The Value of Building a Career Pedigree "Off the Grid"

BlogHer Original Post

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause

I thought my life ended when I couldn't go to an Ivy League school. My twin sister and I had the grades and the right extracurriculars, but not the parents who supported our plan. My father had just stopped working, on paper it looked like we had more money than we did, so I couldn't get loans. When I found out I'd be going to school in-state I cried for a week.

"Stop it," my Dad said. "Why do you care if you don't go to Columbia University? The cream always rises."

My sister and I both rolled our eyeballs at this. "If only he knew," I thought.

When I graduated from college I hedged my bets by applying to grad school (Columbia was one of my choices since, this time, I would be footing the bill) and I got a job in New York City. I'd interned at a publishing house in New York while I was in college and visited a friend I'd made who promised to forward my resume. When I called I was encouraged,

"This is perfect timing!" she said. "Jane is looking for an assistant!"

"Jane" (not her real name) was a woman I didn't connect with much when I'd worked as an intern at the company. She didn't speak to underlings very much, let alone interns. I did do a project for her, though I'm not sure she was aware of that. A socialite, she'd had given her assistant a project (then handed down to me) that required endorsing hundreds of letters in her first-name-only signature. Her assistant had me practice the signature many times before I could sign the letters. The first few were awkward, but 20 or so in I was like a Professional Jane.

A few days after submitting my resume I got a call from my friend at the publishing house.

"Sorry," she said, "but Jane only hires from the Ivies."

I remembered what my Dad said to me while I was still in high school, about the cream always rising, and smoldered inside.

I've had a few years to think about the validity of educational pedigree and I come to my current conclusion after much consternation. Believe me, I spent the next five years after college agonizing over whether I should redeem myself by getting a graduate education at a Top School. My sister quickly finished her undergrad, and completed her doctorate at Brown. I dallied, applying, getting in, deferring, applying to another program, not getting in and being encouraged to do another program, deferring, then applying to a new program, getting in and deferring again.

Most recently I got into Columbia University and became very stressed about having to uproot my life in California to start the program.

"You know," said my boyfriend, now my fiance, and a large part of why I decided to stay, "I'll support whatever you do, but you don't seem utterly excited about going back to school."

"Well it's hard packing up and moving across the country." He knew I was lying, because, frankly, I've done this before, and I still don't mind moving around.

"It just seems like you are only doing this to show that you CAN."

That was all I needed to hear. That simple statement made more sense to me than all of the career coaching that had come before it. I was getting a graduate degree not because I was passionate about organizational psychology, but because by going to an Ivy League school I would somehow redeem my past, claim my right to the very best education, stick it to my Dad who insisted that the cream always rises and prove once and for all, Nope! it's all about THE SCHOOL!

The thought made me sick.

Which is why I found this post (now a few months old) so interesting. My buddy and co Contributing Editor Maria Niles sent this post to me, suggesting it might be of interest. She knew nothing of my past regarding education. Sometimes I wonder if she's psychic.

Heather at Heather's "Marketing at Microsoft" Blog had a thought-provoking and--for me--emotionally provoking discussion around the best criteria for recruiting new employees at Microsoft.

She writes:

"Usually, when I end up strategizing a recruiting program for a hiring group, the conversation ends up being about target hiring profiles: what the people are doing right now, what companies they might be at, what schools they may have gone to, etcetera. All the things that are "searchable" on their resumes (effectively, the MBA programs and the previous companies do some of the filtering for us)...

...The challenge with hiring on potential is that from a recruiting process standpoint, it's *very* labor intensive. Hiring managers are usually most comfortable hiring on potential when they know the person. It minimizes the risk. I often find with events specifically, the people that the hiring team are most jazzed about aren't necessarily the ones with the "ideal" resume/profile (top MBA, several years software product marketing at a major company, track record of achievement, etc). The event offers the opportunity to get to know the people more than you do just by reviewing the resume. You get the chance to see what is awesome about them."

