The art of casting a social net

It's no use having an MBA and an empty address book, says Midge Gillies
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For most MBAs, graduation marks the start of a job search that will make all those months of hard work and mounting debt worthwhile. According to one estimate, though, you are unlikely to find your dream job simply through an advert because at least 80 per cent of new positions are the result of networking.

For most MBAs, graduation marks the start of a job search that will make all those months of hard work and mounting debt worthwhile. According to one estimate, though, you are unlikely to find your dream job simply through an advert because at least 80 per cent of new positions are the result of networking.

Peter Dickinson freely admits that he is a network junkie and is convinced that networking is by far the most efficient way for an MBA graduate to find a job. When the company he worked for was badly hit by the foot-and-mouth disaster, he applied to 90 employment agencies. None could find him a job, but when he phoned his 100 closest contacts he was immediately given a lead that led to work.

"I wasn't at all embarrassed. I'm a natural networker," he says. Now he helps alumni from the Open University Business School, where he obtained his MBA, hone their networking skills and advises other manufacturing and digital groups of companies in the North-west of England. He believes that you don't have to be an extrovert to be a good networker and gives the example of a female colleague who uses a technique she calls "trolley-dollying". Although this involves the menial task of handing out coffee at meetings it gives her the perfect excuse to speak to whomever she wants and to escape from any bores.

The ability to "work" a room has always been an important managerial skill, but it is just as useful in securing a new job whether you're a recent MBA or an experienced CEO. Most business schools offer students workshops on networking as well as formal opportunities for their alumni to network within regional areas or different countries and industry sectors.

An increasingly global marketplace means that MBAs must be able to network in all sorts of situations - not just over a drink at their local chamber of commerce. London Business School's new "Dine your way into the best job" workshop offers MBAs advice on techniques such as holding a conversation with people on either side of, or opposite, you at dinner and how to choose the right cutlery.

Julia Marsh, associate director career services at London Business School, says the workshop is a direct result of the growing trend towards residential interviews. One company told her how a candidate was ruled out because he had kept senior directors waiting while he ordered a pudding. His action marked him out as insensitive and not a team player.

Networking also varies around the world. "Americans take to it like a duck to water," according to Sally Glover, career development manager at Cranfield School of Management. "In some cultures you have to have a deep friendship for networking to work, in the West that friendship can be quite superficial. That can be a new mindset for some MBAs to grasp, especially if they don't schmooze in their own culture."

Marc Smelik, head of Career Management Centre for Postgraduates at Leeds University Business School, adds that many MBAs don't realise that networking should be for life, not just when you want a job.

"The perception is still that it's sleazy - a bit like pyramid selling. That image needs to be dispelled. Everyone has to find their own level of comfort, whether it's networking by e-mail or telephone, but MBAs must understand that their actions or non-actions have results."

MBA programmes provide ideal opportunities for networking via job placements, company visits, research projects and mixing with alumni and fellow students. Most business schools run events to attract alumni back to school. The speaker can be anyone from a friar talking about "spiritual intelligence" to a novelist or management guru. In each case the goal is networking. Schools admit that they have no way of knowing whether these events lead to jobs, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that they do.

Tim Hattersley found the networking events organised by the Open University Business School invaluable when he decided to set up his own financial services consultancy after completing his MBA. Through the events he met two MBAs from Leeds University Business School who helped design his consultancy's website. He also picked up a lead that led to work for a national network of stockbrokers. "The advantage of networking with other MBAs is that you don't lack the confidence that they will deliver. Because they've studied for an MBA, you know they must be good at what they do," he says.

Peter Dickinson adds that alumni events can be a good way of teaching old dogs new networking tricks such as how effective networking should be about trading favours, rather than just the number of calls you make in a day. At some Open University alumni events, for example, alumni are asked to wear a badge stating what they need and what they can give in return. The exchange doesn't have to be work-related: Dickinson offered to help crew a boat in return for learning to become a skipper.

Perhaps the most powerful tool available to an MBA looking for a new job is the alumni network itself. London Business School, for example, has more than 22,000 alumni in more than 100 countries and 50 industries. Alumni can key into that network via a dedicated extranet, as well as picking up hints about the best way to approach a particular company, how to switch industries or the fact that a French company would think it odd if you didn't include a photo with your CV.

This sort of inside knowledge can make all the difference when you apply for a job. If you can find someone to recommend you for a position, all the better. But the days when an MBA was an instant meal ticket are long gone.

