Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Importance of Networking

Published By: The Independent - 12 Jun 2008

“Tell me what company you keep and I'll tell you what you are.” Anyone considering embarking on an MBA would do well to heed the wisdom of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.

Because your course will not only give you a qualification but also the possibility of networks for life. From the immediate company of classmates, through alumni bodies, to webs of contacts and colleagues, being an MBA will catapult you into a whole new world of people and possibilities.

And this will not be only through your immediate business school or chosen job. Go to the right place to do your MBA and you will be eligible to join the select 70,000 registered MBA students and alumni who can plug into the ten thousand annual worldwide job opportunities offered by Global Workplace.

Or, if you are the sort of person whose vision is wider than your own small self, you can join the vibrant and rapidly-growing US-based Net Impact, which has just held its first successful conference in Europe. This burgeoning network. open to MBAs, business graduates and professionals, brings together 10,000 young business leaders from 90 countries who want not only to do well in the world, but also to do good. Members meet like-minded people, learn more about current issues, and can offer their own skills to worthwhile causes.

“We have a total of six chapters in the UK,” says Krista Van Tassel, marketing and communications director, “and London is one of our biggest growth areas. We are seeing a real upsurge there. The ideas of corporate social responsibility and environmental awareness are really taking hold, and people like meeting people who share their passion.”

They also like the access to the same kind of job opportunities and partnership possibilities which crop up regularly in standard alumni associations - although not often in as rarefied a form as the extraordinary hook-up that happened in Orlando, Florida, this year, when entrepreneur Harold Mills managed to draw on the services of three fellow black Harvard MBAs to set up a new high tech staffing supply company. This desite the fact, as he points out, “there are fewer than a dozen Harvard MBAs of any race in this city.”

Networks, says Peter Fennah, the director of the career development service at Cranfield School of Management, are especially vital when recession looms. “They can be a lifeboat if you need to be pulled out of the icy waters, or it might be that you've managed to get enough critical mass in your career to be able to pull someone else out.”

Cranfield is renowned for the efforts it makes to bring students and alumni together, and claims to be the best business school in the world for keeping people's contact details up to date.

But the real art, says Fennah, is not finding networks, but using them, and Cranfield specialises in teaching students exactly how to do this.

This includes getting them to understand cultural differences, know what they are looking for, learn how to ask for help, know when to move on, and learn how to follow up a useful encounter. The school also employs four occupational psychologists who help students to unblock fears and find their confidence.

“And we even do a six degrees of separation exercise, to show them the power of networking, ” says Fennah. “We tried it once with Saddam Hussein, and someone in the group had once dated his neice, so by extrapolation we presumed we could have got to him through a couple more steps.”

The very top business schools are famous for their little books - or databases -- which give alumni access to key movers and shakers across the world, and newer schools are keen to emulate them. When Richard Gillingwater, the new dean of Cass Business School, in London, took up his position last year he declared that boosting alumni networks would be a priority - he knew how useful his own network from IMD, in Switzerland, had turned out to be.

Even distance learning students can stay well plugged in after they have finished. The Open University's Business School has 45,000 alumnae worldwide, and is the biggest network for MBAs outside the United States. It is now actively developing its website to include special interest groups and forums, and members are also taking it in imaginative new directions. Recently some of them organised a twinning event in Dublin, where Irish and German MBAs got together.

But of course all this comes with a very big price. If MBAs are looking to networks for jobs, contacts and maybe a social life, then business schools are in it for the money. And if British schools start to move even slightly in the direction of their American counterparts -- which they would all dearly love to do -- they will soon be tapping their alumni for much bigger amounts of it than they have done in the past.

CASE STUDY

Mirjam Schokker, 38, has reaped the full rewards of what she terms “intense networking”. She has found new friends, colleagues, a husband and a change of career.

She left a 17-year career in hotel management to do a full-time MBA at Ashridge Business School, determined to get all she could out of it. “I wanted to meet people who were nothing to do with hotels, and put myself out of my comfort zone. It was a very intense 11 months. I shared a house with three others and our house became the real centre of things. Ashridge does a lot of executive education, so I would even go down and look at the board, and see who was in that day, and then think about who it would be useful for me to meet.”

One of the people she met was Peter McSweeney, a classmate and now her husband. Another was someone who told her about his brother-in-law's charity in The Netherlands…Mirjam is now the director of development strategies for this charity, Maaszicht, which works the homeless.

Since graduating 18 months ago, she has stayed in close touch with classmates - 20 out of 27 came to her wedding in Rotterdam - is the Benelux coordinator for the alumni network, and is also on the board of Ashridge. She has no doubt she has built a network that will last her for life.