Don't Throw Away Your Shot - Networking with Senior Professionals as an MBA

Congratulations to all of you who are going to MBA programs this fall. I want to focus on how to make the most of the experience, especially how to come out with a strong senior network that will serve you for the rest of your career.

Business school gives you a unique hunting license to talk to senior professionals. As @APAE said elsewhere, some of the most powerful words in professional life are "I'm a student..." The MBA provides a double dose of this since you've already had professional experience. The better your school the more instant credibility you have, but you can also make up for disadvantages on brand name by doing more research on your targets and signaling seriousness.

Most MBAs focus on networking among their classmates and enjoying the experience, and devote far too little attention to how to build a network with senior professionals that will last them the rest of the career. Are you really spending $250,000 plus opportunity cost just to go to wine club - use business school to build the network you want intentionally.

I was the first person from my firm to attend a top MBA program as opposed to the local regional school, and I did so during a very difficult time in the economy. I didn't expect to get into the program I got and I also knew the economy was radioactive and I wanted to career switch to buyside. I had already had a couple of near death professional experiences given the economic fallout. I knew getting a good job would be a knife fight in a phone booth.

Build Relationships before you step on campus

Before I even accepted my offer I called senior people in the field to talk about how to weigh my offer with the next best one and ask their advice. If you have two decent offers it's a good time to do a "victory lap" and build the relationship by asking their advice about your good predicament. One of the cardinal rules of networking is that all else equal people who have known you longer will be more helpful. This makes sense - there are a lot of people who make a fine first impression and then screw up down the line, and the longer you avoid doing this and come across as solid the more comfortable they will be with you.

The summer before business school is one of classic "break in the trail" moments where people relax, but you should think seriously about doing even a short, unpaid internship. People go to business school for many reasons but if yours is to get a better job or explore a different career, you need to get points on the board as soon as possible.

I offered to work for investors I admired for free. If you're a good investor you will make a stupid amount of money, and if you're a bad investor you'll probably churn out of the industry. How much is getting that expertise and training worth? How much are you already paying for your MBA? You see my point.

B-School Game Plan

I knew that the MBA was a once in a life time chance to super charge my network and when I got to campus I made a spreadsheet of professionals I wanted to meet and made sure to reach out to 5 of them a week.

Starting with an objective and working backwards. This is not just targeting very big names, who are often less likely to remember you, but also focusing on under the radar but high quality professionals who can help you. I met one of the guys who is in line to succeed Buffett long before he was famous because people kept referencing him as an investor they respected, and

Email Tactics: I typically emailed on Tuesdays or Saturdays when people were less busy, congratulated them on something they had done/something a mutual contact said about them, introduced myself very briefly, mentioned I'd be in their region, and proposed some times to meet when I was in their city. I spent a lot of money on travel, and actually costed it out on my spreadsheet - how much is it worth to meet this person.

I didn't go on spring break trips to Brazil - it would have been fun, but I needed to network and used my vacation times and Friday afternoons to meet professionals. I researched as much as I could on each person and what I could offer them that would be of interest. I took at least 45 minutes before each interaction to think about what I could offer. Often I wouldn't think of anything in advance but it helped me be more receptive and sometimes I had brainwaves on the call. I also prepped specific, individual questions that showed I had done the work. As I built my network I was able to make connections across the group, which unlocked additional value.

Sourcing More Contacts: I made a spreadsheet of investors I admired and wanted to meet, and then I also took the natural derivatives of that - who used to work for them, who did they say influenced them, etc. The point is not just to meet famous people but high quality professionals at different levels. For instance, there are a zillion people trying to meet Seth Klarman but many fewer trying to meet the number 3 person at Baupost. Do you think that person is a good investor? Do you want to be someone they know if they spin out? I always tried to ask who else they thought was doing interesting work - sometimes that resulted in introductions, but it at least added good people to target and then rinse and repeat and helped me map the segments of the industry I was focusing on.

Also you should open up the aperture to think about service providers, suppliers, customers. If you want to raise a fund in the future, does it make sense to meet LPs and placement agents now? If you want to work in distressed, should you build relationships good specialist bankruptcy lawyers? Do you think a good LP or bankruptcy lawyer has a good perspective on the ecosystem of funds they cover, who is good, who is not? And if you come across as serious, there is obvious value for them in the relationship.

