One of the first things you are likely to hear when starting an MBA course (or even before) is how important networking is, both for you future careers prospects and your experience in general. But whilst some take to this like a duck to water, others find it more intimidating to put themselves out there. Whilst business schools organise events throughout the year for students to network face to face, there’s no denying that anyone wanting to build their network will also need to ‘cold call’ people on LinkedIn, sending messages to introduce themselves to alumni or others they wish to build relationships with.
And whilst those of us who have completed an MBA are very familiar with the student side of the story, what about those on the receiving end of cold introduction messages? What do they think about these approaches? What do people love and hate to see in these type of messages? And how can you make sure you present yourself in the most positive light?
We spoke to a selection of senior leaders from both within and outside of the MBA community to find out!
One of the key themes which quickly emerged as we spoke to people was the importance of context and clarity in a cold approach. A Director with an American MNC explained that
‘Making a compelling case as to why my background and skillset are relevant to their career search’
is a must, and that a ‘well researched story of why a relationship makes sense’ is key to starting off on the right foot. This was echoed by a senior member of staff at US AID and the US Peace Corps, who emphasised the importance of keeping the subject line and text clear and concise. After all, as those of us who spend time chasing down senior stakeholders on projects know, if someone is busy and it’s hard to work out what you want from them, they are far less likely to respond. It also shows that you are serious about building a relationship as opposed to just looking to do some ‘quick fix’ networking. A CEO and founder of a start-up in the fashion tech space explained that when she receives generic ‘I’m looking to expand my network’ messages, she often feels as though the sender has made little effort and is instead looking to piggy back on her connections in a space where years of extensive networking is both an essential part of success and extremely time consuming.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
It’s clear that doing your research is one of the best ways to show that you are serious about wanting to build a genuine relationship with someone. A VP of retail operations in Singapore explained that demonstrating that you have done some research on her company and industry is vital for getting a response to your message. MBA students might want to consider reaching out with a specific reference to recent events or news at a prospect’s firm, or with a personalised reference to their career path or skills to date. This research of course takes time, but this also allows you to demonstrate to your contacts that you are not simply mass-mailing people and are putting in the time and effort to contact those you feel you have a genuine connection with. The Director of American Fashion MNC also suggests targeting those you have something in common with, whether that’s the school you went to, an organisation you have both worked for, or having professional connections in common.
But what if you can’t find this common ground with a cold connection? It’s true that it can be something of a vicious circle, it’s hard to demonstrate context in a 300 character message. How do you get beyond this without being able to speak to the person and what are the realistic prospects of getting a response? Both the Director and Senior US AID staffer mentioned that the effectiveness of cold messages can, in practice, be limited. The latter recommended that wherever possible, getting an introduction through a mutual acquaintance or educational establishment is a more reliable way to get a response. You can also improve your response rate by ensuring that you stick to business etiquette, even whilst keeping things brief. Our VP in Singapore stated that she doesn’t reply to messages which fail to observe this.
Once you do make contact with someone you are looking to speak to, there’s also the question to consider of, "What happens next?". How do you go about staying in contact and building a strong relationship with mutual benefit? The CEO/Founder mentioned that sharing quality information about your mutual industry or interests is always well received, whilst the American Director recommended a lighter touch, sending relevant updates or letting them know where you’ve ended up position wise. The US Aid staffer meanwhile was shared that he sees being a mentor as a key responsibility of having a senior role and would welcome staying in touch with someone once he has built a successful connection. This should be heartening news for MBAs that whilst the initial cold connection stage may be challenging, at least maintaining that relationship starts to get a little easier once you make it through the door.
Whilst cold networking on Linkedin may not come easily to everyone, there is comfort in knowing that a well-crafted and targeted message can enable you to make a connection. With senior leaders having significant demands on their time you may not get a response to each and every Linkedin invitation you send, but if you put in the effort with those connections you do build you will be all the better for it.