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Getting involved early with JMSB’s Career Management Services

John Molson MBA Q&A series
May 27, 2020
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By Chris Wise

John Molson MBA Q&A is a series of interview-style blogposts discussing the John Molson School of Business graduate programs experience from the perspective of current students, faculty and alumni.

This week, Elliott Altilia, MBA ’14, reflects on the importance of not only earning the MBA, but also seeking support early in your degree from John Molson’s Career Management Services.

Elliott Altilia

Deciding to take the leap

What was your background prior to the MBA and why did you decide to pursue an MBA at John Molson?

My undergrad was in Criminology at the University of Toronto. I was working in the not-for profit sector in Toronto and just having a hard time figuring out what I really wanted to do. I think that happens to a lot of people who have finished their undergrad. During this searching process, I ended up at Deloitte and the projects that they were working on were super interesting. Through my undergrad, I was always very analytical and stats and research methods were really important.  Working at Deloitte allowed for a different application of my skills in a setting that I didn’t really know or understand.

After a couple of years at Deloitte, I was meeting with some of the partners at the firm and they mentioned that, since I was serious about my work, they recommended doing an MBA. I was in that age bracket where people within the firm were doing MBAs and, for me to make the leap to become a full-time consultant, it would be required. I had also met with a consultant at Deloitte who said, “Look, you’re a smart guy, but if I give you a case right now, you’re not going to perform very well.” I had never been exposed to that stuff, really.

An MBA was always on the radar and I was hoping that, at one point in my career, I would get to it. However, I was straddling two paths; either law school or business school.  I had already written the LSAT and figured I would take a crack at the GMAT.  I probably would have done better on the GMAT if I had studied more but, because I had done a lot of studying for the LSAT, the verbal section of the GMAT was pretty simple by comparison. When I got the GMAT, I didn’t want to wait a full year to apply for law school and, since there was an upcoming Winter semester intake for the MBA, I applied for programs at Schulich and John Molson.

Deciding factors

Was there a particular difference between Schulich and John Molson, or was it more about the city?

It was a lot of things. Honestly, the lower tuition was a huge factor since I would be paying out of pocket. A lot of the other schools, they’re great, but really expensive. I felt that JMSB had a program that, despite the lower tuition, was still very competitive in terms of its rankings. The return on investment is incredible.

I met with some of the students and faculty during a visit and just felt that it was going to be the right fit for me. Opportunities for learning beyond the classroom were emphasized at JMSB in a way that wasn’t at other schools. There are many different things to get involved in, which is essentially what I was looking for.

I lived in Montreal as a young child and had some close friends and family in Montreal so I figured that I could go to see if I liked JMSB and living in Montreal. If I didn’t like it, I could always go back to Toronto after one semester and continue what I was doing there. I wasn’t going to break the bank. I would only be out of work for three months and have spent a quarter of the tuition.

When I arrived in Montreal, I really enjoyed myself and I felt that being at JMSB opened up a door to a lot of different possibilities. There were so many international students and it was great; a lot of my close friends from the program are from all different parts of the world. It’s a truly international program.

So it all happened really quickly, even though it had been on my mind for a while.

Career Management Services: offering invaluable support

How did you first hear about and/or get involved at Career Management Services?

Despite initially feeling that I could try the MBA program out to see if I liked it and just get out if I wanted to, there was also a part of me that was a little bit fearful that I would go through the program and come back like so many MBAs feeling a little bit lost. There was a bit of urgency for me to ensure that I was making the most of my time in the program. I wanted to make sure that I utilized the materials that were available to me as soon as I could.

Bob (Menard - Graduate Career Advisor at Career Management Services - CMS) was one of the first people to speak at Orientation and he just laid out all the services they offer and really encouraged us to get involved as soon as we possibly could.  He told us where to find information on all the available seminars and I think I registered for those almost immediately.

Within the first month, I set up a meeting with Bob and he introduced me to several alumni from the program that were in the consulting field in Montreal. I don’t think I even asked; he just set up a meeting with them for coffee. It was a really good experience to get a lay of the land, to see what the market would look like if I was planning on staying in Montreal.

What service(s) did you particularly benefit from at CMS?

There were a couple. I think the first thing I registered for was a Basic interview skills workshop. There was also some language training too, which helped me because my French was not very strong, and another about case writing.

Getting the most out of the John Molson MBA

What else were you getting involved with at JMSB?

I was very involved with the case competitions. I started my MBA in January and that first week is when they have the MBA International Case Competition (ICC). My mentor was on the team and encouraged me to volunteer helping the organizers. So my first week of the MBA consisted of going to class, but also going to hang out at the Case Competition. After that, I helped organize the 2014 ICC and was on the team for the following year.

How did CMS, coupled with your proactive approach to the MBA, prepare you for your post-MBA career?

The program rewards you by your level of involvement. While learning the course material is important, the application of that knowledge is very different.  If I started from scratch outside of business school in a large consulting company, I would develop business skills over a decade, and likely not even as sharply as you do in business school.

Whereas the express purpose of the MBA program and services like CMS are to help give you those skills and actively work on them almost right away. What you can learn in a period of six months in business school, you might not get exposed to in a very long time on the job.  Imagine, especially with the office politics, getting up to give a presentation to the board, you might have to wait until mid-way through your career to get that opportunity. The MBA and CMS just accelerate all that, so by the time you’re coming out of business school, you have those hard and soft skill to engage in conversations with higher-level people.

