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Navigating Your Career After Harvard Business School

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) asks Professor Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86) for post MBA career advice

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Ziana Kotadia, Women Leadership Editor

For students who still don’t know what they want to do with their careers, how would you advise them to narrow down their search?

I have a remarkably large number of conversations on this question. A wise former CEO and HBS professor, Kevin Sharer, coined the term “Primary Colors” to describe three common career paths: investor, advisor, and operator. That’s your first choice, and it’s a big one. Once you have an instinct for which of those paths to take, then I’d suggest considering whether there are constraints, such as where do you want to live, what kind of work would you like to do, who would you like to work with? The answers to those questions shape quite a few of the alternatives available to you. For example, if you don’t want to live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco, Private Equity jobs are going to be hard to find. If you want to work with other people from HBS and similar schools, that would argue for Consulting, Banking, Private Equity, or Venture Capital as a career path. On the other hand, if you’re attracted to working with diverse groups of people, from different educational backgrounds, and with different life experiences, I’d recommend taking the path of an operator and going to work in a company whether small or big. By working in general management, you’re likely to have much more contact with people who are less like you. Finally, ask yourself the question “what really matters to me?” Is it money, leading groups of people early in your career, or perhaps the impact of your work? Depending on the answers to all of those questions, you can narrow down your alternatives remarkably quickly.

Choosing the “right” location is often a choice students struggle with. Other than choosing a location for personal reasons, what advice do you have for deciding where to live and work post business school?

My personal advice is that post business school you should seek to be in large competitive and dynamic industry centers. You might not want to live in that environment forever, but at least in the beginning, it allows you to build your network, both professional and social. It provides a place where there are high standards of professionalism that will help you excel and develop skills you might not have had otherwise. When I graduated, I focused on working in California which is where I grew up. That was limiting in terms of options, but I was happy with that tradeoff. Students tend either to gravitate toward or away from New York, otherwise it’s about making a decision between West versus East Coast, or living in the US versus living internationally. Generally, those decisions tend to be made for personal reasons and driven by a spouse or partner, family, visa issues, or a desire to return to where you consider home.

Sometimes students don’t get their perfect job for the summer or post-school role. How would you deal with this frustration?

This frustration may have more to do with expectations than reality. I rarely hear about bad summer job experiences. For the summer, the risk of making a mistake is low. Summer internships don’t create a lot of value for the employer; it’s hard to give students meaningful work over the summer, so they offer these opportunities to create a recruiting pipeline. Try and manage your expectations knowing this. You’re unlikely to find and complete the buyout of the century, find and invest in the next unicorn, or have a meaningful leadership opportunity during a summer. What the summer offers is an opportunity to get to know a company and a team, and reach a better-informed decision about whether you’d like to work there full-time. When it comes to your first full-time job, it does matter what you choose, but it doesn’t determine the rest of your career. If you look at many leaders of businesses, what many of them have in common is that their initial job out of being an MBA was in an advisory role, such as Consulting or Investment Banking. I often encounter students who feel like they’ve settled if they have chosen the advisory path. You shouldn’t feel that way at all. It can be a great career and does not preclude you from taking a different career later on. Then it goes back to evaluating satisfaction based on the type of work you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with.

What factors do you think students should consider when deciding between two competing job offers?

The best advice I ever got was to really think about the people I would be working with. You spend so much time working with them, it really matters if they care about your career or not, or whether they will be reasonable with the deadlines they set and the work they ask you to do. Ask yourself whether these people will create and foster a culture in which you will enjoy working and thrive. The wiser, and sometimes harder, choices I see students make is to recognize that they don’t want to be in the most prestigious job with people, or a culture that isn’t compatible with their own personality, priorities, or values. Make sure you deeply understand the type of work you’ll be doing. One of the many skills you develop at HBS is the ability to perform deep analysis. The entire first semester of RC year is devoted to developing this. Take those same skills you’ve used to crack a case, evaluate a company, or invest, and use them to evaluate your future job. You would never want to invest your time working for a company in which you wouldn’t invest your money. At the same time, you might not want to work for every company you would invest your money in.

Compensation packages are always top of mind for students, particularly for those hoping to pay down debts quickly. What advice do you have for students evaluating salaries?