Recruitment expert Hamish Davidson reflects on years of dealing with job applicants

Hamish Davidson is chairman of Veredus Executive Resourcing. He has experience of recruiting across sectors but is particularly involved in senior-level public sector searches and is currently on a study sabbatical himself

What most people tend to do when they're job hunting is think: "What can someone else do for me?" That's daft. If you were a friend of mine or a contact and I wanted to switch sectors (which is the most common problem), I am hoping that you will say to one of your mates: "Look, trust me - if you meet him, you two will get on." Why would you put yourself out? You're only going to do it if you like me a lot or feel in my debt.

There's a little bit too much of MBAs thinking: "The world now owes me a job" - particularly because they've just paid out a lot of money to fund their MBA. They get too focused on what other people can do for them versus what they can do for their network.

The whole philosophy of how to approach networking is key. Most people put far too little effort into networking but most jobs come through networking. For the purpose of job hunting, networking is all about visibility and profile. If other people don't know about you in a positive way, why should they recommend you?

I always chat to people in coffee queues. Why assume that the security guard is useless for networking? Do you know who their son is? You need to get networking with the chiropodists and the dentists. Networking is about creating your own luck. If you stand there saying nothing, nothing will happen.

When people are looking for a job, they reinvent their network - just as they rewrite their CV - then they get a job and that's it. Then three years later they've got to get another job, so they've got to reinvent their job network again. How much easier if they'd been letting the network tick over. Also people don't feel put upon if the only time you call them is if you're looking for a job.

It's really important once you've established a network that you constantly tickle and cultivate it. If I was trying to network, I would use a phone call, a letter, an email, a postcard, a funny card and I always make a point of saying thank you. That makes you feel a little bit more special and helps to build up this rapport.

Personally, I've seen very few business schools who invest sufficiently in networking, other than US schools, which is strange because you'd think the more you can guarantee that your graduates will get a job the better for you. Alumni help and as the MBA population increases they will recruit more and more of their own ilk.

So many MBAs are determined to join a major blue-chip organisation, but you've only got one shot - if you blow it, you're down on a database as having blown it. It seems to me what a lot of MBAs have done in the past is to have rushed headlong into making an approach to an organisation before they've really sorted out the best way. Careful preparation, thinking about this stuff right from the outset is vital.

They'll be interested in how much you know about them and where you think you can contribute. The higher up in an organisation you can get someone saying, "I want this person interviewed", the better.

The other mistake MBAs make is they leave it too late. Doing an MBA gives you so many ways of networking and reasons to ring someone up. My main advice is start networking early and make it part of your everyday discipline.

'Will an MBA make me a better manager?'

*"An MBA equips managers with the power to think, decide and act efficiently and innovatively in an unpredictable global business environment - necessary attributes to succeed in a world of the BlackBerry [wireless system], 24/7 contact, long-distance teams and international enterprises."

Laura D Tyson, Dean, London Business School

*"Not automatically. You've got to equip an MBA with a set of skills which allows them to implement what they've learnt to add value to their organisation. We concentrate on personal development such as how you motivate people and identifying your own management styles. We suggest strategies on an ongoing basis because the idea that you come out of, for example, a 12-month MBA having resolved all those issues is patent nonsense."

John Glen, director of the full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management

*"When I was in charge of the MBA programme at the London Business School three decades ago, I used to say to those interviewing potential students 'choose those who don't need to come here'. What I meant was that there were important aspects of leadership and management that could never be taught in the classroom although they can grow and develop at work. If they had these personality characteristics then we could add some useful skills and knowledge which would benefit them greatly at the start of their next career. Without them, however, we would only be training consultants."

Charles Handy, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is 'The Elephant and the Flea'

*"An MBA in itself won't make anyone a better manager. You can't just select anyone randomly from an organisation, put them on an MBA programme and expect them to be ready and able to take on a senior managerial role at the end of it. The MBA provides students with a powerful experience to help them on their way: without the MBA, they might have become a better manager eventually, but the MBA allows them to become a better and more rounded manager quicker."

Professor Colin Eden, Director of the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business

*"It builds on what you bring to it. We look for a range of experience in participants and the ability to exploit subsequent opportunities. We look hard at the quality of students; we don't want just any old business experience. We're aiming for experience in managing people, and a budget, a sense of what they've achieved and the capacity to move on to greater things."

Professor Andrew Lock, Dean of Leeds University Business School