Learn what you can do to prepare for your future employment [Show Summary]
Diana Economy, former Head of Admissions at Michigan Ross and Senior Talent Acquisition Manager at Vail Resorts, offers her unique perspective on how students can prepare for future employment even while applying to or completing an MBA program.
Interview with Diana Economy, former Head of Admissions at Michigan Ross and Senior Talent Acquisition Manager at Vail Resorts [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 501st episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for listening. I hope you tuned into our very special 500th episode last week. If not, you can still catch it.
You’ve seen the stats that most people have a great return on their MBA investment, but what about you? Are you going to see that kind of return? How much will it be? How much can you anticipate? We’ve created a tool that will help you assess whether the MBA is going to be a good investment for you. Just go to accepted.com/mbaroicalc, complete the brief questionnaire, and you’ll not only get an assessment but also the opportunity to calculate different scenarios. And it’s all free.
It gives me great pleasure to have back on Admissions Straight Talk, Diana Economy, Senior Talent Acquisition Manager – Programs and International for Vail Resorts, and formerly the Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at Michigan Ross. After graduating with a BA in Organization Studies from the University of Michigan, Diana worked in talent management for companies like Kearney and Kirkland & Ellis. She returned to Ross and earned her MBA in 2010, and then again worked for Kirkland & Ellis and BCG before returning to Ross as Associate Director of Admissions. She was the Director of Admissions for the Michigan Ross Full-Time MBA program from 2017 until just this past July when Diana joined Vail Resort.
Before we get into the interview, I have to ask how’s the skiing? [2:35]
Oh my gosh, Linda, I have never thought so much about snow. It’s going well so far. It’s always kind of fun to hear as the resorts are beginning to get the snow and opening. Especially in the work that we do with talent acquisition, a lot of folks are starting over the course of the next month. It’s a really exciting time in the industry.
What is the common thread between recruiting MBA students and recruiting talent for Vail Resorts? [3:16]
It’s really interesting, given the cyclical nature of the admissions cycle and, of course, the cyclical nature of the ski season. A lot of our resorts are open through the summer as well, but no question that we’re hitting the Super Bowl timeframe of the operations. As I think about what I learned from my time in admissions, as well as working in talent acquisition and the kinds of things that we look for in our employees, I really find that people who have a good sense of who they are and how they can contribute, those qualities translate both to admissions committees and to our guests.
If any of you have been to ski resorts or resorts in general and you think about the people that you interact with, whether it’s somebody who’s running the lift or doing these other things, they’re very engaging, they’re very natural in doing that. Of course, an MBA is doing a very different type of work and a different skill set is required to get into the MBA program. But there’s something to be said about those who thrive in an MBA program and their ability to build those connections and have the ability to impact and influence those around them that I see as very fluid between both the MBA admissions and recruiting that I did and what we look for in great talent at Vail Resorts.
I find your focus on contribution very interesting, especially when you talk about networking, because networking has such a strong connotation of “what’s in it for me.” [4:46]
You’re right. When we’re reading applications and admissions, one of the things you’re thinking about is “Who is this person going to be when they’re sitting in the classroom? What kind of contribution are they going to make there? Who is this person when they’re on a team of people where there’s no leader on the team, and everybody has to work together to figure out how to get to the output for the class assignment? Who is this person at 10 o’clock at night?” MBA programs are not like a 9:00 to 5:00 job where you go home, and you’re somebody else. It’s very fluid. There are a lot of social experiences, academic experiences, career, and cultural experiences, and I think moving in and out of those experiences and being authentic and natural to who you are, as well as open-minded to learn from those around you is very important.
How do you suggest people choose where to apply and, if accepted, where to attend among multiple acceptances? [6:04]
This is an interesting question in light of something you and I have been talking about online, which is law schools not using rankings anymore. I think a common answer here might be that a lot of people look to the rankings first to figure out where to apply. Something I’ve always said is that rankings, or anything else, need to go much deeper than that. One of the things that I think COVID brought forward for candidates is the many ways to engage with schools now. They used to wait for an admissions officer to come to their country or location, and they’d only come once, and this was the one chance to interact with a school. Maybe there were a few virtual events, but students were really relying on a website.
Now, there are so many virtual office hours, engagement opportunities, and on-demand content that are really prescriptive about what the experience is going to be like. I know at Michigan Ross, we had over 300 student ambassadors, and you could filter by their background, their interests, and where they were from. I always told people that if, at minimum, they just read the student ambassador bios on our site, they were going to get a really good idea of who’s in that program and the people they’d be learning with.
