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When Chris Caldwell embarked on the EMBA programme at London Business School, he hoped to advance his career in corporate finance. As it turned out, it marked the end of the line in banking for him. Soon after finishing the course, he quit his job and is now in the process of setting up a business in cardiac diagnostics, despite having no experience in healthcare.
He puts the career switch down to networking. It was after meeting and working on a project with Gawun Chung, a doctor on the course, that the two decided to go into business together. “This is leftfield for me,” says Caldwell. “I had no plans to set up a business. But the people I met on the course opened my eyes and made me realise there was more to life than finance.”
Caldwell is one of many who has gained more from their EMBA than academic teaching. Often, the appeal of such programmes is the high-level networking opportunities.
Christophe Servais, a marketing director at Cisco, the maker of computer-networking equipment, in France, says that this was one of his key goals when he embarked upon the EMBA at HEC Paris. “I am a trained engineer and had moved into the marketing side, and as my career progressed I was starting to interact with people who were at a very senior level. I realised that in order to progress I needed to develop my networking skills.”
Fiona Sandford, the director of London Business School’s career services, says this is a key element of the EMBA programme. “One of the first things we say to people when they start is that their networks are in the room – we do an introductory exercise to show them the power of students. We say, ‘you know that job you’re desperate to get out of, someone in the room is desperate to get into it’.”
LBS invites alumni not only to meet the current EMBA students, but also to network across classes in London and Dubai, using web-based learning. “We try to make networking less scary – if you’re not an extrovert, [it] can be overpowering,” adds Sandford. “We tell them that offering to help other people can pay huge dividends.”
Pierre Dussauge, EMBA academic director at HEC, says the school also tries to encourage participants to network within their company. “On one part of the programme we asked them to look at a problem and find people within an organisation to help. They find that in doing so they have broadened their list of contacts. Generally with networking you need a good reason to talk to them – you can’t just phone them. The assignment gives them a good reason.”
Business schools are focusing on networking more and more, says Sandford. “Increasingly, there is a huge number of jobs that are never advertised. If you are looking for a niche job, in particular, then you need to network. Moreover, if candidates have been referred through their networks, it boosts their chances.”
If an EMBA candidate came to an interview at HEC, says Prof Dussauge, “and said the content is just hot air and the real reason they were applying was to broaden their contacts, then we would reject them. But we recognise students are there for more than just the academic work. It counts better in your favour, however, if you show that you have many contacts that are useful too. We like to emphasise that networking isn’t just one way.”
Alexander Adell, who is midway through his EMBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has found the networks “surprisingly accessible”. The video game producer was “sceptical that I would find many connections in the entertainment industry, but within six months of starting the programme I connected with an alumnus involved in video game venture capital”.
He says EMBAs are appealing for their industry connections. “In regular full-time MBA programmes, students are generally at an early stage in their careers, with few connections. Wharton’s executive MBA, however, requires that students have 10 years of experience in their field, so each of my 90 classmates brings a deep network of their own to the programme.” He cites an extra-curricular trip to China, “where, purely through student connections, we got to meet with the principals of over a dozen top firms and government agencies in Beijing and Shanghai – truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.
Olivier Ferhat, a sales director at IBM, the computer group, who is about to move to a smaller information technology company, says until recently his career focus had not included networking. “I’ve worked in sales for a number of years and wanted to expand my responsibilities. When you have had sales director on your CV for a long time, you find only sales director jobs. I wanted to widen my area of knowledge so I could apply for managing positions. I knew that the academic component [at HEC] – supply chain, finance, etc – would be helpful, of course, but also the networks.
“I chatted to a headhunter recently, who confirmed what I already assumed. They said that they only ever see 20 per cent of high-level jobs. The rest – 80 per cent – come through networks.”
Long term, he would like to return to his birthplace, Algeria, to set up a business incubator. He worked on plans for this during his EMBA. The networks have been very helpful in developing the idea, he says. “You have a vision, you don’t know where you’ll go, but if you communicate it, I find people want to help. Through the EMBA I met very high-level people who put me into contact with others. It brought me to the ministry level in Algeria very quickly.”
For Servais, the value of the networks has been more esoteric than he anticipated. After graduating, he has kept up with a small group, including a senior manager at a multinational and another executive at a pharmaceutical group, who meet socially. “It can be very difficult to navigate a corporate organisation. We meet for lunch and discuss situations that we are having problems with. Their perspective helps navigate complex situations. They are detached from the problem. We all have different angles but try to find a common solution. This is one of the benefits beyond academic knowledge.”
Get yourself connected
It’s not all about you. Offering to help other people can pay dividends in the future.
Be open-minded. People from different disciplines may offer new perspectives and contacts.
Understand the power of networking. Most positions are not advertised, so referrals are key in today’s competitive job market.