Smart Moves: It's my career and I'll do what I want to

Malcolm Wheatley on the high-fliers who can pick and choose their jobs
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The Independent Online
High-fliers are like the rich, they are different from the rest of us. "They stand out from other candidates in that they are very good at managing their careers," says Dennis de Haere, a consultant with Ahead, a Brussels-based specialist recruitment firm. "They have a plan for their career, and understand the importance of working for the right company at the right time."

And the data shows that working for the right company is clearly defined. Each year, for example, the 16 national offices of Swedish research firm Universum survey the employment intentions of that country's top business graduates. In each case, a startlingly consistent picture emerges - not just in terms of graduates' ideal employer, but also locational preference and salary expectations. In each job market, potential employees understand what the leading employers offer and how they compare.

In the United States, for instance, top consultancy McKinsey & Company is the candidates' first choice for the third year in a row, and is followed once again by fellow consultancy Boston Consulting Group and bankers Goldman Sachs. The likes of JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are slowly losing their appeal to high-fliers, to be replaced by Dell, Microsoft, Intel, Walt Disney and Coca-Cola.

"These companies have strong images, offer a positive working environment, and are associated with the qualities that relate to market leadership," explains Michelle Rea, Universum's US national manager. In general, she adds, potential employees plan to stay 3.7 years with their first employer, but would consider extending this if offered promotion or more money. Career development is their most important goal, cited by 86 per cent and 59 per cent are prepared to work more than 55 hours per week to obtain it.

Nor, she insists, are high-fliers being unrealistic in their expectations. "We're talking about people from [America's] top 23 universities," she says. "Sure, a lot of them aren't going to get a job offer from McKinsey, but they will get in front of them for an interview."

Even so, young high-fliers are beginning to look overseas to get a position with an employer who meets their aspirations, she says. Indeed, London and other cities now outrank US cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle as preferred locations. "Americans haven't been so savvy about international careers until very recently," she explains.

It's a trend that's yet to hit countries such as Spain and Portugal. Here, says Krista Walochik, managing director of NBS Norman Broadbent SA, "southern Europeans tend to be very immobile, compared with northern Europeans or Americans".

And within the workplace itself, geographies and cultures play a differentiating role. Thanks to a combination of university courses that can be one or two years longer, a year's compulsory military service, and the absence of "sandwich-style" work experience degrees, Iberian candidates in their mid-to-late twenties may find themselves competing with British, American and northern European candidates who have several years more experience to offer, says Ms Walochik.

There are other differences, too. "Mainland Europeans look for a culture that is more protective and all-encompassing than do people from the UK or the US," adds Carlo Creighton, who directs the mainland European activities of fast growing global technology-based public relations firm Text 100 from his Dublin office. "Northern Europeans look for progression at a rapid rate, the German and the French look for status while the southern Europeans look for team structures."

And as the global tussle for top talent heats up, employers are becoming increasingly sensitive to high-fliers' growing desire to manage the balance between their work and personal life a little more intelligently than their predecessors. "They want a challenging and lucrative career as well as a balanced lifestyle allowing time for family and friends, leisure and hobbies," explains Ms Rea. "To gain a competitive advantage in the recruitment market, companies need to prioritise development programmes and adjust their strategies to help high-fliers achieve this difficult balance."

Microsoft, for instance, has right from its early days gone to considerable lengths to establish a relaxed, flexible working environment in which the high-fliers that it recruits can feel at home, says Ulrich Holtz, the company's director of human resources for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "We try to develop an atmosphere that's more like a campus than a company, he explains. The company's sites are known as campuses, he adds, and aim to follow closely the design lay-out pioneered by the original Microsoft site in Redmond, Washington. "People know that our pay isn't the highest," he says, "but feel that the working environment and the challenges that we offer make up for that."

And Holtz himself mirrors another approach to the work vs lifestyle issue to which employers must be sensitive. Microsoft's European headquarters is in Paris, but Holtz, its top human resources executive, is based by choice in Munich. Today's young high-fliers know that they are expected to work hard, but they don't see why they can't do so in an environment of their own choice. Given the extent to which so many executives spend their lives travelling the location of one's desk is is increasingly irrelevant.

"We're really pretty flexible where people locate themselves," acknowledges Giles Orr, consultancy recruitment manager for the European practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "We're a global organisation, and we want people to be where they want to be. Operationally, it doesn't make much difference: everybody gets a laptop and a modem, and we have offices everywhere."

In fact, so pervasive is this attitude among the major employers of young high-fliers, he reckons, "that it's a diminishing source of recruitment competitive advantage. Other firms are clued-up about locational issues too , but it's part and parcel of the recruit's decision process, and we need to acknowledge that".