Here’s the gist - grab coffee with at least one pers….Never mind, scratch that. Our least favorite C-word will not let that happen for a while.
Still, there are things you can do to continue advancing your career, learn about interesting opportunities, and connect with others in your field. For those of you thinking of applying to business school, networking (even over the phone) can help you to determine what schools you want to apply to and gives you an opportunity to learn how an MBA can advance your career goals.
Here are a few ways to be a good virtual networker:
1. Update your LinkedIn
Millenials spend 10 hours a week on online dating platforms like Tinder and Bumble. That’s almost an hour and a half of swiping every day, five times more than what experts recommend.
Even if a tenth of that time is spent on optimizing your LinkedIn, it can do wonders for your networking ambitions. It’s the first thing people see when you reach out on LinkedIn or otherwise.
Insert short, pithy explanations of your responsibilities and don’t use needless buzzwords. Instead of using ‘accomplished’, ‘expert’, ‘innovative’, or the like, let your experiences do the talking.
That being said, don’t overdo it. People will skim your profile. They aren’t going to spend an hour reading about every single detail.
It’s also a good idea to use a professional portrait as your profile picture. Make sure you are smiling and look approachable in order to build trust.
And please, oh please, don’t talk about yourself in the third person.
2. Decide who you want to speak to
Networking does not do much good if you don’t speak to the right people. What are you hoping to get from this outreach? With the right networking strategy, you can learn more about specific MBA programs, talk about the ins and outs of the application process, and/or learn more about the career benefits of the degree.
If you want to learn more about MBA programs, then a good next step is to look at people who attended (or are currently attending) your top schools. See if you already know anyone on LinkedIn at those schools, or if someone from your undergraduate institution or current workplace attended those programs. These people will be the most likely to respond to your message and give you honest feedback.
You can also use networking as a way to learn about schools and niches you don’t have as much experience in. If you’ve always worked in finance but want to learn more about healthcare entrepreneurship, this can be a great opportunity to research alumni of your top schools and see who is working in that space. What advice do they have to share? How did an MBA help them accomplish their goals?
By talking to people who went through different MBA programs, you will be able to think about which school will best prepare you to accomplish your career goals and go into the application season armed with knowledge beyond what is on the admissions website.
3. Don’t be afraid to reach out to strangers
Unless you are approaching your neighbor’s untrained Rottweiler, strangers don’t bite.
Reach out to people outside your network. Your goal should be to speak with experts in your field of interest. It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. Reach out to them via LinkedIn, their work email addresses, or your alma mater’s alumni directory.
Make sure you start by introducing yourself well when you reach out. Tell them a little bit about why you are reaching out and make the ask very clear. The ask should be 15-20 minutes of their time for a quick call, not a job.
Although there is no set rule, good outreach notes are typically 150-200 words long. You are not trying to write a cover letter. After you’ve written your note, try reading your email out loud. It shouldn’t take more than two or three minutes to read and should be very skimmable.
Focus your networking efforts on what you want and not just who you already know or have access to. You will be surprised by how many strangers are willing to help.
4. Lower your expectations
As Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” And so it goes with networking.
A lot of times people won’t respond to your email. Sometimes even if they get on a call, they’ll be real jerks. Bad experiences are inevitable. Don’t let them hold you back.
People might be having a bad day. Or they might be neck-deep in making sure their teammates are safe in these crazy times. It’s also easy for a cold email to fall through the cracks.
What’s most important is that you don’t take a bad networking experience personally. Everyone has them and it’s not a reflection on you.
However, lowering expectations doesn’t mean that you stop being deliberate about your outreach. Change your email draft if you’ve reached out to 100 people, and nobody has responded. The average open rate for business emails hovers between 14% and 23%.
You want to lower your expectations of others, not of yourself.
5. Focus on video, not just audio
What you say matters but not as much you think. Non-verbal cues constitute 70% of what is involved in communication.
Video is not a remedy for asking bad questions. But it can help build trust. Whenever you can, try and schedule video chats. Of course, be polite, and be understanding when the other person refuses. After all, Zoom fatigue is real.
If you aren’t familiar with Zoom (or whichever video conferencing tool you use), try doing a few calls with friends just to get acquainted with the platform.
This will also help you figure out the optimum camera angle and lighting for calls. You don’t want it to seem like you’re spending quarantine in a cave or dungeon.
It’s always good to dress well during your call. Whether you only want to do that from the waist up is your call (no pun intended). This is not recommended, but for those with an adventurous streak, there’s a Zoom filter that makes it look like you’re wearing clothes (gasp!).
6. Do your research and be specific
You don’t need to do a PhD on the person you're speaking with but it’s very helpful to spend time learning about their background and organization (without being creepy).
If you are having to ask what their organization does, you haven’t done enough research. There is a reason why networking interviews aren’t a difficult skill to master. You are asking people to talk about their favorite topics - themselves. On average, 60% of people’s conversations are focused on talking about themselves. This number rises to 80% on social media platforms.
However, just getting people to talk about themselves is the wrong way to approach a networking interview. You want to learn about their business school career, career path, and maybe their current job. But the real win is being able to help them reflect on their own experiences in a different light.
For example, if someone graduated from business school during the 2007-08 crisis, it might be interesting to learn how looking for a job during such upheaval shaped them as a professional. Or is there something they know now that they wish they knew at the beginning of their careers? Such questions will usually spark a very interesting conversation. You can also ask people about things like what industry publications they read and blogs they follow.
7. Always focus on 'what’s in it for them'
You are asking someone to give you a part of their life that they’ll never get back. If possible, make it worthwhile for them.
There are many ways to do so. You can offer them introductions to people in your network. Or use your skills to help them. If you are a product manager, you can share your insights on their company’s new app. If your expertise is financial planning, you might be able to help a startup founder establish financial reporting processes.
You don’t need to spend days providing free labor. Even a tiny gesture goes a long way.
Unless it comes up organically, you don’t always need to do this when you are speaking with someone. You can also offer help via a follow-up email.
Finally, be aware of the context. Don't do this if you are a recent grad speaking with a seasoned executive in their 50's. There’s a high likelihood that you’ll come across as naive. If that’s the case, just offer your gratitude and thanks. Experienced professionals often like the fact that they were able to help someone who is just starting off.
It might not be possible to do this every time to speak with someone. However, it’s more about building a giving mindset. Wire yourself to become someone who always creates win-win situations.
8. Don’t forget to follow up
Strike while the iron is hot. Always, always, always follow up within 24 hours. It’ll reinforce a positive image of you in their mind.
Try to personalize as much as possible. Cite what you found interesting or learned during the conversation, and don’t use a generic template. You are trying to market yourself. Doesn’t it make sense to take an extra 15 minutes to present the best version possible?
This might be an exciting time to ask a follow-up question or outline the next steps. For example - “As promised, I’ll introduce you to my friends, Sally and Kim today. They work in your field, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy chatting with them.” Or, “Thank you for offering to connect me with your connection who also attended HBS with you. I would love to speak with them about their experiences.”
Don’t underestimate the power of a thank you note. A little bit of gratitude goes a long way.
9. It’s all about the reps
Repeat this process till deliberate effort put into networking becomes subconscious fluency.
Each networking call is just a window into another person’s world. It’s a stepping stone towards your larger life, business school, and career goals. Life is usually a series of small learnings that shape you as a person. Take each networking opportunity as a chance to learn.
Just keep at it. Step 1 through 8 will initially suck. Over time, they’ll get easier. With enough reps, you might even start to enjoy the process. Happy networking!