Soapbox

May 21, 2012 12:02 am

Investment needed in networking education

Students are missing out on opportunities for professional and personal development that would span a lifetime

Today’s business school students are increasingly failing to grasp how to network effectively and the vital importance of building strong relationships with diverse classmates. As a result, they are missing out on opportunities for professional and personal development that would span a lifetime and not fully leveraging their investment of thousands of dollars on tuition, room and board and the opportunity cost of leaving the workforce for one to two years.

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MBA students do not make this mistake intentionally. In fact, most think they are effectively networking during their time on campus. Many students take the “social butterfly” approach – trying to meet superficially as many people as possible and then striving to win the LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends “competition”. But they are not taking the time to develop deeper relationships with these new contacts.

According to the 2011 Kelly Global Workforce Index, only 1 per cent of people in the US have secured a job through a social media site. Given the ubiquitous nature of social media in the US, this figure is likely to be much lower globally.

There have been endless debates about return on investment as it relates
to social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook. But when it comes to professional networking, social media is simply neither the best nor even an effective approach, and the quantity of one’s “friends” or “followers” does not translate to quality relationships or future career opportunities.

The best networkers rely on a softer skillset that emphasises the quality of connections and face-to-face interaction rather than quantity. They understand that the most effective networks rely on a “network effect”. You have 30-40 close contacts, each of whom also has 30-40 close contacts they would be happy to introduce to further your professional development. This is far more effective than having 100 superficial contacts.

Another roadblock to networking in MBA programmes is that we are all creatures of comfort and tend to gravitate toward others who are similar to us. However, to build a global network of classmates and future colleagues, it is crucial to move outside the comfort zone. Instead of seizing the unique opportunity that business school presents to get to know deeply diverse individuals from around the world, many MBA students build the deepest connections with students who are similar to themselves – individuals they might have met and developed relationships with even if they had never attended business school.

Business schools already go to great lengths to help students find the right career through career exploration and coaching. But without the proper networking strategies, students will not reach their full potential in their chosen careers. While business leaders and faculty staff are increasingly aware of the challenges of effective global networking, little research and few practical initiatives have been undertaken to address this issue. Even the best business schools mistakenly assume that their students are already competent networkers when they arrive on campus.

MBA programmes have a responsibility to complement hard skills with the soft skills that are required for effective networking and a lifetime of business leadership.

Business schools need to make an investment in networking education similar to the investment they make in career exploration and coaching. From day one, students need a networking primer so they will be less likely to lose out on the most valuable opportunities MBA programmes have to offer. This primer should be supplemented with seminars by external networking experts and frank discussions among students and faculty staff about effective networking strategies. Only then will business schools live up to their responsibilities to their students.

Shawn O’Connor is the founder and chief executive of Stratus Prep and Stratus Careers.

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