Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Off the Beaten Path

MBA's from top b-schools spend two frenetic, intense years shaping and carving out an ideal career path. Those in finance will likely have their eyes on prominent, well-paying positions. Positions, where the deals will be big; the stakes will be high, the risks mind-boggling and the clients large and familiar to those who read the Wall Street Journal.

The prize they covet is often a role in equity research, corporate finance, commercial and investment banking, mergers & acquitions, derivatives, fixed-income trading hedge funds, public finance, insurance, private equity, financial analyis, corporate treassury, or investment management. That's a typical, respectable route. Top firms, corporation and banks seek talent and parade to top schools to fill the prized roles.

But what about non-traditional routes for the MBA in finance or for the finance professional early in his/her career? Not everybody wants to be or should become an investment banker or hedge-fund trader. Not everybody is interested in the "big deal," "big IPO," or "big trade." What are the opportunities off the beaten path?

First, the traditional route is not an undesirable path. Students and professionals shouldn't be discouraged from heading into the direction of their interests and passions. MBA's are mature professionals who have thought long and hard about what they want to do.

The traditional route has advantages. Handsome compensation packages is one. Top firms, funds, or banks (such as Goldman, Blackstone, BoA, or Citigroup) value the MBA and look for people who have extensive knowledge, can handle significant responsibility and can contribute right away.

B-schools prepare graduates well for those roles--with tailored courses, varied concentrations and in-depth academic preparation. Opporutnies are broad; career progresion is explicitly defined. Often training programs are at the doorstep. Networking and connecting with alumni are possible just by tapping a shoulder.

But what if the early-career professional wants something different? What are alternatives, and what can they do to design a different career path?

Non-traditional roles can encompass almost anything. MBA's and finance professionals occasionally reject what's familiar and venture elsewhere, still using their skills, coursework, experiences and contacts.

They bypass investment banking for community banking or microfinance-preferring to do business with individuals, small businesses, or mom-and-pop enterprises. They have become financial managers at museums, art galleries, opera companies or West Coast start-ups.

They have assumed senior finance roles in not-for-profit organizations--at charities, foundations, social-responsibility and civil-rights groups. They have assumed roles in government as financial managers at municipalities or treasury officials of states. In microfinance, they focus on helping fund one-person shops in emerging markets.

Also, off the beaten path may mean exploring less flamboyant or less known roles in traditional banks or firms. That might mean responsibilities in risk management (credit risk or market risk), cash management (funds transfer, short-term investments), custody (securities holding), securities processing, credit cards, and community reinvestment (CRA). Opportunities abound in these areas, but they aren't always well publicized or well recruited. MBA's thrive in these areas, even when some schools may not teach related courses or professors don't specialize in the same.

The financial crisis didn't discourage MBA's from banking and corporate--at least not as much as expected. But it spurred them to be fair to themselves and ponder the non-traditional realm.

Amid such opportunities, there are challenges. Non-traditional employers may not have histories of recruiting MBA's or deep-rooted relationships with schools. Thus, they may not already have large numbers of MBA's in management and may prefer to groom from within. Or they aren't familiar with the value of MBA hiring or aren't familiar with the process.

Do b-schools prepare MBAs for these roles? Many seek to do so. They offer courses in non-profit management, introduce students to public finance, public policy and social responsibility, and require finance students to be adept in operations and general management. Some professors specialize in these topics. And schools gladly help students and alumni connect with alumni in these roles.

Are the opportunities real? Yes, if they are pursed or hunted carefully. They may require the seeker to convince the non-traditional employer to take a chance with finance types, their skills and special experience.

At CFN, some members say they want to explore non-traditional activity more. CFN is considering a special event or webinar on the topic. Students, alumni in transition and even experienced professionals want to learn more about MBA's who understand what it takes to garner a specific, ideal role at an organization that doesn't recruit MBA's in finance traditionally.

They want finance, but perhaps want to fund a neighborhood barbershop or finance accessible housing. They want finance, but may want to fund a community park or a waste-management facility in a developing country. Or they may want to manage investments of a local college or manage the expenses and cash flow of a jazz club.

And the "deal" or "trade" need not be highlighted or headlined in the Wall Street Journal.

Tracy Williams

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