The New Switcheroo

By Paul Feinberg

 

 
The New Switcheroo, Lauren Henry ('15)

A recruiter, playing it safe, is naturally looking for qualified candidates who check all the right boxes and who have demonstrated through past experience that they can perform. But when does it make sense to take a chance and hire the outlier whose experience doesn’t dovetail exactly with the job’s requirements?

And for those seeking to make a career switch, what steps are necessary to successfully facilitate change? How does one go beyond the résumé to impress recruiters and get someone to take a chance?

After graduating from Montreal’s McGill University, Lauren Henry (’15) spent four and a half years in marketing and sales at the News America division of News Corp., splitting her time between Toronto and New York City. But she soon became disenchanted with the marketing world. Enter Regina Regazzi (’97), UCLA Anderson’s assistant dean and director of the Parker Career Management Center.

“I told Regina I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Henry says. “She told me that I didn’t have to choose right away.” So Henry enrolled at Anderson and continued down the marketing path, even though she acknowledges that the industry was changing. But so was she.

While going “full steam ahead” in exploring her marketing options, Henry took finance courses with Professors Bruce Carlin and Tony Bernardo. She was hooked. “By April of my first year, I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to go into investment banking.” But Henry had already accepted a position with Sephora, and recruiting for internships in the banking space had already finished.

Henry should have been discouraged. People she trusted who had formidable experience told her that it would be “practically impossible” to change her career direction at that point. “No one will know you,” was the mantra Henry heard. “It will be tough.”

“Something kept me going,” Henry says. Continuing conversations with Regazzi, who showed optimism, were tops on that list. Henry dedicated herself to her Sephora internship by day and, by night, read books on investment banking to study the industry. The regular interview period with the banking industry might have been over, but Henry managed to land a few meetings. She ended up with two full-time offers and accepted one from Moelis and Co. in their New York office.

Henry’s position will entail advising Moelis’ clients, which is exactly what she wanted to do. “I’ll look at companies strategically and influence decisions,” Henry says. She landed the position despite not having much financial modeling experience, but says that, unrelated though it may seem, her background as a competitive dancer has prepared her for rigorous work. She’s ready for the demanding program that trains advisors.

As for the switch, Henry’s experience is a textbook case on how to make a career transition. She dedicated herself to understanding the industry she was looking to move into and learned as much as possible about the companies she interviewed with, proving that it’s not enough to tell companies you’re a quick learner — you have to show them. That effort, combined with tireless networking and reaching out to Anderson alumni to land interviews, made her career switch possible.

Jessica Simpson (’08) came to Anderson specifically to facilitate a change in careers. After earning a bachelor’s from UCLA, she went into asset management, first at an established firm and then at Epoch Investment Partners, a startup asset management company where her role included human resources responsibilities. In a sense, she was walking a line between a pair of functions. “I started doing HR practices, but my role was still in finance,” Simpson says. “I realized I really enjoyed HR, but had no foundation if I wanted to pursue it. I really needed more education.”

She entered Anderson with a singular goal: to pursue a career in human resources. But, she knew she didn’t want to go after a pure HR degree, so she decided to get an MBA. She’s been at Amgen in a variety of HR roles since graduating from Anderson. In her current role, she serves as a strategic adviser to research and development leadership on HR concerns and ensures that business objectives align with the needs of staff.

“One thing that was really helpful to me was that Amgen valued people without a traditional HR background,” Simpson says. “They wanted people who were well-rounded, who knew finance and marketing. They appreciated a broad background.” She says the biggest obstacle she faced when interviewing were questions that asked her to “give an example” — prompts to describe specific times she’d performed certain functions.

“I had a hard time with these because I didn’t have exact examples,” Simpson says. “I had to come up with something from my finance work that was still applicable.” To facilitate her transition, Simpson impressed recruiters with her understanding of Amgen’s value proposition and honed in on examples demonstrating that her experience would be valuable to that proposition. She says, “It was really critical that my experience matched what the company thought was important.”

From her vantage point as an HR executive, she advises those considering a career switch to prepare for interviews by understanding what a company wants and to figure out what skills are applicable to a company’s goals. Simpson reminds us that an MBA’s skills are applicable to multiple functions.

“Managers want to hire a perfect person,” Simpson says about seeking people who possess all the desired qualifications. “But perfect people are not available.” The unavailability of perfection, however, does not preclude recruiters from seeing the valuable ways the imperfect may contribute, and Simpson recognizes that those with different experiences bring in new ideas and are worth the risk.

Frank Carrere (’97) agrees and has his own way of assessing that risk. Carrere is a senior vice president for corporate development at 21st Century Fox. He hired Akilesh Sridharan (’08), a vice president at Fox International Channels, into the group straight out of business school. Carrere does a great deal of recruiting for Fox and has his own approach to identifying high-performing personnel — one that benefits potential career switchers like Sridharan. “I’m an anomaly,” Carrere says. “I look for people with strong emotional intelligence that understand the dynamics of our industry. My peers want people with the right backgrounds on their résumés. A lot of my colleagues only take risks when there are no other options.”

