Donna Sosnowski has an extraordinarily close relationship with her students. Not only is she director of the Undergraduate Center for Career Development at Babson College, she also teaches Organizational Behavior when she’s not helping her students draw up a path towards their dream positions.
Prior to joining Babson a decade ago, Sosnowski’s professional career involved working in corporate human resources for a variety of industries, acting as a senior consultant to CEOs and Presidents, and teaching corporate human resources at colleges. The transition to Babson, she says, happened organically.
“It’s in the best interest of what I learned, what I’m good at, and what I’m passionate about,” she tells Poets&Quants during a wide-ranging interview. “I wanted to step out of a corporate role, and become part of developing entrepreneurial thought and action while educating students and people around the world.”
Today, Sosnowski not only interacts with students in classrooms and at the career center, she has also traveled to Rwanda and Ghana with teams of students to learn more about and help out budding local entrepreneurs. She also teaches Zumba in what free time she has left.
P&Q: What are some changes you’ve seen in the business education industry?
Opportunities for students to shine are coming up earlier on, while they’re still exploring their interests and passions. In our time, it was about working hard and earning money. In my youth, no one asked me what I wanted to do and I never really thought about that. Now, I’m telling students that they should look at themselves and do some introspection, take on assessments, explore, and discover what they like as individuals. We then help them make educated choices and put to test what they think they love.
We are also seeing a push for early identification of talent and companies are meeting students as early as in the first semester. This is our third year of early recruiting and we’re asking employers how it’s working out for them. They’re inviting freshmen to more leadership opportunities and extending internship offers to sophomores and for many students, it’s still too early and they’re not ready for the commitment. For many of them, it may be their first opportunity to live away from home and we tell them there’s an enormous amount of resources to help them get introduced and get ready for business, but it’s important to be immersed in the business of business soon.
One of the things we started was First Year Fridays, where first-year students can come in without the pressure and requirement of knowing where they’re going and what they’re doing. We want to help them begin thinking about why they came to the business school and how to match up what they’re learning in the curriculum and co-curricular activities. They need to look at what gets them jazzed and excited, and how they can build on it. Some of them aren’t sure of what it means to be in business, and we help them meet companies, employers, and alums, and test the water with job shadowing opportunities that are not judgmental on their performance.
Also, because technology is moving so fast, there are jobs coming out that we don’t even know about yet. We remind students to be open and flexible because new things will pop up in front you and you need to be serendipitous when it comes to picking up on new opportunities. More so now than before, we emphasize to students that they have a four-year runway. Academics are important, but so are extracurricular activities. Go on job shadows, take on consulting projects and meet with alumni. It’s important to do many things to all the possibilities that exist.
What are some common mistakes you’ve seen students make in the recruiting process?
I’ve definitely seen students reach out too early, not knowing what exactly they want to find out about. They haven’t done their industry research and they shouldn’t make a first impression without intentionality. I tell them that they need to think about what they want to get out of the conversation. Put some time into researching about the company, the role they are interested in, and the individual they are talking to. I’d like to see them with a host of questions to be prepared for the conversations.
I’ve received calls from alums telling me that they received an email from a student who’s identified where they work, saying they want to talk. They don’t want to be approached like this. I tell our students to approach them and treat people as they would like to be treated.
We’ve seen first-year students reach out to alums successfully, and they’re courteous, make a connection, and ask for a short conversation. Writing skills and communication skills are so critical to making the first outreach either a success or a closed door. When an outreach comes back to us as a disturbance, we sit down with the student and tell them let’s talk about that outreach. We talk about how they may have gone to a senior alum asking for an internship without a premise and how that can be re-crafted to become a valuable interaction.
For many students who come to college, this is a learning environment and each one of these are learning opportunities. We talk about what worked and what didn’t, and how to bridge a faux pas and go back and demonstrate what they’ve learned from it.
We’ve also seen students sometime renege on a job offer they’ve accepted via email, and that’s really unpleasant when a company or alum writes to me on behalf of the student. I then reach out to the students to ask them why they didn’t do it with a phone call, and encourage them to see that it’s not about never reneging on a job offer, but about doing it in a professional manner. They need to understand the impact of the decision, and show the company that it’s not their normal behavior, and not what we teach at our school. Instead, it’s probably that a unique opportunity presented itself, and they’re at a place in their life where they needed to make that hard decision. They’re never going to get a ‘that’s fine’ from the company, and they need to know that the company was counting on them to fill that position, but they can get an appreciation from the company that they respected them enough to explain the situation, do it in person, and be good communicators.
