MBA networking tips

Build a circle of people to rely on during MBA studies

When MBA applicants are asked for their motivations, they often say they want to broaden their horizons and meet interesting people from all over the world.

This argument has never convinced me. If that is what you want, why would you do an MBA? You should take a year off, travel the world and learn new skills along the way, for example scuba diving and dancing the tango. Doing this would probably be more fun, definitely cheaper, and perhaps add something really distinctive to the CV.

The point is you don’t do an MBA just to meet smart people from different countries. You go to business school because you want to build a professional network, which is something quite different. And a powerful network is not simply a collection of name cards or a LinkedIn profile with 500 contacts. It is a circle of people you know well and can rely on.

Along with the skills you learn and the academic kudos you get, networking is the most important thing to consider when applying to business school. There are four key steps:

Step 1: Decide where to work

If most post-MBA careers are international in scope or require some travelling, you will have to choose where to live. As such, you should choose a business school that has a large alumni community where you want to work. Alumni networks are very strong and you should take advantage of them in building your career.

Business schools usually share information about their alumni with prospective students. Check this very carefully and try to plan ahead. At INSEAD, for instance, 44 per cent of alumni who graduated in 2012 took a job in Europe and 29 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the 2012 employment statistics for the school’s MBA graduates. In 2013, 90 per cent of Stanford MBA graduates chose to work in the United States.

Step 2: Know what you want

If you know what you want to do after your MBA, choose your business school accordingly. This will help you meet the right people. Recently, an HEC Paris graduate from China, whose dream was to work for a luxury brand, told me she would have never won a coveted job with Chanel if she hadn’t studied in France.

I also remember the case of a former student who already had a small business operating between France and China before he did his MBA. He therefore chose to go to HKUST and did an exchange programme in Paris as part of the course.

Step 3: Expand your network

Once you are at business school, building a network should become an “obsession”. Join as many clubs as you can – or possibly found one – and give priority to alumni events over almost everything. Follow Nassim Taleb’s advice to “maximise the serendipity around you” and open as many doors as possible.

Don’t limit your networking activities to fellow students or people on campus. If you are in a big city, join local business organisations and meet people who share the same interests and those who have different passions. And, most importantly, keep in touch with your network after graduation.

Step 4: Listen to people

Networking is something MBA candidates tend to underestimate. They usually believe that having good qualifications and working hard will be enough for them to climb the corporate ladder. They could not be more wrong. Everyone needs allies, friends and partners.

In his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie explains that the best way to create long-lasting relationships is to listen to people and be genuinely interested in them. What’s more, Warren Buffett once said that this was the best business book he ever read. If it is a must for Buffett, it should be good enough for you.

Article published in the South China Morning Post on November 14, 2013

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