Try to understand the total compensation package you’re being offered. The compensation trajectory is particularly important in fields like Venture Capital or Private Equity where you receive some compensation which is uncertain, or not realized until later, possibly many years later, and possibly not at all if you’re no longer with the firm. If you are focused on compensation, also look at the tax attributes. The nature of your pay package, how it changes over time, and how it is taxed are all important. Over a long period of time, tax in particular makes an enormous difference. Choices do matter from the beginning because differences in compensation continue to compound over time. Being mindful of these choices early will lead to more satisfaction later on. However, I will say that short-term trade-offs at the expense of happiness and satisfaction are not worth it. I have no concerns about any HBS student being able to repay their student loans. Some members of the class will become billionaires (if they aren’t already). If you’re constantly comparing yourself to your classmates and others, that can induce stress and be very dissatisfying. Try to answer the question, “how much is enough?” If the answer is “it’s never enough,” that is a recipe for personal disaster. There will always be someone, and potentially many people, you know in your class that is earning more and accumulating more wealth. You shouldn’t be too focused on compensation for your own happiness. Having expectations, and meeting your own expectations is important. Think about these expectations in your second year, and write them down. In five years’ time, you should look back at this number; it’s likely you’ll be satisfied with what you’ve achieved because it exceeded what you initially had in mind.

Many students aspire to have a career as successful as yours. How did you approach your career path post-HBS?

After HBS, I went back to the industry that I had come from, Investment Banking. It was a very different time, where in order to progress in my job I needed to leave and get an MBA. In Investment Banking I learned a lot about a couple of industries and joined a client two years after graduating from HBS as a Senior Vice President. The company had a serious problem with title inflation. It’s hard to believe now that I had that opportunity, but I did. I am often asked if I choose a certain path, can I make a change later. My answer is, of course. Once I had made that change and built up some credibility as a CFO I was able to switch industries from Entertainment to Healthcare. In some jobs, such as the CFO role, changing industries is easy. In others, especially operating roles, you become embedded within an industry. Once I went into Healthcare, I stayed for more than twenty years. I was not at all intentional with my career path; I really enjoyed working in Investment Banking and getting exposure to different industries. But when I had the opportunity to work for MGM and an incoming CEO, who wanted me as part of his team, of course, I jumped on it. I also knew I could potentially come back to Investment Banking or some type of financial role, and the Entertainment industry was hard to break into. This speaks to the importance of the network you develop during and post business school. I have plenty of examples of HBS friends from class who had terrific opportunities that were quite unexpected because someone in their HBS network helped them find the opportunity or even recruited them.

What do you wish you had known when you started your career?

As I reflect back on my career, it always seemed like I was very focused on the immediate term, and never focused on the long term. If I was re-doing my path, I would spend some time reflecting and really thinking about my long-term objectives and ask myself the question of what impact I want to make with my career. Compared to my classmates in 1986, students today are far more concerned about the important questions of culture and impact. Historically, HBS graduates focused on compensation and stability and were fairly risk-averse. Today, I’ve found many students are willing to take enormous risks and place more weight on the important issues of culture and people.

You have a daughter who went through the HBS experience. As a father, what’s your perspective on career choices?

My daughter discovered an occupation, while she was at HBS, that she didn’t even know existed before she got here. Nearly two years after graduating, she is highly satisfied. She made a deliberate choice and decided to work not in the highest paying job, but in one that is incredibly impactful. She’s able, at a young age, to influence corporate behavior on social, environmental, and governance dimensions. She chose to pursue something that not many HBS students were aware of or recruiting for, so she didn’t have the same competitive stresses that many students face. That’s a choice. If you want to keep all your options open, you have to go through the competitive recruiting process. I often have conversations with students who have multiple opportunities, and this search for optionality has now pervaded everything. The level of anxiety, stress, and time expenditure that goes into creating too many options shouldn’t be underestimated. Ask yourself, is it really worth it, and is there such a thing as too many options? Make a choice, make a commitment, and stick with it. That’s good advice for accepting a social invitation, showing up at a club event, or choosing your first job.

Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86) has been on the HBS faculty since 2019.  He feels privileged to teach FRC and LCA and serve as a Section Chair.  Prior to HBS, he was the CEO and CFO of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, and prior to that, he was CFO of MGM/United Artists. He also serves on several corporate boards.

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) is from the UK, and most recently made the move from London to Boston. She loves to travel, learn about new cultures, and enjoys eating her way through cities. She loves to cook and is passionate about great food.

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