Networking is an essential and unavoidable part of business school life. In a fast-paced two years, you are placed in a community comprised of recruiters, school professors, administrative staff, and your fellow classmates. The success you have building relationships with these people will affect your life and career for years after receiving that business degree. A lot of MBAs are natural networkers and have no problem managing multiple phone calls with alumni each day; for others, the very thought of making small talk with strangers can cause panic attacks.
Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, you’ll be making new acquaintances by the dozens in business school, so it’s best to give the process some serious consideration (and practice) before diving in head-first and wasting the time of some poor alumni working in an industry you’re only vaguely interested in. The good news? Humans are natural networkers.
ARISTOTLE & ANATOMY AGREE ABOUT YOU
Humans are specially evolved for social interaction, and we’ve been aware of it for quite some time. Aristotle famously said that, “Man is by nature a social animal,” more than 2,300 years before social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn made it possible for us to build and maintain digital relationships with hundreds of millions of other humans around the world.
Modern science has also backed up Aristotle’s hunch. In research (reported in The Atlantic) into the evolutionary impetus for humans’ unusually large brains, anthropologists and neuroscientists have found a strong correlation between brain size and social activity. The neocortex, a large part of the outer section of the brain that contributes to conscious thought, social and emotional processing, language, and memory, is also especially large in humans — a sign of the significant evolutionary advantages of social interaction. In short, we’re wired to connect with other humans. Biologically, humans alone have the abilities needed to conduct complex intra-species communication. And social connection actually has a positive physical impact on our bodies: it boosts our immune system and reduces anxiety and depression. So consider this: you’re a social animal, even if you don’t quite believe it yourself.
SENDING THE RIGHT WORDS
Despite our biological predispositions, a lot of people still hate networking. According to research from professors at Kellogg, HBS, and Rotman, the very thought of networking purely for personal gain can make people feel unclean. But the same research discovered that greater career advancement was correlated with more positive attitudes toward networking — a fact that would surprise few MBA grads. Another way to interpret the study’s results: People who feel better about networking are more successful at it, and thus advance more quickly through their organizations.
Our big human brains don’t just mean that we’re able to effectively communicate our own thoughts; they also make us quite adept at interpreting the thoughts of others. That includes not just language processing, but detailed and surprisingly accurate interpretations of body language and tone of voice. There is considerable debate about how significantly each of these factors affect communication, but any alum who has fielded a robotic networking call from a disinterested student can attest that it’s fairly easy to tell when you’re “not that into it.”
This explains why the most successful networkers are those who enjoy doing it, and why those who cringe at the thought are at a big disadvantage. Even on a phone call, it’s easy to identify emotions ranging from anxiety to excitement to curiosity to disinterest, and good networkers send many more positive signals than negative ones. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to use your own brain’s structure and signaling mechanisms to overcome your natural aversion to networking:
- Smile: This might seem like cosmetic or sentimental advice, but there’s a good biological reason for slapping a smile on your face, even during a phone call. The physical act of smiling has been shown to send positive signals to our brain, generating a feedback loop in which intentionally putting a smile on your face can generate positive emotions and, in turn, send better signals to the person you’re speaking with.
- Use Their Name: MRI scans of individuals hearing their own names among a list of other names show that their brains light up in a unique way at the sound of their own name. These scans confirm what a lot of us already know: using a person’s name in conversation can keep them more engaged and more positive about the interaction long after your conversation is over.
- Stick to a story: When talking about yourself, rather than trying to fit in as many bullet points as possible, try to create a narrative to share. Research into short- and long-term memory has demonstrated that humans are far more capable of retaining information shared in story form than they are of retaining other information. Come up with a short version and longer version of your “story” and refine it with the help of career advisers and classmates.
THE DATING ANALOGY
If all of this is starting to sound like a romantic self-help book, there’s a good reason for that: MBA recruiting is, at times, eerily similar to dating. You interact with lots of potential matches (often at bars); it’s a crowded and competitive market; you try your best to appear charming and competent at all times; and one or both parties can lose interest without warning, though ideally you end up in a happy, healthy, productive relationship that lasts for many years.
We’ve written about this before — see What Tinder Can Teach You About MBA Recruiting — but the analogy is especially useful in the context of networking. For one thing, there’s a reason people don’t often go on blind dates anymore, and you shouldn’t step into a networking interaction without at least reviewing a LinkedIn profile first. And just like going on a date with someone you’re not interested in, asking someone to chat for half an hour about a job you don’t want is both inconsiderate and counterproductive. As always, your best bet in building relationships is putting your best foot forward while never misrepresenting your interest or your intentions.
NETWORKING SHOULD BE A TOOL, NOT A CHORE
There is, of course, a pragmatic reason to build relationships with recruiters, alumni, and current students across a range of industries and professional capacities. You have a far better chance of being invited for an interview — and being prepared for that interview — if you have advocates within your target organizations promoting you and helping you through the process. In fact, a lack of advocates or an unenthusiastic endorsement can be a dealbreaker for many employers. Networking is, in other words, a critical aspect of building your recruiting brand, and can be an especially effective way of differentiating yourself in a very competitive hiring market.
But networking is also about exploration: figuring out where you might actually want to work, what the job is actually like, and whether the people are actually the sort with whom you’d enjoy spending 50-100 hours a week. In that sense, an awkward or even disastrous networking call is a valuable data point — and a potential sign of bad cultural fit — and it can help you narrow your focus to firms where you feel more of a connection with future colleagues. It’s always important to realize that with regards to companies hiring MBAs, there are lots and lots of fish in the sea — as Poets & Quants has reported for the last few years running.
Understanding that networking is a two-way street can help to inform the structure of all of those networking conversations and give your outreach a sense of purpose. Entering the networking process with a tangible goal of evaluating your fit with a certain company, team, or role – rather than doing it to check an item off your recruiting checklist — can make the whole process more productive, more informative, and more enjoyable.