Use the Platform and Build IP: Business schools themselves are platforms and there are lots of opportunities from conferences to suggesting people as class speakers to doing independent studies and case studies. People love to get their egos flattered by being asked to speak, being asked for advice, being seen as a role model. Put yourself in a position to offer that coverage. Do an independent study on areas you want to work on and use it as an opportunity to network.

While this is a longer topic, the better the IP you bring, the better your conversations will go. If you want to work in PE, is the conversation going to be more interesting if you can talk about companies that are good acquisitions for their companies? Will it go even better if you have gone to the library, used the very expensive resources there to do desk work, and then used your MBA hunting license to call around about the target company you're proposing? Instead of the conversation being about what you want it's now about what you bring (an investment idea). What the IP is in different industries will be different, but as someone who is now contacted by my share of MBAs, it's so rare to see someone bring real work to the table and it immediately makes the conversation about what you bring, not what's weird about your background. So the more unconventional you are, the better this works.

Actually Follow Up: Finally, you need to make sure you follow up. Do you know how few MBA students who ask to speak to me even follow up with a thank you, let alone bother to ever contact me again once their job search is over - I don't want to have a long call, but I do want the courtesy of you sending me an email update and offering to stay in touch. You want to signal that you're going to be a useful long term professional connection going forward, especially someone else invested some time. It doesn't matter if they don't reply - they noted it. How do you think it's going to feel on both sides if you want to contact them again and didn't tell them what you decided on or where you landed? As one of my friends said, business school is a great place to establish your reputation, so make it a good one.

Outcome

After a lot of work I was able to land an amazing role, and a few years later I launched my own business. The contacts among senior professionals I had built were the nucleus of my network and allowed me to execute both pivots in very difficult circumstances. I probably talked to about 200 people (about 2 per week) and probably have ongoing strong relationships with 50 of them many years later. These are all people who are very senior and accomplished, and they (and the people they introduced me to subsequently) are a very significant portion of the value I got from my degree.

I think a lot of people focus on the internal networking at business school when the external network is often even more powerful. This is a lot of work, but what did you come to business school to do? To get academic honors? To party? Or to advance your career? If the latter, targeted external networking is key. Not just around the job search, but with an eye to building the long term asset you want for the rest of your career. Your tactics will differ from mine based on your circumstances. I include mine only as an example - the most important thing is to devote the time, have a plan, and focus on creating value for yourself and the people you connect with creatively and over the long term. I wish all of you the best of luck.

Comments (27)

  • VP in PE - LBOs
May 6, 2020

Good lord that's a lot of text

    • 1
  • Intern in IB - Gen
May 6, 2020

And no formatting or subtitles

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Most Helpful
May 6, 2020

TLDR

Extreme TLDR: devote the time, have a plan, and focus on creating value for yourself and the people you connect with creatively and over the long term

Longer TLDR:
1. Don't spend 250K just to network inside the program, network outside as well;
2. Start networking before you get to campus;
3. If you already have decent offers, use them and ask the people the advice about them;
4. Don't procrastinate during summer before school, do an internship, even unpaid;
5. Use backward design to make your MBA plan for two years;
6. Email on Tuesdays and Saturday because people are less busy then;
7. Do a spreadsheet on how much it costs to meet each person and prioritize (if they aren't in your city);
8. Research as much as you can about the person you will meet;
9. Make a spreadsheet of investors you want to meet;
10. Research what you actually want to do after the MBA and network with right people who will be useful after you graduate;
11. Use your school's resources;
12. Don't ruin your reputation by bad follow-ups (one is usually enough).

    • 10
May 6, 2020

This was a great write up.

Definitely the network outside of the MBA, while you have the status of being a student and ability to access senior professionals, is more significant than the networking you can do within the MBA.

Not sure I agree that Tuesdays and Saturdays are best though. But I suppose this varies based on industry and seniority.

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May 7, 2020
OracleofBromaha:

Will it go even better if you have gone to the library, used the very expensive resources there to do desk work, and then used your MBA hunting license to call around about the target company you're proposing? Instead of the conversation being about what you want it's now about what you bring (an investment idea).

What is a MBA hunting license? This is just bad advice. Do you think executives at potential target companies want to talk to a student who is not actually affiliated with a fund?

May 7, 2020

Awesome write-up. As someone who is starting an MBA in the fall and trying to go from no relevant experience to PE investor, this is very helpful.

I've cold emailed 100+ professionals who went to my school and had some calls with 50+, and recently so many have told me to come to the call with an investment thesis. I built one out for the industry I know best, and shared it with one MD who invests in that sector. It was a brutal session with him really grilling me, but it felt more appreciated than my usual "tell me about your time in MBA", "tell me about your path to X firm and what you like about it".

