The Paradox of Networking Among MBA’s

career, experience, jobs, leadership, mba, money, salary, unemployment0 comments

Conventional wisdom dictates that the way to succeed in business is in large part due to your ability to network with other people. Those really good jobs usually go to people who were referred to a company by a contact, and though applying through job boards and sending resumes to HR is still effective, most networked job applicants bypass the piles of competition when an insider can vouch for them. If they ultimately are selected for a job, many can then also negotiate for more than was promised to the masses (or at least have a better view into what’s possible), due to their initial connection.

In business school as in alumni groups, networking is a great way to get advice, make friends, learn about new career paths and even get access to new employers through a more familiar route than pitching resumes. But is the value proposition for networking among MBA’s for jobs really that strong, or is it just perceived to be? Could it be that MBA’s network because that’s the thing to do in business, but when it comes to really helping each other out and going that extra mile for a classmate, they may be less inclined to do so, than the average non-MBA job seeker?

When you think about doctors for instance, they specialize pretty quickly in their career after receiving their MD degree. And not like we specialize with double or triple majors to cover all bases (e.g. “concentrating in finance, with a minor in marketing and extra coursework in management so I can do anything a top paying employer needs me to do right after I graduate). No, their specialization is such that despite having the same degree, most cannot do another classmate’s job, no matter how well they interview. A gastroenterologist can’t network with a cardiologist and then get his help in landing a job doing heart surgery because he’s having trouble getting a job in his own field. Sure, the cardiologist can refer people to the GI and that’s where networking does work – in terms of customers, clients, suppliers, etc.

But for MBA’s, (and for networking specifically for help getting in the door at an established company), unless you’ve been working in one field for 10 years or so, most seem to feel deep down inside that if they wanted to, they could do their friend’s job pretty well. It’s partly the phenomenon of business: MBA’s go to school to learn something that for many others can be learned through simple hustling, hard knocks and pounding the pavement. And when they finish, they are armed with some solid awareness of theoretical best practices in a certain field like marketing or finance, but they also know that they can’t really prove they are experts in it until they make some money doing it.

So since the concentration in training doesn’t actually promise the job (and it’s very common for finance majors to apply to consulting firms and management majors to apply to investment banks), many realize that pigeonholing yourself to a field is almost counterproductive when it comes to competing for jobs, particularly when much of that competition comes from people that never had to major in anything anyway.

And this creates the paradox of networking among MBA’s. The great inability for many MBA’s to get jobs nowadays purely on the merits of having an MBA, along with the low differentiability of expertise among classmates based on the lack of true specialization of knowledge in the MBA programs, makes networking another activity beset with competition and rivalry rather than one with true, authentic support for one another.

An example of the above is when you might be down on your luck and need help getting a job in finance, but nobody is calling you back and you’re out of ideas. So you call a fellow alum who is about your age (this phenomenon rings less true when networking with older generation alumni). She is a marketing manager at the company you have your sights set on and you conduct the typical networking conversation.

Now, there are a million reasons why she may or may not help you. But it’s not unlikely that if she doesn’t help, it could be because she feels threatened that you might end up taking her job if she helps you now. Remember, she is aware that you can do that, since you have an MBA like her and believe you can do her job because hey, you had the same marketing classes, and it’s not really rocket science, is it? In addition, she knows that her company’s perception of MBA’s is also that they can really do anything, after all they went to (insert Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, etc. here).

But can you blame her for being apprehensive? Can you be sure that if you happened to be asked to interview for a different position than you intended – say, marketing – that you would say no, simply out of respect for your contact? True you may be convinced you don’t want to work in that field; but you also need a job. And nowadays, very rarely do we see unemployed graduates with loans to pay who are so righteous about their career path. Utimately she may begin to stop returning your calls and there goes the value you thought you would receive from networking with a fellow MBA.

Of course, let me be the first to say I am committing a major generalization here about MBA’s and situations related to networking in the job search. But it’s an observation worth making, based on what heard through several clients, and it may be helpful to prompt discussion on ways to make networking more genuine than it often is.

For many, I am being naïve about the true purpose of networking; for others, I sound a bit Machiavellian, casting doubt on friendships and acquaintances that probably have indeed achieved quid-pro-quos leaving both people fulfilled and trusting of each other. I do hope I have made a gross overgeneralization about this phenomenon as, after all, I am an MBA holder myself.

But isn’t it also naive to believe that networking is so critical to success, when the reality is most people are looking out for themselves? It would then seem almost careless to express your intentions to those working at the company you are targeting, when they may find it necessary to thwart your search out of their own self-interest.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your take on this so please take a minute to comment. Have you found that networking with other classmates has ended up differently than you desired, or better than you expected? Is it better to connect with people who you know would not be potential competition – such as recruiters or non-MBA’s who are automatically out of the running for the potential position of interest?

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