April 12, 2017, by NUBS Postgraduate Careers
Is Your Network Working?
Great networking advice in this guest blog by Hildengard Allgaier (MBA 2012)
For the current generation of young professionals, careers no longer take a linear path. Unless you have been working for the same company since college, the chances are that you have swapped employers or consulting jobs or that you even began your own business. In each of these stages, whatever your destination, and no matter your background and interests, the success of your professional advancement will rely largely on your networking skills.
In particular, developing strong networking skills is vital to MBA students. These skills can open promising avenues of employment and training in your desired industry or company. As Lou Adler claimed in The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, an astonishing 85% of all jobs are filled as a consequence of networking activity. Studies of networking suggest that there is only one correct approach to the activity: if your efforts are not succeeding, then you must be performing them poorly. But in my 8 years of experience working in the private sector in Latin America, North America, and Europe, there is no universally valid networking method. Rather, everyone must craft his or her own individual style – one that takes advantage of the person’s individual strengths. In other words, there are many successful approaches to networking: to some people, it comes naturally; to others, it is an activity whose mastery requires reflection and practice.
But in all cases the aim is the same: to build meaningful relationships with prospective future employees or business partners working in concrete areas of mutual interest. That is, networking is about far more than just swapping contact details with strangers at a conference, sharing your LinkedIn profile (and hoping to get that extra endorsement), or mingling over free canapes and wine – the normal “networking” activity for many people.
To explore the elements of successful networking, I recently set myself a challenge: Ask senior executives from various backgrounds to identify the most effective networking techniques among students and job-seekers whom they encountered. I explored this question at two events, the conference on Shaping the Future through Positive Impact hosted by The Palladium Group, and a small meeting at Google Campus on Mind In Practice. Following are some of my key findings and insights from this experiment:
- Keep it simple
Sometimes, it is hard to initiate a meaningful discussion with a stranger whom you’ve just met. Possibly, it is difficult even to make out their name amid the buzz of conversation in the background! But keeping the conversation close to a topic or area that you mutually understand may improve your chances of finding common interests and quickly building a rapport with your new acquaintance – one that he or she will remember well after the encounter concludes. If in the first few minutes you realise that there are no stimulating topics to enliven your conversation, politely say: “It was good meeting you, I hope you have a good event” – and then, acting on a truth that you did not say (“But our interests do not match!”), move on to other, hopefully more interesting interlocutors.
- Be clear about what you want
“It’s the quality of the conversation that matters”, averred Ann Sherry, Executive Chairman of Carnival Australia. “I am interested in people when they come to me already knowing what they want and understand the trade-offs about working in the impact sector, especially at the very beginning.” Ann says that she usually meets students and career switchers who are sitting in the middle – that is, eager for change, but without being open to the sacrifices that it entails. “People need to understand what they are leaving behind and gaining,” she said. “So make a choice, be 100% sure about it, be open to take risks and all the other amazing opportunities will come along.”
- Brush up on your elevator pitch
Attitude is essential when seeking jobs in niche areas. “Our hiring managers are looking for pragmatic, action-oriented students who understand our business, and how they add value,” explained Jean-Philippe de Schrevel, a Managing Partner and Founder of Bamboo Finance who now leads the company’s business development. “We look for people who can clearly articulate where they’re coming from and why Bamboo would fit them next.” Considering that one-third of the current MBA cohort at Oxford’s Saïd Business School is interested in the impact space, and that half of this number is actively looking for jobs in impact investment/Private Equity, brushing up on your presentational skills and accessing the profile of the right people are fundamental to securing a job in this nascent and challenging field.
- Mingle with members of other tribes
While working at Thomson Reuters as a Strategy and Operations Manager, Simon Schmidt established a very valuable personal connection with someone in a religious gathering – a setting that was far removed from his ordinary professional environment. “I was invited for this event and realised that it was not exactly what I had in mind attending on a Friday night,” explained Simon, who also leads a successful expat community in London, Internations. “But I was able to meet someone who connected me to other people and we are still in touch. It is surprising how helpful it can be to get the personal-professional balance right” – or indeed in his particular case, wrong. In other words, be willing to stray outside the familiar work habitat in seeking out professional insights and opportunities, which may just as easily exist in unconventional private and social settings.
- Be genuine
“People can notice when you are chill and open,” says Sean Mulkerne, an executive at the Palladium Impact and Evaluation practice. “I usually like talking to people who don’t have a ready agenda and don’t take every conversation as a transaction, which puts me off! I prefer talking to people who are confident about their contributions and perspectives, are open to listen and have something to offer – but ‘sell’ themselves well, without being pushy.”
For many people, and certainly for most students, networking is not always simple. “Networking did not come easily for me,” confessed Ms. Jane Baptist, Deputy Head of Sustainability at The Crown Estate. She points out that while some people are natural at networking, this is sometimes because it is part of who they are. “I usually don’t go with a vision or a plan of whom I should meet at these events, it just happens!” explained Jane. But she offered solace to those who are not natural networkers in the form of a practical recommendation: “Networking starts feeling more natural once you attend more events and you will not feel that you need to be on top of everything that’s going on.”
In the end, while everyone has a network of personal and professional connections, mastering the art of networking in crucial moments of professional transition requires more than just polite “thank you” notes with an accompanying CV. The follow up must build on a common ground of mutual interests that was established in the first personal encounter. My small experiment in two recent conferences revealed that establishing such a connection entails empathy and activating other intelligence mechanisms to make people recognise and value your potential. If there is no synergy from either side in forging a connection, don’t push too hard – and certainly don’t overthink it. Listen to your instincts, take one step at the time, seek out interesting people in diverse settings, and enjoy that free wine.
Hildengard Allgaier is a Social Impact Careers Adviser at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and a consultant on social innovation. She has worked in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the private sector in the UK and Latin America. She helps to build multi-stakeholder alliances among universities, NGOs , multinational firms and think tanks. She holds an MBA in CSR from Nottingham University, where she sits on the Board of the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR).