Employer Branding at Harvard Business School: An Interview with Jana Kierstead

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Jana Kierstead

MBA talent remains in demand even with consideration for the mercurial markets and the challenging state of the economy. According to the 2008 Corporate Recruiters Survey, there is 6 percent growth in the proportion of employers seeking to hire MBA recruits. In order to maximize their marketing dollars, employers are re-evaluating the messages they bring to the Harvard Business School (HBS) campus. At the forefront of the best campaigns remains employer branding. HBS’s Director of MBA Career Services, Jana Kierstead, works with employers to improve their on-campus presence. Kierstead sheds some light on how employers can best position themselves on the HBS campus.

What is today’s MBA student looking for in a career?

Good question. The question I hear more and more these days in my coaching sessions are around culture and fit—finding the right culture and fit is the utmost priority to the group coming in. The more successful companies that recruit at Harvard Business School include leadership development. Students look for companies that offer small group experience within a larger organization. Students also want personalized attention, mentors and feedback. They want to feel as though they can make an impact relatively quickly. These elements are very important to this generation.

How can employers improve their branding on campus?

First year recruiting is really important for getting awareness out early. First years are very impressionable and it’s important to get your message out to them. There are multiple ways for employers to build brand awareness. One includes getting involved in campus recruiting activities and giving company presentations, participating in networking nights and other events. Companies can bring in high-level speakers who tell a story, not about a job or program, but more about the company, including history, values and culture. It’s important for leaders to talk to a room full of students about issues their industry is facing and how they are overcoming these challenges. Employers benefit from participating in conferences and career fairs and actively increase awareness on campus.

In a recent podcast you said your role at Harvard is to "enable students in their unique career vision." Are there any sweeping trends you notice in what makes up an ideal career for the modern MBA grad?

I hope not because then each student would not be unique. It’s important to us to ensure that students think about what makes them tick. What is their vision for their career and their life? Some students want to work at a Fortune 500 company and others at a start-up. Some come in and out based on family needs. This generation is looking for work-life balance and flexibility. I hope nothing becomes a fad or trend—we have 900 unique individuals with 900 unique career visions.

What are the most attractive qualities in an employer for the most recent class of MBA grads?

Students are more and more interested in what impact the organization has on the community or the greater population. I have been in company presentations when the CEO is at the podium and the student asks, "What does your company do in the way of giving back or making an impact in the world?" The CEO answers, "Well we stop for a day and do a project." Students today don’t want the one-time event—they want it ingrained in the culture. They want to know that a percentage of the company’s profits go to x and values are breathed throughout the day. Companies need to wrap their arms around this reality—corporate culture or not. Companies need to clearly communicate that to students. They need to take the economies and translate them for students.

Many employers struggle with MBA grads who take an offer only to lose them shortly before the start date to a competitor. How can recruiters ensure candidates who have accepted will be actually showing up for the job?

I don’t think that this is a company’s job or responsibility. It’s the student’s and school’s responsibility. At the end of day what is a company going to do? No amount of money can make somebody go to work somewhere. It’s incumbent on the individual for commitment and to give his or her word. The school must set up an approach that encourages people to live up to their commitments—we invoke consequences. It’s a group effort, really. It’s hard because second year students accept jobs in November for something that won’t start until the following September. Good selection is a huge factor in this. The student must have a passion for the work—you don’t know if someone is more passionate about something else. Also, sometimes things come up such as a family issue where he or she has to be in a specific location.

How has the current state of the economy affected MBA recruitment from the student perspective?

We will know later in the year. We don’t know yet how truly different this year will be. We are booked for interviews and presentations and people are planning to come. If you look back to another year with a challenging economy, 2002, students had to parallel their paths more. They had to focus on their five to seven-year vision and come up with parallel paths to get there. Students had to do a deeper self-assessment and analysis of what they wanted to do and multiple ways to get there (one jump vs. two jumps). It’s important to do some critical thinking early on—what it is they want and what are the different ways to get there. We will see how this year shapes up—I suspect it will be a tough year but we don’t know yet from a fact standpoint.

How is the recession affecting MBA recruitment from the employer standpoint?

From an employer standpoint I think certainly we are hearing of budget cuts—recruiters need to be more selective with the types of activities they choose to participate in. The good news is overall MBA recruiting is the last place a company wants to cut. And frankly undergrad and MBA recruiting—relative to other hires—is inexpensive. Companies tend to not want to risk the brand not being on campus for a particular period of time. They need to keep their presence up and have an active role on campus, but they also need to make strategic choices on how they participate.

What is the number one piece of advice you can give employers in their efforts to source, attract, retain and engage high-performing talent?

The companies that are the most successful have buy-in and commitment from the top. I think ensuring that the organization knows that their c-level office believes in this. The c-level officers make this a priority themselves.
For example, the CEO could spend 20 minutes with each of the new hires.

The CEO is an extremely successful recruiting partner. It speaks volumes to the student on how the company prioritizes people and focuses on MBA recruiting. I would put that in my best practice category.

I have been in this field long enough to see a boom and bust—up and down—and I know that it is a ride we will all make together. It’s a matter of adjusting to new conditions and keeping lines of communication open.

Interview by Blake Landau, editor