Be Here Now: MBA Networking Secrets To Accelerate Your Career

Dinner with the INSEAD Professor and colleagues

Networking is a hate-love proposition to most of us. In my experience, it is an essential factor in progressing your career. The only thing that will make the difference between a promising and exceptional career is who you know and, more importantly, “Who Knows you.” Your contacts can act as gatekeepers to roles you would never find in a job portal. There’s no reason to be shy. I would even say it is better to leave a mixed impression than not to be recognized.

Networking helped me to reach my desired roles and to work on three different continents in the last five years. I want to share with you some of my non-obvious networking tricks that will give you access to influential people who will help boost your career.

An image of the customer (left) and Sebastian (right) on a cappucino

1) Have A Positive Mindset About Networking: There’s nothing dirty about networking. You can use your idle time wisely and talk to people from your office, in the train station, or in a random queue. If you start talking to a few people, you quickly develop your sensors to see if someone is willing to talk to you.

In my professional life, the best contacts I made were at the coffee corners of my company. I ensured that I didn’t use the same coffee machine and often just worked in different buildings or floors of my company. When people work on different floors in the same company, they often meet as often as colleagues from different countries. That means you get access to many new colleagues by changing the floor from time-to-time. Because of this behaviour, I could make some great friends in my previous company.

I genuinely show interest in the people I talk to and strive to keep in touch with my contacts as often as possible. Most of the time, I start the conversation with questions like these: How are you? or What’s your favourite coffee, and why?. “Hi, I’m Sebastian from the Sales department; who are you?” is my most common opening statement. This situation might feel uncomfortable initially, but it gets easier the more you practice.

Through the ‘coffee corner’ strategy, I made friendships with the VP of sales for Europe, the CFO, and the lady cleaning the coffee machines. The CFO later helped me with transferring to the new role in Singapore. He explained the financial implications for a company when making a transfer and provided valuable contacts for the career move. On the other hand, the cleaning lady told me about the new coffee machine on the 5th floor, where you could print your image on the cappuccino. I was the first account executive to bring customers to that special coffee place and print their company logo on the cappuccino.

Sebastian’s first speech in front of a bigger audience

2) “Give And Take”- In This Order: I’ve often seen this situation sitting at the executive’s table. People would come over and ask the busy executives for favours out of the blue. If you want to network with an executive in your company, think about how you could make the executive’s life easier using your skillset. You could start by asking about (or researching) the strategic initiatives in your market unit and find out who is heading those initiatives. If you find a strategic initiative that suits your skillset, write an email to the executive and offer your help. Maybe you can ask for a 10-minute meeting where you could pitch your idea and how you want to approach that problem. There is nothing to lose here. In the worst case, you get a rejection. In the best case, you can do extra work (I know, no one has too much free time – but believe me, it’s worth it), and people will remember your name and positive attitude.

Another piece of advice is to volunteer for tasks you are not comfortable doing. One example of my volunteering was when the VP of Sales Enablement asked some sales reps to present their training experience in front of an audience. No one wanted to do it, so I immediately raised my hand and said, “Thanks for your trust; It will be an honour to present in front of my colleagues tomorrow.” Most of the time, such presentations are pretty bad because people don’t prepare. However, presenting in front of a team gives you such a big audience; if you do it right, people will remember you and how they felt during your presentation.

So that’s what I did; I rehearsed my (apparently) insignificant presentation at least 15 times at home. When I presented in front of a crowd of 150 colleagues, they were amazed, and I immediately got a reputation for being a great presenter in my company. More than that, I got access to some extended executive training normally reserved exclusively for the managing directors. That’s an excellent outcome for my two hours of preparation. You develop your clear brand message when you differentiate yourself from the big crowd of people.

Team dinner with the lonely executive

3) It’s Lonely At The Top: Go and invite the executives to dinner. They are more than happy to talk to employees.

We had a big corporate event a few years ago, and I met a colleague who managed over 1,000 employees. She seemed pretty lonely when the event was over because all her managers and their teams went for team dinners, but no one dared to invite her to dinner. So, I asked if she wanted to join my team for dinner that evening. She was pleasantly surprised and agreed to join us. We had some great conversations, I could introduce all my team members, and we discussed personal and business topics. Because of this personal connection, it was an excellent opportunity to showcase our team’s performance. The executive remembered my team members by name. When she needed advice on a specific topic, she reached out to me and asked if one expert in my team would be available for a side gig. Such assignments helped my team members to progress in their careers.

Another good time to ask influential people out for dinner is after they deliver presentations or finish speeches. I went for a spontaneous dinner with INSEAD’s dean after his introduction at the Singapore campus. Most of the people left immediately after his presentation, but I remained for some additional questions. I asked the dean if he had dinner. He said no, but added that he would love to get some bites before his next call. So, we went to a nearby dining place where we had a great conversation about leadership, goals, and what it takes to be successful. I learned a different way of expressing authority from him: being quiet and listening to the employees, a big contrast to some managers I met in my sales job. Instead, he listened, asked many questions, didn’t judge my answers, and did not offer immediate solutions.

I also scheduled a lot of dinners with INSEAD professors. They are usually busy, but if you invite them one month in advance, your chances of getting a free slot are very high. I also invite other colleagues to the dinners and ensure that the group is diverse. A diverse group will lead to great conversations and a chance for me to get to know my colleagues better.

Immersive Storytelling by using all walls as projector screens

4) Time is Precious: “One day is like a month. One week is like a year.” Therefore, be fast and show results. Time is a sacred resource for all executives.

As I mentioned earlier, try to get involved in strategic initiatives! But if you agree to do the extra legwork, be sure that you can deliver fast results and show progress each day. For executives, everything has to move fast, and you should have some progress as quickly as possible.

As an account executive, I volunteered to drive the sales enablement initiative in Singapore. Before starting the project, I asked myself how I could deliver things that generally take one month to finish in 3 days and what other colleagues I could reach out to get some help. The 80/20 rule is beneficial in this case. The 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle) states that roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of work. So don’t try to be perfect.

5) Show you value your colleagues’ time: If you have a great conversation with some executives at work, show your appreciation for the time they accorded to you. One way of doing this is to write a follow-up email where you mention the points that stood out for you in the conversation. Add some follow-up appointments and items you want to deliver at some point (the sooner, the better).

Sebastian Benchea

This email will be helpful if you need to reach out to that executive again at some point in time. You can reply to that email instead of writing an email from scratch. The person will see that you are not just reaching out of the blue to them; they will perceive that message more like an ongoing conversation, and the likelihood of getting a response is significantly higher.

When I met the head of Presales (at the coffee corner), we had a great conversation about new storytelling methods. I sent him a short video afterward, where the concept we discussed was explained and asked him if we could have the next follow-up once he revisits the office. Initially, I didn’t receive any reply from him. When we met the next time, he thanked me for the video and introduced me to some of his executive peers.

Networking will feel unconformable at the beginning. It’s like the gym; the day you start, every exercise will hurt and you will not see any progress. Everyone around you seems to do much better. But things will feel more natural if you go through the pain of starting. You might even enjoy it, especially when you will become great at approaching people, and new career opportunities will follow soon.

Sebastian got his master’s degree in Computer Science at the TU Darmstadt in Germany, where he was also the president of an international student association. He is passionate about speaking at events, having deep conversations, and coaching people. Sebastian worked in Business Software Sales in Germany, the US, and South East Asia. In his spare time, he enjoys meeting friends and family overseas, ice baths, and hosting events.


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