Building a Resilient MBA Network in Times of Pandemic

You’re a couple of months away from starting your MBA journey. Given COVID-19, you’re probably wondering whether you’ll get the most out of the experience. In particular, you may be asking, “How will I build relationships with my classmates when we’re six feet away…or separated by computer monitors? In my experience, you can still build a strong, long-lasting MBA network. It’ll take effort and intentionality. To get you started, here are three strategies I used during my time at USC’s Marshall School of Business:

1. Make time to know your classmates one-on-one

I chose USC Marshall because the MBA class sizes are small (approximately 220 students per class). On the first day of classes, I remember getting the full list of my classmates from the Program Office. I sat down and learned the names of my classmates, highlighting the names of classmates I had already interacted with! As a goal, I made it a point to have at least one meaningful interaction with each classmate before the first semester was done. Considering that the first semester is jam-packed with core classes, I knew it would be a challenge. Isn’t building a strong network is a big part of coming to business school?

To give you a sense of how committed I was to know my classmates, I made time to have lunch with 85 of my classmates over the two years of my MBA. During those lunches, I asked them about their stories. I learned where they came from, where they were headed, what motivated them, and what scared them. It was the most rewarding part of my MBA experience: the people. My advice to you is to be intentional in getting to know your classmates and don’t treat it like a “checking the box” exercise. As future business leaders, you need a skill set that can meaningfully and expediently connect you to collaborators, especially if it is over a video call across time zones.

2. Lean in to student leadership opportunities

I chose USC Marshall’s MBA program because I saw a spectrum of leadership opportunities that would stretch me. In my first year, I became a part of the Marshall Leadership Fellows program, a year-long leadership development course that selected a 20-student cohort. I led a student research team to produce a research report on digital trade for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an opportunity that took me to Sydney, Australia present the report. I volunteered to be an MBA Ambassador, which allowed me to interview prospective applicants to our business school. I was even VP of Junior Achievement as part of Challenge 4 Charity.

You might be thinking: that’s a lot of things to take on! My point is, you will only get two years to fully stretch yourself. By taking on leadership roles, you will put yourself in a position to work with your amazing classmates outside of the classroom. Some of the strongest bonds I formed at USC Marshall came from student leadership opportunities. I hope you do the same!

Armughan Syed

3. Create space for collaboration

At USC Marshall, I learned first-hand how quickly core teams form. In a very short time, they are expected to start performing at a high level. That first semester will be a blur for you! When you think about your MBA journey, think through your work style and how you work with others. While coursework is important, you will grow the most from working closely and regularly with your classmates. That’s what makes an MBA so amazing and unique in its value proposition!

Looking back at the best teams I worked on at Marshall, here are three norms that were crucial:

“Step up, step back”

This norm speaks to how each participant needs to be aware of the space they are taking in terms of speaking up. The norm also regulates when it is appropriate to yield that space to a peer. During one project team meeting, a teammate mentioned how I would often pick up a Sharpie and head to the whiteboard. That unconscious decision oftentimes discourages some other teammates from taking that role. I took that feedback and made a decided effort to encourage other teammates to step forward and guide our discussion. Our meetings were more energetic and involved moving forward!

“Speak from the I”

When participants use the “we”, they are speaking for more than themselves. As part of a student organization, a classmate would regularly speak for other classmates when it came to dividing up the tasks that we were all responsible for executing. It made it difficult for us to discern who really felt that way. To encourage everyone to speak for themselves and to accurately capture everyone’s thoughts, I asked every team member to speak for themselves. This norm resulted in more team members speaking up and allowing us to function better!

“What is learned here, leaves here. What is said here, stays here”

You want to maintain confidentiality in creating a safe space for conversations. At the same time, you want to encourage the diffusion of the learnings of the group. I remember using this norm during conversations with classmates around the challenges we were encountering during recruitment. A classmate said it perfectly: “As an MBA, setbacks in recruiting are collectively experienced but individually felt!”. It can be isolating to experience the grueling recruitment journey, so I would encourage you to create spaces where you can lean on your classmates. Trust me, it’ll only bring you closer as a class!

My hope is that these three ways can encourage you to create the amazing community I was able to be a part of during my time at USC Marshall. While we cannot control how things will play out in the next few months, we can be intentional in creating a community of MBA collaborators through the tools that are available to us. My sense is that developing such a skillset will serve you beyond your time at the business school of your choice. Good luck!

Armughan grew up in Pakistan, England and moved to Switzerland at 14 (his dad worked for the UN). He has spent the last 5 years organizing and training communities in Australia, New Zealand & Canada on mass mobilization technology tools. As part of his work at NationBuilder, his primary area of focus was helping progressive organizations (such as Australians for Equality, the Australian Green Party, CollectiveShout Australia) build out their tech infrastructure from a data aggregation perspective. He also trained the major political parties of Australia and New Zealand in the lead up to their federal elections in 2016 and 2017, respectively. 

At present, Armughan works at SAM Preccelerator, a venture capital accelerator in Santa Monica. His work focuses on finding SaaS companies to invest in and building out the ecosystem of entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. He also moonlights as the Co-Director of the NLC LA Chapter. When he’s not running half-marathons, he spends time taking improv classes, goofing around with his three dogs, finding great vegan restaurants to try out, or finding joy in being around his partner-in-crime, his amazing wife Heather.

Armughan earned his Bachelor of Arts in Economics and English from Boston University. He holds certificates of General Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of Chicago, and a Masters in International Business from the International University in Geneva. He recently completed his MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business.

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