Two questions I had: is it still useful to share an investment proposal even if they don't touch that sector? Second, what's the follow-up protocol? If I talk to someone in March and have committed to their alma mater already in February, I won't have an update likely for 6-12 months and don't want to spam them, but would still like to maintain the relationship. Just something I struggle with--always good at making the first contact, but struggle to maintain the connection. Thanks.

May 8, 2020

I will try to write more on IP to offer later but to answer your question: while proposals in someone's investing sweet spot are best, I think there can still be value in sharing something that is not in their sector.

  1. It shows how you think
  2. It shows you put in work
  3. (Some) people are genuinely curious outside their sector
  4. You are talking about something you are the (partial) expert on so that should show you in a good light
  5. You will sharpen your own investment judgment from their critiques

Just offer to talk about it, don't force it though. Same goes for your second question.

Maintaining relationships and building on things is always organic. I think quality matters more than quantity when people are evaluating you early in the relationship though, so I wouldn't force it. Updating them is good when the occasion arises - even if they don't reply, don't take it personal (they're busy - I've been there) and your courtesy keeps the door open.

Hopefully the first conversation gave them a sense of things they're interested in - follow up with things on those lines if you find something good (a good investment idea, a potential connection of genuine value, a really differentiated/obscure article). But understand you'll be judged on what you send through, so be thoughtful.

If you really want to build it in the interim, you can say you're traveling to their area for some other reason and offer to meet up face to face. If they're free, make the trip. It'll probably be semi-social, but it can help.

    • 4
May 8, 2020

This is phenomenal advice, thanks very much!

May 19, 2020

Would you care to share a few key takeaways from your discussion with the MDs? What new perspectives has he brought on your ideas?

May 19, 2020

Pretty specific to my investment thesis and individual firms I selected as investment opportunities. He just had particular questions that I hadn't really thought about before.

May 7, 2020

Mostly excellent advice, BUT...

Advocating not traveling on breaks and instead spending your time networking locally is... the worst business school advice I can think of.

You have decades to work and network after business school, and you have only once to be in your late 20's/early 30's with no expectation of any work or deliverables. No Blackberry, Good or conference calls to bother you, and for most people, no significant other or kids to worry about. It's your last shot at what is left of your youth to enjoy freely and without inhibition.

The pendulum might have swung too far in the other direction here. I would posit that networking internally is far more important than networking externally.

  • For one, these are people in your age range so you will benefit from the network throughout your career, versus for 5-10 years max if you're networking with a senior person
  • For another, it's a chance to make meaningful new friendships (not only acquaintances), which is helpful for most of us who grinded away with our heads down before business school at just 1-2 companies
  • Finally, it's an easy path to diversifying your network as your classmates will go on to be successful in a number of diverse industries, which over the very long run will enrich your life and career beyond focusing just on one niche. Particularly since most post-MBA roles will also involve putting your head down and being back in a bubble of some sort (finance, consulting, tech).

Both are indeed important and I completely agree that networking externally is an under-appreciated opportunity in business school.

EDIT: Other random MBA advice:

  • Stack all your classes in as few days as possible; try to build a consistent 3-4 day weekend. You can use e.g. every Friday to network with professionals at their office for coffee chats. This will save your vacation time for vacations
  • Actually go to major events the school puts on. Interested alumni and business professionals will come to you!
  • Befriend the BSD professors, especially those that are part time and work in industry / have been senior in the industry. Offer to TA for them, and keep in touch.
    • 5
May 9, 2020

I agree with most of this on the value of relationships internally and I also think the other MBA advice is excellent.

May 9, 2020

You & OP offer great ideas but this would be so psychopathic to outsiders. The idea of me doing an MBA in 5 years and peers (friends?) seeing conversations with me as networking bugs me out. maybe thats not helpful to anyone but i just wanted to say it

May 9, 2020

I understand - I found this stuff very uncomfortable as an undergrad. I slowly taught myself this stuff.

