Clear Admit Career Services Director Q&A: London Business School’s Fiona Sandford
Career Services Director Fiona Sandford joined London Business School (LBS) in October 2010, after serving for nearly a decade as the director of career services at the London School of Economics. Since arriving at LBS, she has been helping to develop a new model to more seamlessly integrate soft skills development into the school’s career services offerings.
In the interview that follows, you’ll learn more about that new model, as well as who makes up Sandford’s team, how the recruiting process at LBS unfolds and what students can do before arriving on campus to position themselves well for the job search they will conduct there. So read on!
Clear Admit: How do you view your role as Career Services Director? Is it to administer workshops? Counsel students? Counsel companies? Manage the entire office and oversee its various functions? All of the above?
Fiona Sandford: I think it’s really simple actually. There are two main things we have to do. The first is to make sure we market our students and graduates to all the major employers who they might want to work for and to ensure that LBS is on everybody’s list for who they want to hire from. The second thing is to ensure that our students are in a really great position to convert those opportunities into job offers. Be it through skills development, interview training or résumé development. Our two main jobs are to market the students and develop the students. But there is also a third thing, which is to make it really easy for employers to reach our students, to make the connecting process easy and straightforward.
CA: Now, about your team. How many career advisors do you have? Is this a relatively constant figure? If not, how has it changed in recent years? How might it change in the near future?
FS: We have 32 on the team, and that represents significant growth during the downturn. We were lucky. The dean really saw that we needed extra staff to support students through the downturn, and we have also been lucky because we haven’t had to cut since the economy has recovered. We are really quite generously staffed. Obviously one would always like more, but we have a good number of people working for us. The dean is very supportive of what we do. And that team is a mixture of people with a coaching background or who come from different industries, investment banking, consulting, etc.
Everyone on the team has the same three main responsibilities: One, new business development, that is encouraging new companies to recruit our students. Two, looking after the companies we already know about. And three, developing students, through coaching, skills development and training workshops. Nearly everyone on the team has that sort of mix of responsibilities.
CA: What recent or impending development within the Career Services are you, your team or LBS students most excited about and why?
LS: We are working on a new model for integrating soft skills development with coaching, experiential learning, career preparation and faculty-led teaching and research. It’s very exciting, and I think it will be a new model for business education, producing graduates who are market ready (often called ‘plug and play’) and able to have a profound impact on the way the world does business.
CA: Can you provide prospective applicants with an overview of the recruitment process at London Business School? When does it start? How does it unfold?
FS: Unlike many other European schools, ours is a two-year MBA. So when they come to us we start working with them on day one because the applications for internships kick off in January. They are not with us for very long before that and we need to, in that first term, get them to the stage where they are ready to put their best foot forward for internship interviews. So we really work with them very intensively during that time.
Then we have an interview period where companies come to interview on campus. But we emphasize to our students that that is only half of the story. The big companies will come on campus and interview and hold coffee chats and informational sessions and networking events. But there is a whole slew of really interesting smaller companies who recruit just in time. My team continues to report that lots of companies are recruiting later in the cycle. So there are the big ones, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson – we see them on campus for the first time in January. But then there are also all the small boutique companies who will only recruit just in time, so they only know the interns they want in May or even June.
We work intensively with the first-year students showing them what skills they need to be prepared. We help them strengthen their résumés, get their cover letter ready. And we help them decide which job opportunities or career paths are best for them. In the springtime we work with them for interview practice. And throughout all of this we will be working with colleagues across the school to ensure that they have the networking skills, emotional intelligence skills, etc. that they will need during the job search process. So that’s the first year.
There are also other parallel things that go on. For example, for students who want to start their own business, we will show them what the flight patterns are there. Also, there are other students who will work with us as though we are a mini consulting firm to get consulting positions during the summer.
Following the summer internships, many will come back with great job offers. But others will find that the internship was not what they hoped and will want to apply for a different sector. So we work with them intensively during the first term of their second year on interview training, résumé development, etc.
