As a Philosophy major in undergrad, some people might have accused me of having my head in the clouds. To be honest, these people wouldn’t have been wrong. I really enjoyed my work and the impact it had on my life outlook, but when it came time for the rubber to meet the road…well, the rubber didn’t always meet the road. This clearly wasn’t much of a long-term career solution.
While my philosophy background helped me think about problems, I also needed to show employers that I could bring my ideas and solutions to life, which was a major reason I decided to get my MBA. After all, successful leadership is not just about having good ideas but about making them a reality, so execution is key. Your ability to network with others also hinges on proper execution and is one of the most critical (though often overlooked) skills for you to possess before, during, and after your MBA. And as with any skill, it must be honed and practiced.
The aim of this three-part series is to help you improve your networking skills and understand the benefits of a well-developed network. Part I focuses on pre-application networking, Part II will focus on pre-enrollment networking, and Part III will focus on networking while in an MBA program. In the end, we don’t want you to think of networking simply as meeting people to advance your career. (Don’t be a networking parasite but a real network developer.) Instead, you should think of networking as building meaningful relationships and engaging in genuine exchanges with others. After all, these individuals are your colleagues or people who you want to be your colleagues, so you need to be mindful that you’re treating them fairly.
Among the many benefits your network holds before you apply for your MBA, two of the most immediate are:
- Helping to put you in the most attractive career position for an MBA admissions committee when applying.
- Building relationships with individuals who can write you excellent letters of recommendation.
Networking is a long term process, not a single event. Your goal is to establish a strong foundation and to build from it. It’s essential, then, to balance the quantity with the quality of your network. Some people treat networking too broadly, thinking they need to carry 500 business cards with them and hand them to every person with a pulse, while others treat it too narrowly, waiting in line for hours to meet the partner or founder of a business while neglecting to engage with other interesting people. It’s easy to fall into one of these two traps (I regularly saw it happen in my MBA program), but neither approach is very effective at building a healthy network.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a strong network. Start the process now by ensuring that you’re fully engaged with your colleagues in your workplace (especially if this will be your last employer prior to your MBA, which will help you leave the company on good terms) and positioning yourself for good recommendations. To broaden your network beyond your workplace, get involved with local young professional, industry professional, or MBA-oriented organizations. Participation in these groups may also help you convincingly demonstrate to admissions committees where your post-MBA career interests lay when you’re looking to tell your admissions story.
As you’re laying the foundation and building your network “out”, remain engaged with your network to begin building “up”. Remember that networking is about strong relationships, not just a sheer volume of relationships. Keep this in mind when you begin to build “up” because everything you do to network “up” can also reflect, for better or worse, on those who helped you connect the network. So, just as you find value in your network partners, they should also find value in you.
Whether you’re a few years away from applying for your MBA or you’re applying in the next round, here are three key networking takeaways you should remember:
- Know yourself and your preferred networking style – There is no “one-size fits all” solution to networking. You have to find a style that works best for you and your personality—after all, if you’re not comfortable networking then how are you going to put your best foot forward? Whether you prefer more structured or less structured networking events, group settings or one-on-ones, understanding what situations you thrive in will be key to your success. Now, admittedly, you won’t be able to control every situation and will certainly need to learn to work outside of your comfort zone, but knowing where and how you thrive can be key to standing out from the crowd when networking versus underwhelming your audience.
- Nobody is going to give it to you, so be proactive – In order to shape the networking circumstances in ways that suit you best, it’s ideal if you’re the one who initiates or takes the reins of the interaction. Whether you actively seek out established networking groups or set up networking opportunities yourself, it’s important that you come across as proactive (though not pushy) and show that you’re genuinely interested in the people and the subjects at issue. Regardless of your personality type, if you don’t take the first steps to engage, many of your colleagues out there are more than willing to do so which can make it all the more difficult for you to stand out.
- Lay out objectives and be deliberate – Some networking initiates or builds upon existing relationships, other networking has a specific deliverable in mind (such as requesting a letter of recommendation), while still other networking is aimed at branching out into new networks. You must remain cognizant of your purpose for each networking occasion. Make sure that any goals you’ve laid out beforehand are met and don’t forget to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to network. But read your audience and don’t overstay your welcome either—respecting the other party’s time will go a long way to strengthening and growing your network relations. Remember that networking is a long-term relationship- and trust-building process, somewhat like dating: you want to have a good first date in order to have a second, but you don’t want to overreach on your first date either.
Stay tuned as we continue our Network to Net Worth exploration in Part II.