For Alex Cavallini, the financial crisis hit home as he was preparing to begin a job with Cummins Inc. (CMI) Less than 24 hours before he was set to fly out to his new office, the diesel engine manufacturer rescinded his offer, leaving the recent graduate jobless—even though just a few months before he had his pick of offers from two companies. "I felt like I was losing two jobs at once," he says.
So Cavallini turned to his school, which turned to Brian Hancock, a vice-president at Whirlpool whom Cavallini had worked for and impressed during his internship the summer before. As important as that good impression, Cavallini says, was that Hancock was a fellow alumnus of Brigham Young University. The alum sympathized with Cavallini's plight, and placed a call that afternoon to the CEO of a Whirlpool supplier. Company executives interviewed Cavallini within days and then offered him a job. He accepted, and in less than a week the 28-year-old went from being unemployed to being upwardly mobile.
The MBA alumni network is an integral part of the package at most business schools. Stories like Cavallini's, involving an alumnus making a crucial introduction or putting in a good word, were never uncommon, but they're becoming increasingly critical as companies tighten their belts and more traditional recruitment forums such as career fairs run dry.
An old saying, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," rings particularly true as recruiters are deluged with qualified applicants and seemingly flawless rÃ©sumÃ©s get lost in the shuffle. But even absent a professional connection, schools are turning toward alumni as a source for fresh job offers, relying on the foundation of trust many school networks automatically confer. InCircle, an alumni networking site used at several U.S. schools, reflects a common sentiment with its revision of the old axiom: "It's not who you know," InCircle's slogan says, "it's how you know them."
Kevin Knox, director of the alumni association at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, puts it even more directly: "The network has never been more important."
THE OLD COLLEGE TRY
The exact number of job offers that come through alumni contacts is hard to measure and varies from school to school. In a recent survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council, 28% of MBA graduates reported receiving their first job offer as a result of networking. Kristin Irish, deputy director of career development at the Yale School of Management, cautions that that number may be artificially low, as networks play such a fundamental role in the job search that their role is sometimes overlooked. At Notre Dame University's Mendoza College of Business, Patrick Perella, director of MBA career development, estimates that about 50% of students get a job through an alumni connection. Given the recent slump in recruiting, he says, "That number can only go up."
Perella isn't alone in his prediction. As the nation faces the highest unemployment levels in a quarter century, many schools are looking to offset decreases in recruiting with job leads from alumni. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Director of Career Management Michelle Antonio says about 40% of offers come through formal, school-organized events like job fairs. This year, she said, that ratio could flip, with 60% of offers coming from other sources—primarily networking.
Across the country, schools are attempting to help that process along with appeals to alumni to come together in the wake of the financial crisis. At Wharton, Dean Thomas Robertson sent a letter to all alumni seeking input, and career services will reach out to all alumni clubs—not a new tactic, Antonio said, "but it will clearly be more critical than ever this year."
At Notre Dame, career services recently finished a "phone-a-thon," contacting 150 MBA alumni working in sectors likely to receive stimulus funds, as well as the government itself. And at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, Dean Richard Lyons penned an open letter asking alums to look "deep into your organizations" for jobs, signing off with the entreaty: "Hire Haas!" The letter, says Haas' Executive Director of Career Services Abby Scott, yielded 14 new job postings in just 24 hours.
"People like to be asked," says Dipak Jain, dean of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Kellogg has conducted a targeted outreach to alumni in certain fields, but hasn't yet sent out a mass mailing. The school, like many others, has also redoubled support for struggling alumni, and plans to offer more services to bring them back to campus, where they can both regroup and connect with current students. Says Jain: "We need them as much as they need us."
A TWO-WAY STREET
Alumni networking has its perks for employers as well. Given the dismal market for MBA hires, many recruiters find themselves with hundreds of rÃ©sumÃ©s for just a few slots. For online applications, it can be even worse.
The logical next step is to limit the applicant search through networks "rather than getting a thousand applications from every average Joe out there," says Wharton's Antonio. It's easier for many employers to single out a few people who are qualified and come recommended, instead of opening the search more widely. "Of the opportunities that do exist, which are obviously fewer and farther between, a lot of those will never hit a job board," she says.
G.R. Christon, a senior director at crisis-management firm Alvarez & Marsal and a graduate of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, says he contacted his alma mater when his firm was set to take on new recruits simply because he knew they would have a list of qualified rÃ©sumÃ©s ready for him. "Putting ads in the paper or on Monster.com is kind of inefficient for us," says Christon.
An added benefit to recruiters is a network's reliability, especially in an economic climate where making a hire is taking a gamble. "It does help lower the risk when you can use [your contacts] to check into what you're getting," says Greg Bolino, a partner at Accenture (ACN) and chairman of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business's alumni board of governors. At the consulting firm Business Talent Group, Vice-President Michelle Cline, a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says the firm regularly seeks out talent through alumni networks, and hires largely along those lines. Once she has the recommendation from a person whose judgment she trusts, "There's not much more that I need," she says.
Of course, almost without exception, employers caution that a diploma doesn't automatically confer connections. It's far more effective to build genuine relationships, and only later ask for a job. Those who don't heed that rule are eyed suspiciously, employers say. It's better to start earlier, or just ask for career advice or an informational interview. In those cases, says Bolino: "It's easy for me to say yes because somebody said yes to me."
"A LITTLE BIT OF PANIC"
As for students, the writing is on the wall. Formerly casual networking events have become a little more tense—with more industry-related introductions and swapping of business cards. At the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Senior Alumni Affairs Director Tracey Pavlishin says she's seen more professional connections made at the school's alumni-student gatherings—which include such things as happy hours, wine tastings, and golf outings—even though that's rarely the core purpose of the events.
At the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Associate Vice-President of Career Services Kip Harrell says there's been about a 50% increase in the number of students asking for alumni contact information since last year—meaning more requests than ever. Harrell, who is also the director of the MBA Career Services Council, says he advises students to dress professionally every day on the off chance they run into someone on campus who might serve as a professional connection. He's made a point to call students when alumni visit him, saying: "Whatever you're doing, drop it and get over here to talk to Jim, or Tony, or whomever it may be."
"You see a little bit of panic on everybody's faces," said Mary Lousteau, a first-year MBA at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, who has been organizing events for students and alumni in the marketing sector. She has two potential leads on internships—both through her work setting up alumni events. "It's becoming more important as students realize the reality that some of those opportunities are filled up," she says.
Most students realize their networks will be more crucial this year than ever before and are preparing accordingly—whether it be joining the business networking site LinkedIn, perfecting their golf technique, or methodically mapping out extended networks on Excel spreadsheets. Lousteau said the internship search sometimes takes precedent even over her wedding planning.
Even though many MBAs obsess over their networks, it may not do them much good. In the wake of sweeping cross-sector layoffs, MBA alumni aren't always in a better position than students. "More people are going to look for alumni for those connections," Harrell said. "But whether they prove more fruitful than they have in the past remains to be seen."
Anne VanderMey is a B-schools writer at BusinessWeek.