Don't forget to show off

In the post-GFC world job markets are tight and far from being superficial, name-dropping flashy institutional affiliations is a more important career aid than ever.

FT.com

If you asked me about my working life, I would tell you that I’ve worked at the Financial Times for a quarter of a century. If pressed further, I might reveal (depending on who was asking) that long ago I worked briefly for JPMorgan. I might also add that I went to Oxford University.

When I meet other people I am always vaguely curious to know where they have worked and, to a lesser extent, where they have studied. To have been a consultant at Bain means something different to having been one at ?WhatIf!. Equally, Yale means something different to Tuskegee. Such details aren’t everything, but they’re a start.

Yet according to a blog on the Harvard Business Review website, this sort of institutional name-dropping is not only vain and superficial, it has outlived its usefulness. Daniel Gulati, a high-tech entrepreneur, argues that prestige simply isn’t as prestigious as it used to be.

For a start, he says, many of the big names aren’t looking so impressive any more. We don’t revere Goldman Sachs or News Corp or McKinsey in the same way we used to. Second, social networks mean we no longer have to rely on the names of institutions to do our signalling for us: we can do it ourselves. We can simply present our own achievements directly on Twitter or on Facebook.

The upshot, says Mr Gulati, is that young people should stop scrambling over each other for jobs at Bain and Morgan Stanley, hoping that these names will give them a leg-up. All such affiliations do is pigeonhole people. The only true way to stand out is to stop focusing on who you are working for, and think of what you are doing instead. We should be proud of our achievements, not of our affiliations.

This blog is one of the most cheering things I’ve read in ages. Or rather it would be cheering if it weren’t for the fact that it is completely wrong.

Gulati is correct that it is achievements that ought to count. The trouble is, most people, apart from a few entrepreneurs, haven’t really achieved anything terribly tangible. And even if they had, achievement is notoriously hard to measure. If you are Mark Zuckerberg you don’t need big names on your CV. The rest of us do.

Far from getting less important, flashy affiliations are now more important than ever. This is partly because the job market is so bad that everyone needs all the help they can get. But it’s also because getting these good jobs and good degrees is harder than it used to be. In my day it was possible to sidle into a top university almost by mistake. Once you emerged with your degree, getting a job was a doddle. And once ensconced, you could coast along fairly incompetently without getting fired.

What counted was breeding and luck, with effort and skill lagging far behind. Now the order is reversed. Anybody who has got a job at Goldman and held on to it for a decade has achieved something that might not be socially valuable, but offers conclusive proof that the person is bright and hardworking – as well as possibly arrogant and greedy. If that is what you are after in an employee, the word Goldman on a CV should be taken very seriously indeed.

Gulati is also crazy to think the existence of social networks means we no longer need institutions to do our signalling for us. The more information there is out there, the more we need a few decent names on a CV as a shortcut. And I fail to see how being big on Twitter makes you attractive to future employers: surely it just tells them you spend more time composing silly little messages than working.

He also makes too much of the fact that the prestige of some formerly great employers is in decline. Maybe Goldman isn’t quite as prestigious any more (though try telling that to the hopeful armies who still would kill to work there). But some names are waxing as others are waning. McKinsey and News Corp are down; Google and Facebook are up.

So I would advise the ambitious to go for prestige every time. Of course it is shallow and unfair, but it works. Having a prestigious employer already is a great help in finding a new one. And the great thing about such affiliations is that even if they don’t impress others (which they do, mostly) they may impress yourself. In my experience these mighty institutions work well as comfort blankets, wombs and crutches, all roles that are generally frowned on – but wrongly so. I’m a huge fan of all three.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.