Networking is one of the top reasons people choose to get an MBA, but it also ends up being one of the hardest elements of it, especially while you're studying for hours on end and trying to enjoy your life. Our MBA program at UBC's Sauder School of Business does a great job of preparing us for networking events, but nothing can really prepare you for the amount of energy and confidence it takes to navigate a room with 100 new faces.
As a transplant in Vancouver, I knew that I had to take the networking opportunities seriously to connect with local companies and find my place in the workforce after the program. Here are some tips for how I approach networking during a very busy school year. I will preface this by saying that I'm naturally a more extroverted person. However, my suggestions are relevant to any personality type and can be modified to your own comfort level.
Set a goal
This goal may be to speak to a set number of new people or it may be to leave the networking event having scheduled a coffee meeting with a specific industry professional. I personally set a goal of getting two business cards at every networking event. If business cards aren't available, I ask them if I may connect on LinkedIn. Some have even offered to search for themselves on my phone to make sure I could find them. A very welcome gesture seeing as my hands are usually shaking by this point!
During the weeks that I don't have an event to attend, I make an effort to schedule one coffee chat each week. There were periods where this didn't happen, but I am always reaching out to people on LinkedIn and asking my existing contacts to reconnect.
Find good people
My most memorable networking experience was after a chaotic week of classes when I showed up to a Friday morning networking session exhausted and without doing ANY research on the featured companies.
Because I knew that any last-minute Googling on my phone would not sink in, I decided to approach a few tables and see what the people were like. I walked to some tables with less traffic and started asking the representatives how their morning was going and, sure enough, the conversation evolved into each team telling me all about their company and why I should consider applying one day.
Obviously, you'll want to do more research beforehand than I had in this scenario, but the thing I learned from the experience is that it's worthwhile doing an initial "culture test" when speaking to people you may be working with in the future, especially if you feel a bit overwhelmed in the program. Try to get a sense from each person of what their company is like and whether you'd enjoy working there.
Use the buddy system
Although it would be ideal to attend every networking event with my closest friends and classmates, it doesn't always happen. When it does, I take advantage of the comfort I find in their presence.
I normally share my personal networking goal with my friend at the start of the event and we then figure out how we can both walk away feeling accomplished. It can be tricky if your friend is extremely outgoing and you may not be a big talker, but if you communicate that you need support and what that look likes to you, I am sure your friend will do their best to be there for you.
I find it's easiest to approach another group of two, that way the conversation can be among the four of you or it can split off into two separate conversations and everyone wins.
Follow-up if it feels right
Usually it's best practice to follow-up with at least a short message thanking the person for their time and willingness to connect, especially after a one-on-one coffee meeting. However, I don't think pursuing every single connection you make is realistic. If your conversation ended without an offer to help you connect to others, you may not want to put too much energy into this relationship.
I recommend you pursue the people who show a genuine interest in helping you succeed. People might show their interest in different ways so be on the lookout. I once met a woman with an amazing background, role, and network who was about to retire, and my first thought was, "Oh, great. Now she will be out of here and I will have to find someone else to connect with." I was so wrong! This woman has single-handedly introduced me to most of my connections in Vancouver and is still willing to help me even after retiring.
BONUS: Offer to return the favor of service! This can seem awkward but even a quick line such as, "If there is ever anything that I can do for you, please let me know" could go a long way and help them remember you in a time of need.
Tell them what you want
This last tip applies to both in-person networking events and online connections. Be clear and don't hold back. Practice your pitch ahead of time so that when someone asks you what you're looking for, it doesn't sound like you just discovered that you're hoping to work in operations today.
Even if you don't know exactly what you want, find a way to share your interests with confidence. I usually lead with, "After working in law and consulting firms for a few years, I'm open to trying something new where I still get to work with people all day but hopefully in a new department, like marketing or business development."
On the flipside, if you know exactly what you want, say it! A few industry leaders have told me that it helps them serve me better if I know what I want.
In terms of online networking, use your 200 characters wisely. If the person is local, I ask to meet for coffee. If the person has a connection I want to meet, I say who it is and why I want to meet them. Everyone else has their own busy lives to attend to so make it easy for people to help you get connected. You may also get a faster response if you give a clear call to action.
Whether you use all of these tips or just a combination that works for you, I hope that you find your next networking event slightly less stressful knowing you're not alone. Networking is tough work and emotionally draining but it can teach you many useful skills to help you in the future. Good luck and happy networking!