To hear firsthand about that directly from the people that are part of that community is invaluable and certainly goes well beyond the rankings. You’ll find the school if you’re listening for the right things. I would tell you as you’re taking notes, if you created a spreadsheet, the things that are important to me and I’d recommend you to write down are who you talked to and how you felt after. Not just what you heard from them, but did you enjoy that conversation? Would you want to speak to somebody else at that school? I think a lot of times if you talk to the one person at any given school that’s very much like you, you’re probably going to hear what you would expect to hear. But it’s in that second or third or fourth conversation with somebody else that might have different interests that you get some perspective. Are you hearing some similar themes with the way that the students react to the program? I think it’s in that voice that you’re hearing about the experience they’re articulating that you start to understand your own fit.
I’m not defending the rankings here, but I’ve always viewed them as stores of data. In that sense, they served a function and they were valuable. But as rankings, I think they were named for sales purposes and marketing purposes, and they worked in that sense. But they were terribly misnamed. [9:23]
Very misnamed. They started at a time when people had much more limited access to data and information. You’re right, the number of students I find who don’t spend time thinking about what the rankings measure and compare them against their own value set. If you take a look at the US News, it’s 25% of admissions data. What does that really mean? It means GMAT, GPA, and a little bit on selectivity, how many people you’re selecting in with the number that have applied. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s what other deans think about your school and what recruiters think of your students. It’s not about job satisfaction, but what job did you get? Did you get it in a timely manner? And how much money are you making as a result?
If you care about the diversity of people in the classroom around you, that ranking doesn’t really measure that. There are so many pieces that people prioritize that are just not considered in the ranking.
What’s the most common mistake that you think applicants make in the process? [11:08]
I think a lot of people think there’s a right answer for a school’s essay questions, and they Google it. They’ll search, “What is the right answer to school X’s essay questions?” and they use this external perspective to help inform their story. Now, it’s one thing to use this perspective to guide generally around themes, but if you do that and your own personal self-reflection is absent, the essays come across very generically. It comes across as “I’m writing what I think they want to hear” versus “I’m writing what I’m truly passionate about.”
I would say, whether an essay question asks you this or not, and probably most do not, I would answer the question for yourself of what you’re passionate about and why. I don’t think we give ourselves enough opportunity to have that exploration. What makes your heart race and makes you so excited to want to do it? What does that look like for you? I think if you hone in on these things, they’ll really come across in your essays.
There are more similarities than there are differences in post-MBA jobs. There’s a reason that a variety of industries recruit from the same type of program. I think if you understand what you’re driven by, that’s going to still be there. Once you get your MBA, you’re just going to get this toolkit around you that’s going to allow you to direct those interests and passions in a way that’s going to be most beneficial to you and to the company. I think people are surprised to realize that what the tech industry is looking for, what the consulting industry is looking for, and what they’re looking for in brand management are more similar than different. That last 20% to 30% that makes those roles different can be a material difference for you if you are self-aware of how you want to apply your skill set and the kind of environment or roles that might benefit from that.
How do you recommend students maximize their MBA experience and investment with employability in mind? [13:39]
Every job that I’ve had post-MBA, I have gotten because of my network. Largely because of my MBA network. At Vail Resorts, I am working for two alums whom I love, who have done very well at Vail and who have painted this picture of what could be there. It wasn’t just the relationship that got me in the door, but it was their confidence and the way that they were articulating what the company has meant to them and how they have grown personally and professionally.
It helps that I had that conversation with somebody who knows me as well. It wasn’t just the network that opened the door, it was the further conversations that we had that allowed me to better understand my fit with the company and what that could look like going forward. That’s why I say when you talk to student ambassadors or alumni, you are really investing in a network for life. Not all networks are created equally. There’s a good bit of similarity between the top MBA programs and their networks, but there are some differences too. I think that’s up to candidates to explore through the set of conversations during the admissions process.
It sounds to me like you not only had a network, you had relationships. [15:18]
You got it. That’s an important distinction. I’m glad you said that because you’re right, people think of networking as self-serving. Nobody’s going to remember you if you’re just a number. They’re not going to pick up the phone quite as easily as they would if they had a real connection with you.
I saw in Poets&Quants this week, John Byrne published an article that argues the decline in MBA applications over the last couple of years is not a cyclical downturn due to the type of job market but really a reset due to the increasing cost of the MBA. What’s your take? [15:50]
That’s a good question. I will say COVID was such a weird timeframe for schools with this huge fluctuation in applications. I think candidates were trying to figure out their stability and what was happening next. As we see these tech layoffs now, I think there’s a new wave of what’s next. I will say that I’m hopeful. I think this is a boost in the need for innovation in the MBA program. I don’t think it’s a move away from the MBA program. I’m hoping it’s a bit of a call to action for schools to continue to innovate and grow and build with the market to get candidates what they need. I think in this new environment where candidates are expecting and craving more flexibility and more specialization and customization to the needs that they have, the schools are well prepared, especially with the academic customizations and things that you can do through an MBA program.
