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MBAs and the power of networking

Building and nurturing contacts is vital, says Helena Pozniak

Explaining to MBA students the importance of networking is like preaching to the converted – half the reason many of them are there is to rub shoulders with future business leaders. In fact networking, once colonised by sales professionals, has become a core activity so critical to success that business schools devote chunks of the curriculum to it, or even – in the case of Cass Business School in London – appoint a networking professor.

"Even the best business minds need to practise their learning in the field – the field of actually going out and making connections which happen away from the desk," says Julia Hobsbawm, who's working with Cass to develop a networking strand for MBA classes.

In doubt of why it's important? One MBA student reports chatting to a fellow skier as he strapped on his skis in the Swiss Alps – by the time he reached the bottom of the slopes, he had a job offer from a venture capitalist. Another student swears by upgrading to business class on flights – he estimates he recoups the cost of an upgrade at least three times on each journey by the contacts he makes.

Business school graduates – many too senior for corporate recruitment schemes – will inevitably turn to their networks for employment. In fact employers are recruiting ever more by referrals and networks – research shows more than 90 per cent of UK employers use social media to find staff. Well-networked individuals are highly employable – in fact they might soon become the most valued in the job market, says Hobsbawm.

Not everyone arrives at business school with the soft skills to charm. Careers services say they work with students sometimes to nurture humility, sometimes confidence. Schools such as London Business School (LBS) offer expert-led workshops on how to network effectively at recruitment events and much more. "Networking can be improved even for those without the natural inclination to do it," says Cana Witt, MBA careers advisor at Lancaster University Management School. "It's about positioning yourself to be at your most interesting and finding people who will be interesting to you."

Fundamentally, networking is a long game. Careers advisers stress the time it takes to nurture a solid network – at its most basic, a getting them "to know you, like you, then trust you" approach. This can't be rushed – allow at least six months. If you begin only when you start to job hunt or need help, your network will feel exploited.

Once you decide what you want to gain from networking – be it kudos, new opportunities, a job or industry knowledge – says Sonia Hendy-Isaac at Birmingham City University, you can be selective about the events you attend. An event peopled by more senior management for example might be better than one pitched at your own level if your purpose is job hunting, she explains.

What business schools do so well is to put students in front of powerful contacts. Henley's new music MBA for example has a steering committee which reads like a who's who of the UK and US music industry, whom students meet and network with. Ashridge recently hosted film-maker Lord Puttnam; Brunel Business School organises speed consulting sessions with invited corporates and Cranfield's careers team give one-to-one coaching on leveraging business links.

Schools encourage students to invite alumni for "coffee chats", attend industry specific events and capitalise on contacts through projects and internships. Andy Lopata, author of several books on networking, recommends consolidating a relationship after the first contact by getting in touch again within a day, then within the week, then the month. Once on the radar, the relationship can afford to coast a little.

But how do you do it? Shameless promotion is bad form, and indiscriminately repeating first names is transparent. One powerful way of reconnecting after the initial meeting is to send over links to news or items which might be interesting, says Lopata, or remember a birthday, even family details. Some students create spreadsheets of contacts, embellished with personal details to give common ground, complete with reminders to get in touch. Men and women may build relationships differently, Lopata notes. "Men are much more comfortable asking for help or requesting an introduction, but we sometimes forget to build the relationship first. Women tend to be much more interested in other people, but less focused on their own needs and more nervous about asking for help."

Inevitably, social media will play a huge part in network building, with Twitter and LinkedIn currently the most career-friendly. However, careers advisers recommend capping time spent online – it creates the illusion of being productive yet may prove ineffective if it's not backed up with face-to-face contact. "I wouldn't dream of putting someone forward for a job unless I'd met them in person, for instance," says Clare Astley from Cass' careers service.

Authenticity counts more than "trophy hunting" contacts. Striking a personal note can create the first bond. "Keep your presence professional but make everything else personal," says Hendy. Ultimately your best contacts will be those you actually like and it goes without saying that listening skills combined with natural curiosity are essential. But so is having something to say beyond your own pitch, say experts. LBS's head of careers Fiona Sandford is frequently shocked by how little students read up on current affairs. Google news is not enough, she urges. MBA cohorts – traditionally the cream of the intellectual crop – should have opinions on the big issues. "You need to show you are worthy and can bring something to the exchange," she says.

Face-to-face contact is vital. I wouldn't put someone forward for a job unless I'd met them in person

Case study: 'It's like a chain reaction'

Anna Plotkina, 32, completed an executive MBA at IE Business School in Spain and now works in logistics in Moscow.

"I have probably more than a thousand contacts in all and know people in pretty much every country. I took an MBA partly to build up and broaden my network – if you're in a good school, you do meet people who are valuable. I always try to build a relationship and offer help without thinking what I might get from it – this can help in the future. It's like a chain reaction. You become valuable as someone who helps make connections. Business school professors know a lot of people and will help you make contacts, and you get to know the people on your programme very well. I make a note of people's personal interests and get in touch regularly. Keep your eyes open and make yourself useful."