Can Networking Be Positive?
March 20, 2014
True confession: before coming to business school, I didn’t really know what networking was. Okay, I had some understanding that it was about building and maintaining professional relationships, but I had no clue how intense and important it was in the life of an MBA. (If you happen to be one of the recruiters or students I “networked” with in September of 2012, this would explain my deer-in-the headlights look most of the time. Apologies.)
To be honest, I never really worried about networking because I consider myself to be a personable, socially adept person who enjoys meeting new people. But, when I started attending events with companies on campus, I left the conversations feeling completely drained of energy, and I began to dread the “coffee chats,” the post corporate presentation “circles of death” (not just being dramatic here – this is a real business school term), the receptions, etc… They exhausted me. If networking is supposed to be about meeting people and learning about opportunities (both positive things), then why is it usually so miserable at business school?
If I dig deeper and reflect on why these networking opportunities were so draining, I can come up with many potential reasons. Yes – I am a Myers-Briggs diagnosed introvert. And yes, these networking sessions, while they don’t say it outright, are evaluative and competitive. But, at the end of the day I don’t believe either of these is the primary reason for why I dreaded these conversations so much. So, the question I’ve tossed around in my mind and to friends recently is: can networking in b-school be positive? And if so, how?
Networking is really just another word for making connections, and as I’ve learned through my involvement with the Center, High Quality Connections (HQC) are one of the core pillars of POS. Ross Professor Jane Dutton’s research has taught me that three signature features define a connection as high quality: felt vitality and energy, positive regard, and felt mutuality.
I can say that generally speaking I felt none of these signature features during networking events at Ross. Each coffee chat I went to felt like my own personal version of the movie Groundhog Day, with the same exact conversation of generic questions. Why do you want to go into X industry? Why did you do [insert bullet from resume here]? Why are you interested in this position? The conversations felt superficial, forced – as if some sort of internal robot took over for the 20-minute conversation and we were both in auto-drive.
There are of course exceptions to this, which is why I do believe that we could make these interactions more than just tolerable, and actually positive. I can think of one specific corporate representative in fact who I really connected with because I could feel that she actively listened with interest to my experiences and gave me genuine feedback/advice tailored for my background. Being a teacher with a non-traditional background, she asked me about my experience transitioning into the world of business school and gave me advice for how to translate my experiences into language that recruiters could connect with. She shared with me some of her own difficulties during recruiting and this made me feel at ease.
Prof. Dutton’s research identifies four pathways that we can follow to ensure that the connections we make are high quality: respectful engagement (engaging in a way that displays a message of value and worth), task-enabling (helping/facilitating another person’s success), play (participating in an activity where the goal is to have fun) and trusting (letting the other person believe they will meet expectations). As I now apply this to the experience I had with this positive corporate representative, I can see that she exemplified both respectful engagement by asking about my non-traditional experience and sharing her own experience to better connect with me, as well as task-enabling by giving me friendly advice about how I could be more successful in communicating my experience. I walked away from that conversation feeling energized and more confident.
I’ve talked with numerous friends recently who’ve agreed with me that networking at business school is energy draining and at times miserable. But, there are ways we can make it better by applying the pathways to building High Quality Connections. I already mentioned how task-enabling and respectful engagement led to a positive outcome for me during one coffee chat. There are other ways too. I asked a friend recently about his most positive networking conversation and he told me that he really connected with recruiters when the company organized a social activity for students interested in the company. He said by getting out of the formal setting and relaxing over more natural conversation he was able to better connect. This is a perfect example of the play pathway to building high quality connections.
As recent graduates entering the workforce, it is likely that many of us will end up back on campus to conduct the very same coffee chats, corporate presentations and other receptions that induce panic and misery in MBA students. I would suggest to those of us who plan to come back to consider these principles of High Quality Connections and be advocates for positive networking. The result will be an improved well-being for all of us.
 The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a test that identifies 16 different personality types based on your personal preferences. For more information, see http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/.