How to join the 1%

Date: 15-05-2015
Source: The Economist: Schumpeter

A book on the persistence of elites is an unexpected guide to getting a good job

MANAGEMENT consultants, investment banks and big law firms are the Holy Trinity of white-collar careers. They recruit up to a third of the graduates of the world’s best universities. They offer starting salaries in excess of $100,000 and a chance of making many multiples of that. They also provide a ladder to even better things. McKinsey says more than 440 of its alumni run businesses with annual revenues of at least $1 billion. The top ranks of governments and central banks are sprinkled with Goldman Sachs veterans. Technology firms, though they are catching up fast, have nothing like the same grip on the global elite.

Which raises a pressing question: Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has spent a decade studying how these firms recruit. The result, “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs”, is an academic book with the requisite references to gender theory and Marxist concepts of inequality. But read it carefully and it becomes something far more useful—a guide on how to join the global elite.

The bad news is that by far the best way to get into the tiny group of elite firms is to be studying at the tiny group of elite universities—Ivy League colleges in America (where Ms Rivera did her fieldwork) or Oxford and Cambridge in England. The firms spend millions of dollars love-bombing these institutions with recruiting events: students can spend the recruitment season wining and dining at their expense. However, as Ms Rivera notes, firms reject the vast majority of elite students they interview: so even the most pedigreed need to learn how to game the system.

The most important tip is to look at who is doing the recruiting. Whether in consulting, investment banking or the law, firms use revenue-generating staff rather than human-resources people to decide who has the right stuff. The interviewers are trying to juggle their day jobs with their recruiting duties: they seldom spend more than a minute or so reviewing each application form. In the interview room they behave predictably: they follow a set script, starting with some ice-breaking chit-chat, then asking you about yourself, then setting a work-related problem. That makes them desperate for relief from the tedium. Be vivacious. Hang on their every word. And flatter their self-image as “the best of the best” and the most jet-lagged of the jet-lagged.

The most important quality recruiters are looking for is “fit”: for all their supposedly rigorous testing of candidates, they would sooner choose an easy-going person with a second-class mind than a Mark Zuckerberg-type genius who rubs people up the wrong way. Staff in professional-services firms spend most of their time dealing with clients; so looking the part is essential. They also expect their employees to spend extraordinary amounts of time together—learning the ropes in boot camps, working late in the office, having constant work dinners, getting stuck together in airports in godforsaken places. Recruiters repeatedly told Ms Rivera that they looked for people who could be their friends as well as their colleagues. One compared hiring to “picking a team on the playground growing up”; another described his firm as “a fraternity of smart people”.

It is easier to give the impression you will fit in if you have swotted up on the firm in question. Speak to any friend-of-a-friend you can find on the inside, to learn about its internal culture and its inside gossip. One candidate in Ms Rivera’s sample passed the interview by adopting the persona of a successful consultant that he knew at that firm. Even if you do not go that far, you must at all costs avoid appearing nerdy or eccentric: there are plenty of jobs with tech companies for those types. The old-fashioned belief still prevails that playing team sports, especially posh ones like rowing, makes for a rounded character.

The final key to success is to turn your interviewer into a champion: someone who is willing to go to bat for you when the hiring committee meets to whittle down the list. Emphasise any similarities that you can find between the two of you. If the interviewer sees a little bit of himself in you, a phenomenon known as “looking-glass merit”, he will regard any attempt to eliminate your name as a personal slight.

Minority margaritas
As for those who have not got into the elite universities, all hope of joining the bulge bracket of professional-services firms is not lost. As Ms Rivera’s book demonstrates, even the most tenuous connection with insiders can be of help. If you belong to an underrepresented group and meet a recruiter over cocktails at a “diversity event”, exploit the connection ruthlessly.

Ms Rivera notes that coming from an underprivileged background can actually be a plus, if sold well. Recruiters love to hear stories about gritty candidates triumphing against the odds. She also notes that there are organisations that can help non-elite candidates to sell themselves. Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, an American outfit, has an excellent record of pre-selecting ethnic-minority youngsters and getting them internships that can lead on to full-time jobs. America’s armed forces play a similar role of giving a career leg-up to the disadvantaged. “I’ve spent two years in a job where any minute might be my last,” one military candidate told an interviewer coolly. “Yes, I think I can handle high-pressure situations.” But don’t harp on about the odds being still stacked against you, or reveal that you have a sick mother or a demanding child, or you kill the Horatio Alger buzz.

This overwhelming emphasis on style rather than substance may seem an odd way to select members of the 1%. But those at the top of the consulting, investment-banking and legal professions know that the most prized possession in uncertain times is not brainpower, but self-confidence. For all the talk of the world becoming dominated by a “cognitive elite”, in reality it appears it is nothing more than a “confidence elite”.

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