I think the next question for MBA programs, especially for a two-year residential program, is going to be whether or not it needs to be two full years. How many months are needed with your cohort to be able to build the relationships that you need to sustain your career? I will say after two years, you have very, very deep relationships. As the world has evolved, people want to get to the job market a little bit sooner. They want to be able to make money. Is there a hybrid experience that still allows you to engage with your cohort at some point? Maybe it’s just the final semester or some period of your second year that gives candidates that flexibility to be able to get the cohort experience, get the education that they need, but also start to try out these skills maybe a little sooner so that they can continue to build and grow those skills.
You can see it in the second year that folks will say, “I have a job lined up in 10 months, but I could be making some money now to help to offset some of these costs.” What does that look like? I’ll tell you, at Michigan Ross, there’s a strong focus on experiential learning. There are a lot of opportunities for students to take on very experiential opportunities. I presume that that has started to move more towards some paid opportunities that students are doing complimentary to their MBA experience.
When you’re hiring for management positions at Vail Resorts, what are you looking for? [19:06]
In my role at Vail, I work on the talent acquisition strategy or the things that make talent acquisition go. When I’m doing international recruiting, it’s actually mostly students. It’s more similar than it is different to the work that I did at Ross. Having said that, I see some similarities, especially as you look for executives. As I talk to friends in other industry spaces, there’s this notion that somebody needs to be able to come in and be resilient and adaptable because everybody can say, “Okay, I’ve developed a set of hard skills, and I can run these reports and do these spreadsheets and manage these technical skills,” but I think businesses are changing so fast. Vail acquired a ton of resorts in the last 10 or 15 years. They went from a handful of resorts to 40+ resorts.
It’s not just the tech industry where you see this evolution of what the new business looks like. It’s other industries that maybe didn’t have as much change in the past that could be accelerating that change. A lot of businesses are looking for you to be adaptable to that. I think change is uncomfortable and a little scary for folks but I think the MBA is a great playground, if you will, for change. It’s a great space to try new things and adapt and flex those skills such that you can demonstrate them to employers. That’s probably what’s going to differentiate these laid-off tech workers. A lot of them have a technical skill set. Probably some are a little better than others, but let’s say most of them are more similar than they are different. What’s going to differentiate them? It might be their relationships or their ability to demonstrate that they can pivot and adapt to change.
How can career changers enhance their chances of making the pivot they hope to make even before they’re accepted to school? Maybe I’m computer programming and I want to go into general management and want to apply to an MBA program in the fall. What steps can I take now that will help me make that change? [21:55]
We’re in November, so candidates might be applying now for next September. You mentioned that maybe they have some interest in general management or brand management or whatever the case is. There’s an inkling that they have developed, whether it’s through their own professional experience or otherwise, from hearing more about these other professions about what that future could look like. They’re starting to visualize themselves in that future. They’re starting to put together a career goal essay. They’re already thinking about that right now. I think there are so many ways to learn about what that future could look like. I know that Ross, over the course of the last month, just did a bunch of webinars, a full hour on why Ross for healthcare, why Ross for marketing, and why Ross for data and analytics.
Not only are you going to learn how that school is going to help prepare you to get into that field, but you’re also going to hear directly from people about what they did during their internships and why they chose the companies they did. That’s one small piece of a lot of this knowledge that’s out there about what these career paths really look like.
If you apply next fall, you’re literally only 12-14 months from doing your internship interview. I think people don’t realize that that starts in maybe December or January of your first year. You are a year away from needing to demonstrate a set of skills to a future employer. I think if you have some clarity around those skills and some space within your current job, this is the time to seek out a stretch project or experience that’s going to allow you to acquire a specific resume bullet or, at a minimum, bring more direct, applicable experience into an interview.
What’s a common misconception about the hiring process and talent acquisition? [24:52]
I’m going to build from the first year of that MBA experience because I think for prospective MBA applicants, they don’t realize just how early the recruiting process starts. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a misconception, but just something that maybe there’s not as much awareness on. Just to give some context, a lot of schools over the course of the summer do a substantial amount so that when you hit the ground on day one of school, you probably have already had a lot of prep and focus on what your career path is intended to be. I think people think the MBA is two full years to explore. Do people go on one path on the internship and then change for their full-time job? Maybe. But I think it surprises people how fast that process happens.
Once you get into the networking period, which could be happening over the course of several months, and even into the interviews, the misconceptions that I see around the actual job process or experience is that people feel they have to be a certain way. Especially with consulting, companies looking for client-ready candidates. If you are only telling them about your data and analytics skills and not about your ability to build a team or relationships or develop a relationship with a client, they’re not going to pick you.
