed over our last monthly meeting to the youngest members of the team and they came up with some great exercises, from scavenger hunts and collective singalongs to a big online photo montage.

What’s interesting is that because of this move to virtual working, there’s scope for creativity in the workplace that hasn’t been there before. And creative thinking will always help you stand out – you just need to be mindful that not everyone in your team will be an extrovert!

Finally, when our students leave LBS we encourage them to keep in touch with each other and the 46,000-person alumni network as much as possible. See what everyone is doing in different organisations, and continue to learn from each other; it’s incredibly important in a working world where we’re all facing similar and relatively new challenges.