A few things helped:

  1. In my first job I started getting inbounds. Some were valuable to me, (others were unprofessional). Being on the other side of the table caused me to think about what behaviors were useful. There can be real value to the recipient from building relationships with potential hires (and getting to know them better/gradually) to the desire to give back. It was easier to ask when I had been on the receiving end and had a sense of what behavior/situations added value and what didn't.
  2. I thought hard about how I could add value in each interaction (see above).
  3. Being in a tough spot professionally forced me to confront this. I saw how people with good networks had opportunities I didn't/were treated better. Before business school a mentor told my weakest point professionally was my lack of network. Given how many other weak points I had at the time, that was saying something...
  4. I am very clear who my personal friends are (see below) vs who are professional contacts. Some people are both, but there are also plenty of people whom I have fruitful professional relationships with but who I wouldn't turn to about say, difficult family issues, and that's ok. I wouldn't invite most of my MBA classmates to my wedding but I respect most of them as professionals whom I could do business with in a competent and ethical way and that's valuable and ok. Maybe this merits a longer post.
  5. It's important to keep track of who you have a more real relationship and who is more transactional. There are people who are not close personal friends who were really there for me in some hard times professionally, and there are other people who only show up when it's going well. The latter are fine but you can't count on them, the former should really be cherished. In retrospect it is comforting to go through some tough times and see you can count on some people to value you as a (professional) person and not just for your position. Your position can disappear so you need an all weather network and that can only come from coming across as substantive to people who are ethical enough to remember it.
    (I would never count someone as a personal friend who abandoned me in hard times btw).

Adam Grant's "Give and Take" is a decent way to reframe some of this.

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May 7, 2020

Given the verbose length of this post, I thought Dr rAhma dikinmahas was secretly behind this

May 7, 2020

Wow, you sound like a lot of fun to network with.

If you need 100% concentration, resulting in missed trips because you're networking, you're doing it wrong.

Array

    • 1
May 9, 2020

Your best tactics will vary - I'm just offering what worked for me to help you think about it.

I agree that both the internal and external networking has value. The internal gets more valuable over the decades as people accomplish more, and you can have some very rich personal and professional convos with people who know you well and whom you trust from your class.

My experience after a number of years has been that there are ~12 people from my class who are close personal friends, whom I would invite to my wedding or who are trusted sounding boards on personal questions. There are several hundred people who would reply to me (or anyone else who came across as thoughtful and friendly in our class) within 48 hours on a professional matter and whom I would be happy to see at a reunion or event. There's not much in between, so based on my experience I recommend a barbell strategy. A lot of time with close friends who may move to Manila and be very hard to see later, and coming across as thoughtful with the rest. There's a second wave of friendships that developed later based on common locations/interests.

What you want out of b-school is very personal. Friends of mine who went to b-school with offers to return to Blackstone rightly cared less about external networking than I did as someone trying to break into a new industry with a weird background in a bad economy. They wisely took the vacations and cultivated the hobbies that would be harder to do on the grind to partner there. But it's important to choose priorities and have a strategy - many people don't.

I also think most great professionals love talking about their business so focusing on content is key to make it worthwile to both. I'll talk about that in another post.

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May 9, 2020

This is great advice for folks targeting PE but heavy overkill for people who want IB or MBB in my opinion. Our school literally told us to hold on making these intros until they give us the fundamental training in IB Club and Management Consulting Club.

May 9, 2020

Appreciate the post. Agree with most of it. Being on the other side of conversations with students, I like folks with original ideas, humility but also folks who can help me relive the experience with some fun stories.

May 11, 2020

While I don't disagree with the overall message of the post, I do echo concerns from a few of those above that approaching networking with such a strong systematic and outcomes mindset may not be the best approach.

One of my classmates in the MBA was like this. He treated every interaction as an opportunity to expand his network. As a result, he was incredible successful at building relationships with senior business leaders and the school administration loved him, featuring him on LinkedIn, interviews, promotional videos, etc. However, almost every other student disliked him, and he failed to form any close relationships with his classmates. I do not doubt that he will likely be a highly successful individual in the future, but personally, I felt that he may have missed out the real, deep connections you can develop in the MBA. He looked at it from a quantity not quality perspective.

If you have a specific goal or exit in mind, then by all means employ a more structured approach to networking. But to apply it across the board and be thinking about this for every interaction seems disingenuous and slimy.

May 11, 2020

I agree with this warning. Maybe my original post (which intended to break things down granularly) made it sound too mechanical. I think you should use part of your time in an MBA to connect with some senior folks. Hopefully that start allows you to build some of those into real, two way relationships over the years.

The MBA is a special chance to make some great personal friends and you should savor the time with them - it's a unique moment and then people scatter and get very busy.

You never want to be a jerk. The bad reputation will follow you forever and the professional world gets really small really fast. But also, professional consequences aside, for your own sake as a human being, you just don't want to do that.

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May 11, 2020
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Jun 5, 2020