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CoffeeBreak Conversation: Susan Brennan, MIT Sloan School of Management

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Our blog series, CoffeeBreak Conversations, is meant to be read in less time than it takes you to enjoy a cup of your favorite break-time beverage. We'll be interviewing members of the career and education technology ecosystem and sharing their different perspectives, experiences, and predictions for our industry. Stay tuned!

In this third installment of the series, we caught up with Susan Brennan, Assistant Dean of the Career Development Office at MIT's Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Want to nominate someone for a CoffeeBreak Conversation? email us.

You’ve worked in Career Services for the better part of 20 years, first at Hult, then Bentley University, and now, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, how has the industry focus on career services shifted over that time?

It’s been a journey over a few decades.  When I think about the evolution of career development it has been exciting to just to see what was once an under-appreciated and under-recognized area within higher education is now front and center in the minds of all stakeholders, but particularly I think, it’s been elevated to be an institutional priority.

I’ve been on the journey in many ways and have been very fortunate through all my experiences to have had a seat at the table. Starting at the Arthur D. Little School of Management (now Hult), where I worked for the president of the school, to working at Bentley and really having the support of the president and trustees and now at MIT Sloan, being part of the senior leadership team. I’ve been fortunate to be at that table, which is why I’ve made that commitment to being a voice for others in the profession to say how do we change higher education to understand that when we make career a strategic priority, it has incredible benefit to the institution and to our students.

It’s great that you’ve had the support of the president at the various institutions you’ve been a part of. How do you get their attention, backing or support?

I think in part, some of it comes from knowing your own talents and being able to aim them toward that being an objective.  For me, I am strategically oriented and confident and I think I have good ideas. To a certain extent, the goal can’t be “how do I get the attention of the President”, it’s really “how can I dream big about what career development can look like and have a vision and then be able to articulate that so it aligns with priorities of the institution”?  Every institution is different, so that’s been my journey since I got to MIT. What are the strategic priorities here, what is the mission, how do we align and how do we shape a vision that is uniquely MIT Sloan? That is the responsibility of the career services leader.

You mentioned understanding the priorities of the institution is important, how do you see the role of career as driver to institutional goals such as enrollment, retention and  persistence?

I think it is the imperative of career development to make sure that messaging is really built into the value proposition of the institution. I have been fortunate to be aligned with institutions that understand that. And in part as business education institutions, to some extent, I think these students are naturally focused on these career paths, with the end in mind. In many ways this may be different than even my own children who have gone to educational institutions where they have been focused on a liberal arts education.  I’ve seen those institutions do a really good job of thinking about how do we make career part of the conversation and at the same time be very focused on the academic agenda so that it’s not this either/or. That we can be either educationally oriented around the holistic liberal arts education or outcomes oriented, it is actually a yes/and. We need to be talking about being intentional about how a broad education is going to serve you well in your career and those conversations should start early, even through the enrollment process.

What advice do you have for those who are looking to get stronger alignment between academic and career especially when it comes to engaging the conversation on the academic side?

It comes down to a partnership and those come from building strong relationships that take time.  But as we start to think about the learning objectives of curriculum, how do we start to think about career readiness competencies being very much a shared responsibility between how we are educating in the classroom and how career development can compliment?  I’ve been very involved with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and other organizations where there has been a conversation around what are those career readiness competencies. And how do we develop them in the curriculum, through career and also through the overall campus experience of student leadership and in the other ways that students are developing those competencies. I think it comes down to our intentionality.

You’ve led both undergraduate and graduate career services departments. What can leaders from both learn from the other?

In my experience I have had graduate career services as a common thread through all.  From the time I was at ADL, and Bentley and now at MIT Sloan, I have been a leader of a graduate career program for graduate business students as well as working with undergraduate business students at Bentley.  The biggest difference I see is about the sort of urgency and the time. I was really a pioneer in many ways and a champion for a four-year career education model for undergraduate students. The need to start early; it can’t just happen senior year and you need to be thinking about what can you do with students even through the enrollment process and as students arrive. That is a traditional four-year model, thinking about how you really can take the time over a 4-year period and also align with a students developmental process.

I think with a graduate school, particularly as I oversee not only MBA but also specialized Masters, there isn’t the same amount of time, and there is much more urgency.  Students are at a different career and life stage. We have to be that much more focused, and relevant. Meeting students where they are and in creative ways, understanding that you have to appreciate how different it is when a student has urgency of time frame around graduate education. And by the way, I would say the graduate students are more demanding.  Even in terms of ROI and the investment they make in education. Students coming back to graduate school have an opportunity cost of income and are making a huge financial investment, you have to appreciate there is an end in sight and there is an expectation that the institution will deliver. There is a different philosophical mindset

What are you focused on for 2019? Or is it top secret?

Well I’m not going to tell you all of my secrets! One thing I can tell you is there are a number of things that I’ve learned from my few decades of career development that I know make a difference. I have always had the mindset that you don’t leave those things to chance. Things like experiential learning, mentoring, that we know through our research make a huge difference in overall engagement in work and life in the long run.  

We talked about strengths, I really do believe that in working on developing a career development team, you start with the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  Really, at the basic level, does the team that you are managing have the tools they need to be successful; the resources, the space, the clarity about role, do they know the direction they are headed in? So for me, the first order of business is taking the amazing team that I’m lucky to lead and making sure that we have everything that we need to be successful. That starts with people knowing their own natural talents, how are they are going to use them, how are we going to work collectively as a team.  So there has been a lot of effort in this area as I have laid out the vision of where I see this work headed.

Coming back to technology. Technology is the one thing that is going to help us to scale human capability.  How do we start to make those decisions that are the perfect blend of high-tech and high-touch. I have worked with uConnect in the past and that has shown me that especially in a place like MIT Sloan, where we have all of the ingredients right here, we haven’t had a way to curate them and we need help to bring the community together around career. So finding a way to use technology to support this is a focus.  To make that experience that much more seamless when we think about our faculty, our employers, our students and particularly at a place where the students are so engaged in clubs and organizations and are real hands-on leaders. If we could pull all of the amazing things that are already happening at a place where the future of work is literally being invented, I think we are on to some pretty great things.

The other focus is around culture. At the end of the day, career is about outcomes and we certainly measure them and those are very strong, but there is something about meaning that is less tangible but is as important as anything we do.  I’m spending time on getting at how you move a culture in an organization to then get a conversation going around how you help students find a culture that is right for them. So stay tuned on that. I would say we are on the move literally and figuratively and more to follow!

Who's someone you'd like to sit down with for a CoffeeBreak Conversation? (related or not related to career services, real, fictional, living or not!)

I would have to say that is just the hardest question for me! I had a blog on Bentley’s CareerEdge, called the CareerCurator. It was because I read so much and I love taking it all in and then figuring out how I can share my favorite things with others, which makes me think of Oprah because I wanted to kind of be the Oprah of careers and I love Oprah!

But if I really think about this question, I go back to when I wrote my essay for college.  I was 17 and I said I wanted to be able to have conversation with Anne Frank. That still stays with me because I think about everything she went through and just how she always saw the good in people and especially right now even as we are trying to develop in students the growth mindset and how we can look at the world using positive psychology.  I come back to this, especially at this very moment, that she was just somebody who always saw the good in everybody, no matter what. I am channeling that. That has been a guiding force for me in many ways.

Thanks Susan! 

 Stay tuned for our next CoffeeBreak Conversation, featuring another very special guest!

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About Author

Hannah Chouinard
Hannah Chouinard

A talented marketer, wordsmith and culture curator

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