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 succeedlong 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.
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.