I think a misconception is just honing in on what they believe to be a particular skill. They do value that skill, but they value well-roundedness too. You have to make sure that you’re pulling in those stories to show the other parts of who you are. I will say if you went to engineering school and you are an engineer or have been in a technical role, you must, in the admissions process for in the networking and interview process for recruiting, demonstrate something other than your engineering skills and technical background. Show the ability for small talk.
You and I see this is different for international students too. It is really culturally different when international candidates from different parts of the world come, and they realize that the first five minutes of the conversation might be about the Michigan football game or about something that’s happening in the world or a variety of things that have nothing to do with the job. That takes practice. Again, it’s hard for Americans too, but in particular, there are nuances for international candidates. The schools work very closely to try to make sure that those cultural nuances translate and that the candidates are ready.
Do you think the withdrawal of Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley Law from the US News rankings are going to spill into business school? [28:19]
I do and I’ll tell you some of the other trends that we saw that maybe took business school a little bit longer to catch onto. You saw test waivers happening earlier than the MBA programs were bringing those forward. It was for equity reasons, and they did it across campus. I think there’s something to be said if an action is taking place on your campus. It raises the awareness of the deans around you. You can bet that the deans of Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley Law schools talk to the deans of the business schools there. They do. They get together from time to time. It’s just the nature of how deans stay connected, interacted, and engaged. I am confident that the conversation will continue to evolve.
When the MBA programs or business schools decide to pull out, I think is an interesting point. If you’re a Yale or a Harvard, that’s a little bit different than the school that’s ranked number 27, deciding to do the same thing first. The domino effect, when it starts at the top, can sometimes move a little bit faster. I’ll be intrigued to see what happens here in the coming weeks.
I think the same question could be asked about test waivers. [29:35]
When we started our test waiver at Michigan Ross, the top schools didn’t do it. It was a lot of discussion about what it would mean for the school. How do we maintain quality? What does it look like? What measures are we looking at for success? We also did it at a point at which people were saying, “I cannot get to a test center to be able to take the test.” Or, “I live in an environment that’s not great for me to have four dedicated hours to be able to take this test and perform my best.” When we heard that, we made adjustments based on the candidates’ situation. I’ll be honest, we made those adjustments thinking, “Well, we’re going to try this right now.” It was situational in the moment. We gathered data along the way and we now have data that says people that have the test waiver did well in the classroom. People that have the test waiver are still getting good job outcomes.
At Michigan Ross, it’s still only like 80% have the test and 20% do not. There are a number of candidates who choose to take the test as an added demonstration of their candidacy or maybe build up a deficiency they feel they have. It is still the case that a lot of people are taking tests. It’s probably because a lot of schools still require the test. They’re applying to schools where they need a test, but even as we move into this post-COVID world, Michigan Ross has continued their test waiver. We’ll see if that continues. But it’s in a new environment, and I think the fact that we saw some demonstrated success from it. There are other measures that we can take a look at to be able to determine both candidacy as well as scholarship.
How can someone get a job at Vail Resorts? [31:59]
That’s a good question. There are so many jobs, Linda. This is one of those environments where I get a chance to work with people who run the mountains. They run lift operations or the tickets or the rental business or all these things. It’s fascinating to me just because there’s such amazing diversity of talent in the work that we are all doing collectively to make this a great place. One of the things that drew me to Vail was that we’re looking to create an experience of a lifetime for our customers and for our employees. For me, what I see is a drive and a passion for the people around me, whether it’s doing great work for the guests or whether it is how we support our employees.
You can imagine, during ski season, how many guests we’re getting and all the things that are happening. But we’re also thinking about how we can support employees’ growth and success. If you’re looking to work for Vail, it comes back to this drive to both bring the experience of a lifetime to our guests and an experience of a lifetime to our employees. If that motivates you, I think that that passion comes through, and you can figure out the opportunities within that will ultimately lead towards similar objectives.
Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask you? [33:28]
I don’t want people to be worried that the MBA is going away. I say that meaning people have to make their own assumptions and things about that. But I look at it as such a transformational experience. Like his experience of a lifetime for our employees and guests, that’s what the MBA is too. It’s an experience of a lifetime for students. I know that we hit on a theme of whether or not the MBA is still valuable. The MBA is what you make it. I think that when you go into that experience, if you’re mindful of what you want to get out of that experience and have a focus, it can be life-changing and truly transformational. I would say the question that I wish you would’ve asked is what else candidates should know about this great experience. Beyond the classes, MBA students are having incredible experiences, like going to a wedding in India with 50 of their classmates because one of their classmates is getting married. How often have you done that in your professional life, right? There are just going to be experiences that come up that you really can’t replicate outside of this very intensive, focused environment with so many great people around you. I hope you consider applying and I hope you consider applying to Michigan Ross.
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