Why MBAs Suck at Networking

MBA students and alumni may have the most to gain from networking, but most of them suck at it. Why? My own business school and professional experience has shown me four reasons MBAs suck at networking.

They don’t do it: Many MBAs don’t think they need to network because they are going to a top business school and have access to on-campus recruiting.

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the incentive to network when all the top firms come to campus to wine and dine you. But that means it’s all the more important to do it. After all, how will you distinguish yourself from all the other top candidates in your program? At some point, the differences between grades and GMATs will only take you so far.

For MBAs who aren’t interested in on-campus recruiting, networking isn’t an option; it’s the only way to get a job. On-campus recruiting looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet compared to the scrounging that is off-campus recruiting.

Action item: Just do it. Any networking is better than no networking. Pick someone you want to (re)connect with and contact them (via phone, if you’re feeling bold). Pick someone else the next week.

They network with the wrong people: When MBAs network, they tend to network with only those they think can help them. It’s only natural. You want to work in a particular industry so you network with people who are already in that industry. Even if you don’t actively seek out those in the same industry, you’ll be drawn to those who think like you and have similar interests.

But as Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap explain in a December 2005 Harvard Business Review article, the more diverse a network is, the more valuable it is:

Highly diverse network ties, therefore, can help you develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues. And when you trade information or skills with people whose experiences differ from your own, you provide one another with unique, exceptionally valuable resources.

So, while spending three hours talking with your local barista at Starbucks may not be the best use of time, investing a little time each day building a relationship with him so he knows your name and what you do is not a bad idea. You never know when his uncle’s successful company may be hiring.

Action item: Keep an open mind when it comes to networking. You never know when or how an opportunity will present itself.

They’re not approachable: MBAs don’t smile enough. My theory is some of them think they are too good to do it or that it makes them too vulnerable.

I go the other way. Smiling can break the ice in almost any situation. Even if I’m feeling nervous, just forcing myself to smile is enough to relax me. And it’s hard to be in a sour mood if you have a smile on your face.

That’s part of Scott Ginsberg’s strategy. He’s worn a nametag for 4,026 days and counting. His theory: it makes him more approachable. He’s turned this approachability into a brand and a business.

All else being equal, I want to spend time with someone who is positive, not negative. I’m not alone. Recent research shows that optimists have an easier time landing a job.

Action item: Open yourself up to others. Start by just smiling at those you pass at the grocery store or on the street and it’ll be easier to do it in a professional environment.

They lack a system: While MBAs usually are great at putting structure around problems to help solve them, many do a poor job creating structure around their networking.

Your network is an asset. Just like any other asset, it has to be managed. You have to evaluate it, adjust it, maintain it, and, if necessary, purge it on a regular basis.

There is no right system, but you should have a good way of organizing the people in your network, a plan for how often to contact them, and how you can help them. I use a combination of Excel worksheets, contact databases, Google Calendar, and Google Alerts to manage my network.

Action item: Test out a couple different ways to keep yourself organized. One easy way to start is by creating a list of people that you want to regularly stay in contact with and keeping track of the last time you interacted with them. Set a goal for how often you should stay in touch and see if you can achieve that.

If you have an MBA, hire MBAs, or, heck, even network with MBAs, let me know what you think.

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