Want a job in a new role? Look to your networks first

If you’re looking for a totally new venture, research by Isabel Fernandez-Mateo suggests you should begin by looking close to home

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the changing expectations of what people expect from work today
  • Senior executives are more likely to seek greater horizontal mobility or a switch to a new industry, sector or function
  • But, for such job seekers, executive search firms may not be the best option as they tend to act as “gatekeepers” on behalf of employers
  • New paper instead suggests more likely route is personal contact; hence Prof. Fernandez-Mateo advises investing time in building professional networks

The 2020 pandemic radically disrupted the way we work. Remote working, automation, ecommerce – trends that had been gathering momentum over the years – became the norm, seemingly overnight. As we continue to navigate the long tail of Covid-19 in all its uncertainty, shifting expectations of what we expect from our careers continue to reshape the world of work in 2022. 

For a start, there’s the so-called Great Resignation: more than 47 million people have quit their jobs in the US alone since the pandemic, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

There are also demographic shifts as a new generation enters the workforce – a workforce that is also working (and living) longer than ever before. Is the old model of education, work and retirement still valid? Do we want a job for life, or multiple jobs – multiple careers, even?

Business schools are seeing these shifting expectations first-hand as new cohorts join executive education and degree programmes. At London Business School, for example, a large proportion of people joining the Executive MBA do so because they want greater variety in their careers, while senior executives are looking for horizontal mobility; a switch to a completely different industry, sector or function.

Major change

“We’re seeing many leaders who want to enact a major change in their professional lives. Some may want to switch from finance to marketing, say, or from engineering to management,” says Professor Isabel Fernandez-Mateo. “Others may want to change their line of work completely; to jump from banking to consulting, and so on. What’s interesting is how they make that change: the processes or mechanisms they choose and how successful they are.”

Professor Fernandez-Mateo’s research investigates the paths open to executives seeking this kind of horizontal mobility. With Matthew Bidwell of Wharton School and Emlyon Business School’s Kira Choi, she has looked specifically at the use of executive recruitment or search firms – organisations often employed by corporations looking to fill their most senior roles. For employers, these intermediaries fulfil an important and useful function in narrowing down the candidate pool, usually based on the specifics of the role in question. But for job seekers who are looking to make a horizontal switch, search firms may not be the best option, she says. 

“Search firms act as gatekeepers for the most prestigious or well-paid roles out there. The issue for people who want to make a lateral move into a whole new function or industry is that these firms, acting on the instructions of the employer, will use pretty narrow parameters to sift candidates. They look for prior experience specific to that role or industry. Unless you have that experience, you are more likely to be ruled out.”

In other words, if you are looking to try your hand at something new and you don’t have a proven background, search firms may not be the way to go. To explore this scenario, the researchers surveyed a large sample of MBA alumni (see panel below for details of the study). 

It turns out that executives who heard about their job through a search firm were significantly less likely to move into lateral-type opportunities compared to those who heard about opportunities through other means. 

More specifically, those who’d heard about the job through a search firm were 11% less likely to change function and 7% less likely to change industry compared to those who heard about the job through other means.

What does this mean for people looking for a change? What should executives do if they want a new start in a different role or setting? 

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights from LBS

"The connections forged in a classroom typically extend beyond the learning experience"

Network effects

It turns out that a good place to start is closer to home. Professor Fernandez-Mateo advises, “It’s a good idea to start investing in your network before you get serious about a lateral job move, because it takes time to build the right connections. For that reason, I’d recommend that you start really branching out, meeting different people and diversifying your contacts as much as possible.”

Joining professional groups or associations is one way of doing this; as is investing in a professional development programme that gives exposure to peers from diverse backgrounds. 

Business schools are optimally geared to this kind of need as they convene participants from heterogeneous sectors, industries, functions and geographies around shared learning objectives. Professor Fernandez-Mateo is quick to point out that, for those seeking promotion or better pay within their existing function or industry, search firms remain a “fantastic resource”; provided you understand that they primarily service the needs of their client – the recruiting company. 

Diversity parameter

There is also the issue of increasing diversity in the workforce: “Companies that are recruiting using the services of search firms may also want to think about the kinds of parameters they set. If they are serious about diversity in their organisation, they may wish to broaden their criteria and focus less on direct experience, as we did not find in our research that recruiting from the same industry or function leads to better outcomes. These candidates are not necessarily better suited to the organisation; nor are they more likely to stay longer or secure promotion.”

By contrast, the friendships and connections forged in a classroom typically extend beyond the learning experience, says Professor Fernandez-Mateo, meaning that participants benefit from a larger, more globalised network. “The key thing is that anyone who wants to look for a new job needs to be aware that different search methods will favour different outcomes, so you need to look at the trade-offs and figure out where your time will be best spent.

“If you really want to branch out and try a new direction, you’re going to want to leverage your network a lot and look for recommendations and endorsement from your contacts.” 

Executive and horizontal career moves: A snapshot

To gain insights into the career moves of high-potential, high-earning professionals, the researchers surveyed MBA graduates from London Business School, gathering longitudinal data on the careers of a relatively homogeneous sample of people going into jobs in their prime working years going back to the 1960s. 

Respondents were asked to provide details of employment spells – time employed by one organisation, working as a contractor, as a company founder or periods of unemployment lasting six months or more. For each spell, they responded to questions about the company, industry, location, job title, function, promotions and compensation. 

Discounting first jobs and entrepreneurial initiatives, the researchers were able to parse a total of 1,342 transitions between employers made by 816 people. Analysing the data, they found that executives who heard about the job through a search firm were 11% less likely to change function and 7% less likely to change industry compared to those who heard about the job through other means. Unmediated approaches included:

  • Network connection (47%)
  • Job postings (16%)
  • Recruitment events (1%)
  • Other means (11%)

Social and professional networks thus seem to be greater guarantors of success when looking to transition into a completely new function or industry.

Isabel Fernandez-Mateo is Adecco Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship; Chair, Strategy and Entrepreneurship Faculty at London Business School