Then, we have something new called “Spring into Action.” What we do in the early spring of the second year is to reach out to those students who are undecided, who haven’t received offers, who are still looking. We work really intensively with them to help them clarify their goals, help them consider different geographies. Each one of those students who is still looking for work gets an advocate on my team who will speak with them every week and provide individual coaching and support. That’s called Spring into Action, and it’s a new addition to our offerings.
CA: How has the economy impacted recruitment at London Business School? How have you and your staff remained flexible or adapted in order to help students navigate a more challenging job market? Have you encouraged flexibility on the part of students themselves?
FS: I think like most other business schools we really ramped up our business development and the marketing we could give our students to make sure we were reaching every company we could. I think that put us in good stead – employment figures were healthy through the downturn. Last year 92 percent of our students had a job offer within three months of graduation.
What we see now is much, much more buoyancy in the market. We don’t want to be too superty-duperty confident because there is always nervousness about a double dip, but from what we can see things are pretty buoyant.
CA: How does your team counsel students regarding the interview? Is there a formal mock interview process? How are interview schedules administered? Is there an established policy regarding how closed and open interviews should be conducted? What facilities are available for interviews?
FS: In terms of mock interviews, all first-year students go through them. What we do is we train a whole team of second-year students to work with us to offer mock interviews to all first-year students who are applying for internships based on their competencies and industries. All first-year students participate in that. The peer leadership counselors – those second-years who perform the mock interviews – will refer some students on to members of the career services staff to receive more intensive help. We also feature specific finance interviewing skills development and consulting interviewing skills development.
In terms of how interview schedules are administered, students apply in the traditional way for on-campus interviews. We do encourage those companies that we work with a lot to meet with all interested students throughout the autumn term for information exchange. And then we have our Corporate Partners’ Week in January when all major corporate partners come and present. At that point the decision is the employers’ as to whom to interview.
In terms of facilities, we are very lucky given that we are in Central London. We have two floors of the library building in which to conduct interviews. We are very lucky in that we have very good space for interviews.
CA: What kind of role do alumni play in London Business School’s recruiting process? How integral are they to your office’s success? Is alumni participation a major part of your placement platform?
FS: Absolutely. We couldn’t live without our alumni. They help us to interview students before they get here, and we use them extensively to share information and network with our students. As everybody knows, the network is critical. I just had a meeting with my staff about how we can use our alumni network even more right now to help our Spring into Action students.
CA: Do you have any advice for prospective applicants in terms of what they might do in advance of the MBA program to be better prepared for the job search process? In your experience, do you find that students who have done x, y or z before arriving on campus have a more successful experience with career services and the job search as a whole?
FS: I think it is interesting because we, like other schools, are looking at doing more and more with students before they come to us. We send out information on all the things students can do before they get to us. We led something called the Leadership Launch for the new MBA program coming to us this past August. We put together this program, working with faculty, to ensure that students do as much to assess their own strengths and weaknesses – to do a thorough self-assessment – early. Because the more they can understand exactly who they are and where they want to go, the better able they will be to dive into the job search process right away.
CA: Is there anything else you think our readers should know about Career Services at LBS?
FS: The depth of knowledge that my team has is outstanding. Our finance team, which is huge, is staffed by people who have worked at top investment banks and asset management firms. Our consulting team is made up of former consultants who really can teach students. We also have specialists in telecom, luxury goods and more. The depth of knowledge my team has is really astounding. What we aim to do is to ensure that we are beside the students, prompting them at every step in the process.
One other point. Because there has been a lot written about changes in immigration policy in the United Kingdom, I would like to add that we have been very pleased with the result in the recent announcements. What we have negotiated with the U.K. government is that any student who is offered a job in the U.K. can be hired straight from campus without counting toward the government or the firms’ immigration cap. It is cap-free hiring. I think the outcome has been very good for LBS.