The post then offers up alternative criteria:

-alumni of the next ten b-schools after the top 20

-leadership in college (fraternity, sorority, organizations)

-recipients of specific kinds of scholarships, other kinds of awards

-scholar athletes

-fast career progression

Many of the responses that followed regarding other ways we can recruit people, particularly those fresh out of college who don't have a work background, were quite thoughtful, including this one that listed "Variations or Additions" to the typical job req:

Variations or additions:
· Great story tellers. These people can get the most done using others.
· People with clarity on what they want, expect and are striving for. They are simply more motivated and find ways to get things done...
· Thought-leaders & discussion-leaders, like Heather Hamilton, eager to build productive dialogues.
· Solid understanding of people and relationships. Especially true for marketing related positions.
· Care-factor - How much do they care? About their spouse? Job? Kids? Co-workers? Company? End-customers? Care-factor is often infectious. ...
· Understanding their strengths & weaknesses...

One response rankled me:

I had an interview with a well known company (rhymes with oogle) and they stopped the interview on the spot because I did not have a 3.0 as an undergrad. I said I wouldnt have gotten into an MBA program if I wasnt accomplished and all that. They said it didn't matter if I had a 4.0 in my grad studies, and there was no way around it. They only cared about the undergrad GPA...

Assuming this anecdote is true, how absurd! I always had an outstanding GPA, but I couldn't read a room or build business models on the fly until I had a job. Likewise my sister was always at the top of her class, graduated early with a Master's, got her Ph.D. and an impressive-sounding professor position at Harvard, then City College of New York. But she is a self-described dolt when it comes to promoting her work or navigating the policies and politics of academia. Only recently has she set about learning the unlearnable in college. What good is being a professor who can't maneuver the way she needs to teach what she wants, make an impact on her field of study? School didn't equip her for that--working did.

I think of all of the high-flutin' companies I've worked for--Penguin, The New York Times, Time Inc.--all great companies, indeed. I learned a lot about media at all of these companies, and yet, much of the uniqueness that I bring to the table I believe I learned off the corporate grid: a San Francisco new media start-up called MyPrimeTime, Inc.; it folded after three years of operation in 2002. My own writing a consulting business, which put me in front of the widest range of companies and thought leaders than I'd ever had the privilege of being exposed to. BlogHer--don't get me started.

The point is, sometimes the most unorthodox backgrounds offer-up the most poignant experience. I'm aware how tough it must be to extract this experience and determine how well it can work for your company, but at least having an openness to it is a good start.

At this media start-up I joined in 1999, I was asked to take part in hiring a team of writers. Nobody with a traditional media background, save for me, had signed up and why would they? We were an unproven start-up that required small bits of information to be crafted into 300-word articles, not the standard length print columns. My boss recruited a former chef, a former river rafting guide, a former teacher and an ad copywriter to be on my team. Needless to say I was skeptical.

We ended up being the most successful team, producing the widest range of lifestyle content. I worked with the team on style and the more tactical aspects of writing; they provided the perspective that a seasoned journalist with a general beat could not achieve.

There's another comment to Heather's post that I loved and that points out the results of progressive hiring beautifully:

Here are some examples of outstanding individuals that I found. Some details are generalized to protect the innocent.

- Catholic priest, teaching at divinity school, was run out of diocese because he was gay. Also got masters at Harvard and PhD at Oxford, both on scholarship. Was very quirky, didn't fit any position we had available at the time, but we hired him anyway. He became our most popular trainer (customers asked for him and would delay training until he was available). He also ran our education department.

- Two years out of school, working as clerk at insurance company. Very low pay. Had Poli Sci degree. Listed interests that included music and reading Rolling Stone magazine. Wrote a very interesting covering (sic) letter. Brought him in and had him write standard IBM programmer aptitude test (scored offscale). Was very articulate, very intense, knew a lot about music. Had no relevant experience (looking for technical and marketing writers), but we liked his offbeat personality. (He wore an extreme mullet, and played guitar too.) Was an outstanding contributor, strong team player, very bright, fast learner. Ended up leaving us to start his own web design and content authoring company in the web's earliest days.

- Gentleman with no outstanding work accomplishments, but was personally recommended by someone at company as "an interesting person". Only distinguishing thing on resume was that he was a world champion bagpiper. The interview was ordinary, but he was very likeable, so we took a chance. Was a great marketing writer and project leader, and the glue that helped hold my team together for several years.

I understand--Dad was right. The cream always rises, provided we are open to what that cream is. Bagpipers are welcome.


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