After several months of searching I received, and accepted a job offer last week. Here is the story of how it went.
Starting the search
After being laid off in January 2022, I took some time off to recuperate from the ups and downs of my last job and two years of pandemic parenting, one year of which included studying for an MBA. I was still ramping back up to capacity after experiencing debilitating burnout. After the severance ran out and my initial leads went cold, I took on some freelance work, aiming for 20-30 hours a week for work, balanced against ~20 hours a week for school.
My last job search took almost exactly six months. With that in mind, and hearing that other design leaders were seeing the same window of time, I started to plan a new job search. My school work continues until December 10th and I wanted to maintain my reduced hours while still in school. My goal was to start a new job in January 2023, however my final semester covers design thinking and innovation which is an area where I have some experience and I assumed I could handle the workload more efficiently. If a job came earlier, I could make it work. With my MBA coming to a close, I wanted to test the idea that I could put the credential of the degree and the lessons learned in the curriculum to use; would I be a more attractive candidate? Could I interview more effectively?
I started applying in July.
Searching and refining
Over time, I wanted to work through a few levels of uncertainty to determine fit with a new position.
Uncertainty 1: the job description isn’t totally accurate. If it seemed like a 70% fit, it’s worth applying.
Uncertainty 2: the recruiter/screener may not have accurate information. If I get to talk to a recruiter, they may have information that clarifies the job description, but they won’t have information specific to the role and the inner workings of the team.
Uncertainty 3: the organization uses different vernacular. The design field still suffers from an inability to “define the damn thing” so if I get to talk to a hiring manager, I want to get clearer on what is expected in the position and try to clear through any jargon.
In order to narrow through these levels of uncertainty, I took a broad approach to applying, looking for 70% fit. I stayed open to any possible recruiter/screening call that came from an application or a cold connection through email or LinkedIn.
I kept track of everything
I created a google sheet and for every application, I added a row with the company, position, and status of the application, along with some notes and the date of the last event related to that job.
I interviewed for a Director of Research position and made it to the final round before getting declined. I updated the sheet.
I interviewed for a Design Manager position, and had great conversations with the hiring manager. The company sent me a gift certificate to a service that lets you pick a box of snacks which are sent to your house as a gesture of good faith going through the interview. We had a final round interview scheduled in 4 days. They declined me in 2 days, and the snacks arrived the following week. This felt incredibly strange.
I talked with recruiters about jobs that would be a $25K pay cut for me (not accounting for the effects of inflation over the course of this period of time) and we parted ways then the compensation gap became clear.
I never heard back from dozens of companies. I created another column in the sheet that calculated the days since the last action. If my applications were still stale after 20 days, I changed the status to “Ghosted” I kept track of whether I was ghosted without any contact or after each step in the process.
A lot of people moved on with other candidates.
Notes on the search
Taking a look at the search overall shows an interesting climate for design leaders.
Ghosting–never hearing yes or no from a company–remains the most common way that companies handle rejecting applicants.
Rejection emails tend to follow a template: thanks for applying, we appreciate your time, we’re moving on with other candidates, we’ll keep you on file.
I also realized, about six weeks into this endeavor, that I had structured the data in a way that was not the most effective. I tracked job applications by company and gave them a current status. As a result, I am only able to capture the overall state of the applications. If I had it to do over again, god forbid, I would focus on capturing events so I could get a better sense of the timing of the search. What’s the average time to ghosting? or rejection? or getting a call from a job? Rejections typically come within 2-3 weeks.
In line with my broad approach to applying for jobs, I applied for just about every company you can think of, expanding out of tech product firms to consultancies as well; BCG and McKinsey.
In August, I received an email from BCG inviting me to join their ‘talent community’ but gradually realized that this was their way of issuing a rejection.
A McKinsey recruiter contacted me and asked if I wanted to have a call. We talked in September and she expressed an interest in moving forward with my application, but at a higher level than the one I had applied. I had seven more interviews with McKinsey over the course of September and October as I moved from portfolio review, and exercises, along with extensive questions on personal experience.
Interviewing with McKinsey is, in and of itself, a rigorous and interesting experience. They interview differently for the design discipline than the consulting arm. There is a pretty active little industry dedicated to consultant interview coaching. I started picking apart their advice to determine what would be applicable to my interviews and where there were differences between the typical consultant interview sequence and the design leadership. I prepared with materials that McKinsey posts online. I reviewed my own work and revised my portfolio case studies with the perspectives I have honed through business school. I practiced stories from my experience where I demonstrated leadership, conflict resolution, flexibility in practice, and entrepreneurial execution. I told the folks at McKinsey that I had mixed feelings about the company as a whole, as it has had a front row seat to some significant bad behavior. They acknowledged and accepted this openly. They walked me through the policies operations of the company implemented to eliminate conflicts of interest and elevate ethical practices. I was struck by how candid they were on this topic.
In the meantime, I was keeping my search going and applying for jobs. While I was having good interviews, I was driven to continue applying in part out of perseverance, and in part out of superstition that if I took my foot off the gas, then the forces of the universe would conspire to create another dead end with McKinsey. By late October, two days before the final round with McKinsey, I reached 100 submitted applications. I told my wife, “I think I’m going to take a break in applying.”
After completing the final round with McKinsey, I was told I would receive the decision on Monday. It was delayed to Tuesday and again to Wednesday. Ultimately, they made an offer and after taking a day to read it over and discuss some logistics, I accepted.
The search is over
I take some comfort that MBA credential and the lessons learned in business school made a positive impact. I was able to speak more effectively on design topics and relate them back to business objectives more effectively than I possibly could have two years ago before the program. The MBA experience has sharpened my perspectives on the role of design and given me new rigor in my thought processes.
I read somewhere that McKinsey only extends offers to 1% of applicants. And my job search resulted in only 1% of applications yielding an offer. And on top of that, I am not McKinsey material on paper. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I didn’t graduate from a top ten business school. I have not worked at a Fortune 100 company. How did I get here?! Onward and Upward!