The MBA Alumni Network: A Gift That Keeps On Giving

Getting a top-tier business school education offers a long list of benefits and attractions to those with the vision and passion to achieve it. Students gain essential skills and learn cutting-edge theories that enable them to progress rapidly in their chosen field. By participating actively in offerings outside the classroom – conferences, internships, field studies, and student clubs – budding MBAs also learn to see the big picture beyond their chosen functional specialty. And spending two years surrounded by several hundred high-energy, overachieving peers from around the world — emphasis on collaborating and socializing is exhilarating.

But the most enduring benefit is one that begins just as the two-year student adventure ends: membership in the alumni network. The engagement, opportunity and loyalty found in an MBA alumni network typically exceed those found in even the most active undergraduate alumni groups. College alumni affiliations tend to be more about seeing a the same set of close friend every few months or convening at a local pub to watch the “big game” on TV.  Unless someone lived in the same fraternity house or took the same classes as you, there’s really not that much in common beyond having a similar sweatshirt at the back of your closet.  However, with business school alumni, the substance and significance of involvement can actually increase over time.

Why is this true? Well, for starters, everyone studied essentially the same topics in the same format.  For example, when Harvard Business School alums gather, regardless of their respective graduation years, the case-study method – even the names of some classic cases – form a common bond. And guru faculty tend to remain at the same school for decades, thus giving graduates an even stronger sense of connection.

From my experience, the most engaged, and loyal alumni networks include those of Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Kellogg and Tuck among the top-ranked schools. In the next tier, Cornell and Indiana are quite special.  Relatively speaking, the sense of commitment and shared identity among alumni tends to diminish after the top 20.

The motivation to communicate, cooperate and collaborate is exceptionally strong among MBA grads.  After all, this is business school.  Whether an alum is an entrepreneur striving to grow his or her company, a young professional seeking to accelerate his or her career path, or a venerable old grad mentoring others in appreciation for past guidance received, the alumni network is a vibrant and efficient platform for such “value exchange.”

Participating in the MBA alumni network allows grads to give and/or get the following:

  • Subjective-matter expertise on every industry, function or market imaginable.
  • Human and financial capital for business growth.
  • Access to decision makers and potential customers who are friends or associates of a fellow MBA grad.
  • Career help — informational interviews, internships and even full-time jobs – for sons and daughters.
  • The chance to recapture and relive the joys of b-school at social events and membership meetings.

So, how can MBA alumni get the maximum benefit from their b-school network? Well, the process should start before you’re even accepted and enrolled:

  1. Meet alums before you apply. Contacting officers of the nearest alumni chapter offers you the chance to see and  hear the impact of a given school’s MBA program on their careers.  If you find a role model among these accomplished individuals, that’s often a good sign that this is the school for you.
  2. Build career ties while enrolled.  As you’re exploring various employment options, the alumni directory offers a wealth of contacts who will gladly respond to questions from current students. Such dialogue also gives them a chance to discover more about you, and might even lead to job offer upon graduation.
  3. Join up and get started as soon as you accept a job. Local alumni chapters are always eager to welcome newly minted grads.  In fact, many have formed a “club within a club” for those who have graduated within the past decade.  There are always committee assignments available to those with the interest and energy to contribute – the perfect way to get to know even the most senior members of the group.
  4. Stay involved as your career evolves.  As an MBA graduate reaches mid-career, the demands of work and family are at a peak. While it may be tempting to put alumni network involvement on hold, that’s a big mistake.  Especially during volatile economic times, employment can be unpredictable.  Should you find yourself unexpectedly losing your job, or if  you want to remain visible for new opportunities, remaining active in the MBA alumni network is an ideal resource.
  5. Run for chapter office, become a leader. Remember how much your participation in campus clubs added to the classroom experience in business school?  The same is true for alumni.  Being an “active member” is valuable, but seizing the opportunity to demonstrate and develop leadership is ever more beneficial.  In addition to bolstering your resume, serving as a chapter officer provides a positive outlet for you to exercise strategic thinking and people skills without the constraints you face in your “day job.”  The chance to serve as a CEO or COO may be decades away at your company, but simply awaiting your decision to step up in the MBA alumni organization.
  6. Enrichment after retirement. As executives approach the last few years on the job, they may find that the intellectual stimulation and daily socialization that they’ve enjoyed for so long start to diminish. Whatever one chooses to do after retiring, the opportunity for interaction with fellow grads of all ages is a blessing.  Your wisdom is valued and trusted by those who attended the same alma mater.

So, if you’re wrestling with whether to attend business school, or simply trying to choose the best program for yourself, be sure to keep in mind the life-long benefits of active involvement in the MBA alumni network.  The more selective and prestigious the school, the stronger the ties and the more valuable the affiliation.  And remember: an MBA education need not – and should not – end at graduation.  The next 40+ years offer dividends that will enhance your life, professionally and personally, far beyond your expectations.

Dan Bauer is the managing director and founder of The MBA Exchange, which offers consulting services to business school applicants. An MBA graduate of Harvard Business School, Bauer’s career includes management positions with Citicorp, MasterCard International, and DDB Needham Worldwide. Before founding The MBA Exchange in 1996, his experience included interviewing and assessing MBA applicants on behalf of the Harvard Business School. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude from Ohio University. Mr. Bauer has served on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Business School Club of Chicago, and provided leadership for organizations including the American Marketing Association and Sales & Marketing Executives International.

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