A survey among alumni identified networking as the third most important reason to choose an MBA. Networking is the key to career success, but it should be done properly in order to build mutually useful relationships and benefit from plentiful opportunities.
Networking is making links from people we know to people they know, in an organised way, for a specific purpose. The purpose may be to make friends, to sell products and build business relationships, to find a job or to get information and share knowledge. The key to networking is that it is a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more people where everyone involved succeeds more because of the relationship than they would without the relationship. The network of an MBA student includes not only classmates, but also other students at the school, academic staff and school alumni.
Networking helps some 60% graduates to find a job
For MBA students and graduates, networking is an important job-search tool; surveys show that some 50% to 60% of MBA graduates have found a job by networking. Moreover, networking can be used to help MBA students in careers research and decision-making. A Financial Times survey conducted among more than 9,000 alumni from top MBA programmes showed that networking was the third most important reason given for studying for an MBA, after increased earnings and the education itself and before prospects for promotion and changing jobs or careers. In addition, 95% of respondents who valued networking said that it had worked.
When to start networking?
For MBA students, it is important to start networking early in the MBA course and sometimes even before that. Wondering what MBA programme to choose? Contacting alumni can give you a good idea of the culture of the school and an insight into the real experience of the programme. The most valuable aspect of the network of classmates is what you learn from the experience of others. Moreover, the connections that you build in your MBA class may prove priceless: several years later these people will either be running their own businesses or have high-level positions in big companies. Job networking comes at a later stage, when you can use alumni contacts to get an insight into the industry in which you want to pursue a career and prepare for networking events and interviews with recruiters.
Most b-schools provide a career network service designed to help current students gain an insight into careers through contacts with alumni. Career networks typically include graduates in all kinds of subjects and working in a wide range of career areas worldwide. Graduates can be contacted by e-mail or telephone. Many of them agree to help by giving an information interview including an informal meeting with a student who aims to follow in their footsteps in order to talk about the graduate's work, how they started out and how their career has developed. Another possibility is so-called work shadowing, which involves spending a day or more following and observing the graduate as they go about their day-to-day work. Work shadowing is the best way to gain a deep understanding of the job, but only a minority of graduates are able to offer it. A few alumni are also ready to help students from their school who have applied for employment in their company by preparing them for the job interview and giving them valuable knowledge of the company background.
How to approach contacts
The first step to making a networking contact is usually by e-mail. People are busy and it is not easy to grab the attention of someone who doesn’t know you. It is therefore important to use an effective subject line that includes a common point of reference to increase the chances that your e-mail will be opened. If you were referred by someone, you should mention the connecting person and send the e-mail to them as a copy, or you can include the name of the mutual acquaintance who gave you the contact. “One of our alumni who regularly receives networking e-mails from students or other alumni confided that she took networking e-mails more seriously if they are from people who reference two mutual acquaintances or connections in their e-mail, such as a personal referral and a common group connection,” says Carolyn Bregman, Emory Alumni Association's director of Alumni Career Services, in her article Effective Networking E-mail Strategies.
The e-mail itself should be short and to-the-point. It should include a brief description about you and your background and should explain why you are getting in touch and what you want from the addressee, says Bregman. “Be clear about your own career goals, as well as the goals and outcomes of your contact; express why you are reaching out to your reader, of all people, for advice and information.”
At the end of the e-mail, you should give your contact information and thank your reader for his or her time and attention.
When networking by e-mail, you should not ask for a job; do not attach your CV to your initial e-mail. You can describe your relevant background concisely and use a subsequent face-to-face meeting to provide your CV.
If you want to make networking more personal, you can follow the e-mail up with a telephone call. If you intend to do so, you should write in your e-mail that you would like to contact the reader by telephone in a particular time window and to follow it through. Telephone conversations should also be concise and clear, stating your specific goals and trying to get as much information as possible about your target field.
The next step in networking is arranging an information interview at a suitable location and at the addressee's convenience to get a deeper insight into your targeted career field, and to obtain his or her advice or suggestions. Before meeting alumni, you should do some preliminary research through careers websites and information booklets to avoid wasting their time by asking unnecessary questions. You can prepare a list of relevant questions about the company and the job in order to find out what skills you need to develop in order to be hired. The meeting should be about 15-20 minutes long and you should not ask for a job, just for information. It would be polite to send a follow-up note thanking the interviewee for their time.
B-schools usually organise or host a large number of recruiting events that include informational or social events like dinners, cocktail receptions, coffee chats, case competitions, case preparation sessions and corporate presentations. These can be open to all students or by invitation to a group of students. Students are not required to attend all such events, so you should make a strategic choice on which events to visit in order to meet the people with whom you want to network. With a specific goal in mind, you should prepare to make a personal connection with the targeted people and include details about your background and credentials fluidly into the conversation, which should not last more than 10 minutes.
Networking, in terms of gathering information and making contacts, is a powerful career tool but it needs to be used delicately and tactfully. You should learn to be pleasantly persistent, but never blunt or rude. The key to success is to be sincere and personal, to get to know people and find common interests. As Thom Singer, an expert in social networking and personal branding, says: "Networking is your key to career success. Do it incorrectly and you go nowhere. Become proficient at it and you'll fill your life with opportunity."