HFA Alumni Profile: Jonathan Fortescue
Jonathan Fortescue '89, an English and Linguistics alum who is currently the Managing Director with J. Robert Scott Executive Search in Boston, MA, shares his thoughts on the differences between Harvard and UMass and gives some advice on how to build a career.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Denver, CO and lived there till I was about 12. Then my family moved to Amherst, so I'm a townie. I went to Amherst High and then, like two of my brothers, came here to UMass. I moved to Boston in '89 to go to graduate school and still haven’t left.
How did you decide to attend UMass? Because of your brothers?
I was a juvenile delinquent. I went from being first in my high school class at the end of my sophomore year, to being about 90th at the end of my junior year, to wondering whether I was going to graduate at the end of my senior year because I wasn't sure I had enough credits. But my older brother went here (to UMass) and he played soccer here, and the soccer coach was informally recruiting me to play soccer here as well. Ultimately, I came here. But I didn't play soccer; instead, I decided to really focus on my academics, and I sort of became a monk. I lived on the 24th floor of the library. I had a desk that was set up that looked out over the Valley and I went there every day just to work.
You were a double major in English and Linguistics, correct?
I started as a physics major and, if you pulled my transcript, you'd see I got a lot of bad grades, mostly because I took those classes as a high school student and skipped class often. But then I took an Intro to Linguistics class just because I didn't know anything about it and I thought it would be an interesting class. I also took a senior seminar on James Joyce and Modern Poetry in my freshman year because my oldest brother was an English major in college and he was really interested in James Joyce. They were both great. I kind of gravitated towards the things that seemed fun.
Majoring in English was largely because I was interested in literature. Then I won a fellowship to go to graduate school and figured if someone were paying for me to go, I'll go.
How do you feel UMass prepared you for your graduate work at Harvard?
Very well. Maybe almost too well, in some ways. I was more broadly educated than some of my peers in my matriculating class. That was in part because UMass had the distribution requirements. You had to take three social sciences classes and three natural science classes, so I came in with a much broader education than many of my peers did. And so, I was able to relate what we were reading in a particular literary historical period to things I knew as a result of having learned about them in a class.
There's a lot more money there. Harvard's now having to make choices but I was there when Harvard had endless amounts of resources if you wanted to do something; if you wanted to start a club, there was always money. And that can create a sense of entitlement and a careful negotiation around that entitlement. I regularly had students complaining to me, when I was teaching, about grades. I never changed a grade, though. I would be happy to sit down and explain why. When I was at UMass, that was not the case. I think people were more honest with themselves. They’d say, "well, I know I didn't work that hard so I got what I deserve."
How long were you teaching? And how did you get involved in executive search?
I think I taught a total of 10 or 11 years, both as a graduate student and as a lecturer. But somewhere along the way, I began moonlighting as a search consultant. I had a friend who was doing it; I didn't even know the industry existed. The firm he worked for was a boutique firm that did largely dean searches for institutions of higher education. I decided that, if I want to make an impact in the university setting, it'd be more interesting to do it at the senior leadership level. That was the sort of insight that led me to start doing it more and more. And the next thing I knew, I was doing it full time and said goodbye to teaching.
What was the firm you were moonlighting with?
It was Auerbach Associates. Judy Auerbach was a great mentor because she had incredibly high standards and she basically taught me from the beginning to the end of the search process how to do everything in a really high quality way. It was a great place to train.
I later moved to J. Robert Scott, which is an odd search firm because it is owned by Fidelity Investments. The backing of our parent company allows us think differently about our long-term strategy for building our business. J. Robert Scott interested me because half the clientele are venture-backed companies, funded by venture capital or private equity firms, doing work in life sciences or high technology. In the leading research universities, people regularly talk about intellectual property and what happens when it gets rolled out into a company. JRS offered me the opportunity to serve clients throughout the whole research and discovery process, all the way to product and manufacturing.
What advice would you give to students about making the most of their humanities education?
It depends on the student. We're in a historical period that feels a lot like it probably felt right before The Dark Ages where thoughtfulness, deliberation, tolerance are often derided as elitist values and the demotic urge for immediate gratification is powerful, in part because of certain advents of technology. The humanities can be seen as impractical but they are also about creating lasting value. My advice is to gravitate toward the humanities because you're passionate about them.
It's harder these days especially with the job market – students feel like they have to have their futures mapped out.
My advice would be to do as well as you can with what you've chosen to study and, in some ways, don't worry about the job market, which sounds like really bad advice. But even at my level, we network out to find the candidates that we then bring to our clients. In terms of advice, in networking, it's about managing to get yourself in the door somewhere, having a personal presence.
At Harvard, every undergraduate was aware of corporate recruiting season. Whether it was Goldman Sachs or GE, students knew who’d be on campus when, and they make a decision to go to that networking event or not but it's driven at a very explicit level that these are opportunities. The tradeoff for that, though, is that I would have students come into my office and cry because they didn't want to do that and they didn't know what to do with their lives and they hadn't gotten the skills to figure it out on their own. And I’d say, "You're the brave one. You're the one who hasn't just gotten sucked in to the machine. You're trying to figure out what will make you happy. Take courage in the fact that you don't know what you want to do." I think that not being sucked into the machine is actually a great way to figure out what might be a more successful life as opposed to a successful career.
Any final thoughts?
I had a great time in college. I loved everything I studied. They say education is wasted on the young but I felt that I got everything out of my undergraduate education that I possibly could have. I did none of the things that would explicitly “prepare” me for anything: I didn't intern anywhere, I was largely a free spirit. But I think it made me a well-rounded citizen of the world. To feel that you have to manufacture a perfect career out of what you've just done in school is too narrow. I don't think careers work that way anymore.