Students should also do their homework to know what the Babson population is getting in terms of salaries. Visit Payscale.com, research where you are going to live, calculate expenses, and compare it with how the salary may work for you. There’s usually a range of $3,000 to $5,000 that can be negotiated, and beyond that, the hiring manager probably needs permission. Sometimes, consider negotiating a higher base because it impacts benefits and life.
If a higher base is not possible, sign-on bonuses are also common, so do your research. Know that bonuses are taxed at a higher rate, and thinking about where money or time-off is more important. I advise our students to negotiate appropriately, and remind them that if they don’t ask, they’ll never get it, but always be professional.
How can students take full advantage of what the career office at your school offers?
Previously, we required students to create their resumes in their first semester here. Now, with First Year Fridays, we’ve concluded that it’s not the best, and they need to explore and discover potential career opportunities first.
On these Fridays, the first-year students get specialized attention with support from our peer career ambassadors team that is made up of sophomore, junior, and senior students, who have walked in their shoes before. Some of them have specialty interests, and some know what it’s like to be undecided. The students feel more encouraged there to participate in events like considering externships such as job shadowing. By the end of the first semester, they have enough experience to create a college resume to show the foundations of business. They can now add substance to their resumes talking about their first semesters in college.
There isn’t a linear path of touch-points for students, rather it’s circular. It’s about exploration and making sure they understand the resources available to them here and across campus.
We also have a host of initiatives to bring employer partners to campus to connect the students with the do’s-and-don’ts. Sometimes, students get to role play with employer partners on real situations. One situation they engaged in was a real event where a student went for an interview and later boasted on Facebook that they nailed the interview. They also commented on the employer, saying that they expected an offer. Because of the post, the company opted not to offer the internship. Si we constantly remind students to be thoughtful about their social media profiles and how they are interacting with the world.
What major changes have you seen in employers and what they’re looking for in graduates?
Because companies are moving into early recruiting and trying to gain access to the best earlier, we’ve seen some students miss out on opportunities because they do a lot of growing here in college.
Very often, we see huge shifts in students as they move from their first year into their sophomore year. They do a lot of growing up, and have life-changing experiences in the summer of their first year. Many of them come back more mature, less disoriented, and more intentional. Over the four years, we see great changes as students are more motivated and inspired by faculty, clubs, organizations, events, and internships that they’re involved in. Of course, there remains some level of adult-ing that does not take place because they are used to having things done for them, that’s enabled by parents and college campuses where we try to make some things easier for them.
We’ve also seen a move from in-person to online interviews where students are interacting with just an avatar. Companies are using artificial intelligence in screening interviews and this can be frustrating to students, especially Gen Z students who like personal interactions. Things are much less personal early on.
There’s also been a huge shift from behavioral interviews to case interviews where companies are looking for critical thinking skills and problem solving skills in students. They’re not asking about situations, rather they’re giving students situations and making them solve it. They are increasingly looking for competencies and assessing through situational interviews.
In terms of professional development, we want to educate them about being their best selves and to take advantage of all resources on campus to maximize their experience. It’s about the integration of career development into their academics, and employers want to see how it all ties together.
Companies also have a growing desire to know who the students are, and to understand what they are looking for. Some of them now spend a lot of time on campus to get closer to students, not through the interview process, but through relationship building. At the end of the day, students are making decisions on companies based on social impact and the good work they’re doing, so companies are taking the time to know them and to let students know them. They want to let students know what they’re getting into so there are no surprises between what they read online and the personal experience they’ll be getting.
Gen Z students are so interested in what organizations are doing for the greater good, what their social impact is, and how they treat employees. Five years ago, if you have a department within the organization focused on doing good, it was a compelling point. Today, they don’t want to see it as separate. It’s part of organizational responsibility to encourage employees to give back, do meaningful work, and make a difference. Organizations that don’t do that won’t attract students that are looking at careers and opportunities.
We take our students out to visit companies often, and invite organizations and alums to visit often. One of the areas that students are beginning to see with great interest and growth is in healthcare and life sciences. It’s an industry that was previously more attractive to graduates that undergraduates, but when organizations came in, and students began seeing that their work could make a difference between life and death, they began seeing that these organizations were at the forefront of entrepreneurial thought in action.
My job is to help the students brand themselves and understand that it’s a mistake to look at brand name companies and decide they want to go there based on that. There are a lot of small and mid-sized companies doing great work.