To that end, Carrere administers potential employees a battery of behavioral tests to gauge a candidate’s suitability. The approach has advantages because focusing on behavior and personality, as opposed to bullets on a résumé, allows Carrere to feel confident hiring candidates who lack specific experiences. It has an economic benefit as well. “I get folks at a lower cost,” he says. “But if they perform, their salaries come up quickly.

“I look for skill-set proxies,” Carrere says. “Akilesh is a great example. He had the international, finance and strategy skills, which I needed. But he spent his time at B-school at E! and Disney. More important, he used these experiences to form a very specific point of view about where the international television business was headed.”

Prior to coming to Anderson, Sridharan studied mechanical engineering, earning both a B.S. and M.S. in the subject from Columbia. He did research and development at Beckton Dickinson, focusing on designing products and medical devices used in the treatment of diabetes. He came to business school looking to switch both his industry and function.

“When I was at Anderson, I realized I was spending all of my free time looking at the entertainment industry,” Sridharan says. “I was going to film festivals and I realized if I was so interested in this industry, I should explore it. But I knew nobody would take me seriously. I needed to develop my skills in finance and strategy.” As he explored entertainment, Sridharan found that being a student at Anderson was an advantage. California law mandates that internships be paid, unless the intern is a student earning class credit. So, as a student, Sridharan was able to work for entertainment firms without it costing them anything. In fact, part-time internships and consulting project work have ballooned in popularity for this reason, with over 75% of Anderson students participating. “Switching industries became easier with each internship,” Sridharan says.

Carrere has another piece of advice for career switchers. “It’s easier to make a switch when the economy is booming,” he says. “It’s easier to take risks. Right now, the economy is still tough; going to business school helps, as internships allow you to immerse yourself in a new industry.”

It also helps to leverage one’s network. “I found out about the job at Fox International through someone in my Anderson Career Team,” Sridharan says. “At the time, [my ACT team classmate] was interning for Frank and mentioned to me that [Frank and I] should meet. I had actually met Frank before through the Entertainment Management Association, where he was a speaker, and we stayed in touch. When Frank had an open position, he asked me to interview. I got an offer from Fox and it’s been great. It’s been six years now.”

If anyone personifies career switching or has switched the furthest, it’s former actor Dan Reiss (’15). Reiss studied drama at NYU and performed off-Broadway, in films and on television all through school. He says that even while acting, he had an interest in the business world, particularly in finance. He interned for Van Eck, an asset-management firm, where he enjoyed the work and intellectual stimulation.

After graduation, Reiss made his first switch: putting acting aside and working full time at Van Eck Global, first doing marketing analysis and digital strategy, then product development and marketing. It wasn’t easygoing. He joined Van Eck at the depths of the financial crisis, making little money and bartending on weekends. Things turned around as the economy began to grow, but Reiss was ready for another change. Acknowledging that his first career switch was “difficult,” he came to Anderson to do it again, this time from finance to consulting. He says he’s interested in the diversity of assignments in the project-based industry.”

“I chose Anderson because it took me out of my comfort zone. It was a chance to build a whole new network,” Reiss says. “Southern California is a big area of growth. California is innovation-based, while New York is traditional.” Reiss also liked Anderson’s diversity. “Some schools are all banking or all consulting. At Anderson, there is a bigger distribution of career choices. At other schools, if I changed my mind, I’d be at a loss for a network. At Anderson, there are options.”

As a first-year student, Reiss worked the system, receiving guidance from the staff at the Parker Career Management Center and seeking help from second-year students — volunteers serving as Interview Prep Team and Anderson Career Team coaches. Reiss joined the Management Consulting Association and immersed himself in the Anderson Strategy Group, a student group that does actual consulting projects. This year, he’s a managing partner.

After graduating in June, Reiss will join ZS Associates, a global management consulting firm, where he’ll focus on sales and marketing in the L.A. office.

“I didn’t realize the value of drama until I got [to Anderson]. It’s a skill I have: to be in front of people and be able to put people at ease,” Reiss says, noting that while interning at ZS, he was tasked with making presentations.

It’s never easy to make a career change, and that’s particularly true in a tough economy. But, as these stories illustrate, it can be done. Take a deep dive into research on the industry that calls to you, learning all you can about the companies you’re interested in. Find ways to make your experience relevant. Network. Also, be true. “When interviewing potential hires, I prefer a candidate be candid and forthright. Be honest and own your experience and use it to your own advantage. It will only help you,” Simpson advises.

And for recruiters, remember that those bringing experiences from unexpected places provide fresh perspective and enthusiasm, and taking a risk on such a person is often worth the reward. X