The MBA restructures your thinking to a certain degree, particularly in marketing. I’m in brand strategy and the agencies, for the most part, bring together a very diverse group of people that are not necessarily always business focused. The problem is that our clients really are. If you talk with your clients, they want to know, essentially and ultimately, that what you’re recommending is in their best interest. If I hadn’t had that type of exposure and experience in business school, there is no way that I would have been prepared to be in those rooms.

So, it’s almost like a career accelerator, in a lot of ways, like a hyperlink. You jump in for a few years and you walk out and it’s the future, but you haven’t aged, really.

Beyond the degree

What are you doing now?

I was lucky; I began at Sid Lee, an agency based in Montreal. I gravitated towards them, not because they were an ad agency, but because of their business model. Advertising very often has an old, arcane way of doing things. The industry is going through a lot of change and Sid Lee, particularly at that time, was well ahead of the curve in terms of how they saw their business and how they could bring value to clients by transcending the traditional agency approach.

My first boss, the CEO at Sid Lee, is a management / consulting guy from Mercer and he did an MBA, so we had very similar backgrounds in terms of how we came to find ourselves in the industry. Because of that, how we looked at and unpacked client problems was a little bit different.

I transitioned into strategy, working with the Sid Lee partners in how they would approach business development. For me, it flexed these different skills of understanding business, but also understanding people, why they engage and how they perceive and inject value into services and brands. For strategy, you have to ultimately become a storyteller and do so in a way that utilizes a lot of business category understanding that will lead to business growth for the client.

I’ve been doing strategy for a variety of brands over the last six years and I’ve been in the Toronto office for just over three years. It’s a smaller office than in Montreal, but it has had a lot of success, especially working with the Toronto Raptors.

One of the great things, if you work in private services, is the opportunity to work in so many different fields. You can gain expertise in a specific category or industry, but there is always an opportunity to learn new things and go new places. A lot of the time, if you’re working with big enough companies or big enough brands, their industry might be going through significant change and you might be helping reshape what that looks like, which is super exciting.

Words of advice

Do you have any advice for new MBA students?

It depends on where they are coming from and what their knowledge or experience might already be. There is so much value in the resources that are offered; you’re getting exposure to things that companies would pay a lot for.  Imagine how much companies pay for corporate training, and yet you have all of these resources at your fingertips.

If you’re serious about growth in your career, this is an amazing place where you have tons of people that are acting in your best interest. It’s also a super safe environment to make mistakes, hence why you can learn from those mistakes and actually progress quite quickly. It doesn’t matter if you get up in front of your friends and colleagues in business school and fail, because that is part of the process. Whereas the stakes in the professional world are much, much higher. So take the opportunity to work on the things that are scary and that you might not have addressed or had the opportunity to develop previously.

If you are able to identify, as you start the program, what your two or four priorities of growth are going to be and attack it in that way, it will allow you to be a little bit more focused, but it will also open doors in ways that you don’t expect.

Not that everyone is at business school to make friends, but there is a tight group of people, with the Graduate Student Association and others putting on events, which create a good opportunity to meet a lot of like-minded people. One thing that I didn’t appreciate enough at the time is that a lot of the people you’re in class with are potentially your future colleagues. When you get back into the working world, you quickly understand that the people that you were studying with are the 1% within the organization that are actually driving change and value.

You can learn a lot from the people you are in class with, too. As you finish the MBA, people go their different ways, particularly the international students, but find reasons to remain in contact because, I promise you, you are in classes with the people that are the future business leaders in their respective fields, five, ten or twenty years down the road. 

All this talk is making me miss it! Doing the MBA was one of the better decisions of my life.

Epilogue: Thoughts on COVID-19

It’s obvious and cliché to say we’re living in unprecedented times, but nothing to this scale has ever happened, so they truly are. It’s healthy to acknowledge this and appreciate the circumstances we are in, not only as professionals, but as citizens of the world. The current crisis will forever change how we view our own security and bring into focus how vulnerable the world’s systems and networks – that determine economic, political and environmental outcomes – can be. This is a global epiphany that will permeate through our collective consciousness for generations.

But many of us are most concerned with the immediate, and of course we should be. What if a loved one gets sick, or even worse, passes away? What if I lose my job? What if I can’t pay my mortgage? These are rational fears that people from all walks of life are having and, in some cases, some of us will experience.

In the world of business, small enterprises will bear the brunt of the casualties, with cashflows that simply can’t sustain shutdowns that extend for months. This is where the real business tragedy lies.

From a big business perspective, the pandemic will force innovation in industries that have long neglected it and those that don’t will not survive. Large organizations, whose success has precluded them from evolving, will be faced with a bleak future. If nothing else, a crisis like this weeds out organizations that have become complacent.

So, with that in mind, understand that the business world you will be walking into as a graduate will be very different than the one from a couple months ago and will not serve as a playbook for the future. Creativity, sometimes a four-letter word in the world of commerce, has never been more important. So it’s imperative that you, as future business leaders, help shape what the next chapter of commerce will look like, because, at the end of your careers, people will ask what you did and how you helped push change when the world stood still. What will your answer be?

Elliott Altilia is currently Account and Strategy Lead at Sid Lee. 

Career Management Services continues to support students while the university campus is closed due to COVID-19 response efforts. For more information on the services offered, read our previous blog or consult their website.

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