3 Lessons I Learned at a Poets and Quants’ Event

Aaron Lai
Aaron Lai

Aaron (Po-Hsun) Lai is a Global MBA student at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Previously, Aaron worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young Advisory. He has extensive experience in fields such as accounting, auditing, internal control, compliance, and risk management. Aaron is currently the Outreach Director of the Carey Consulting Club as well as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Carey Business School. Aaron grew up in South Africa and later spent his life living in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. Outside of his professional life, Aaron is a fervent soccer fan and avid reader of fantasy novels. Aaron may be reached at plai5@jhu.edu.

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Standing in the hallway in front of the Paulson Auditorium at NYU’s Stern School of Business, I was fascinated by the people who stood around me. To my left was a former Vanderbilt football coach enrolling in Duke this fall and to my right was a marketing specialist from HSBC enrolling in Cambridge. A dozen tables had been set up and soon-to-be MBA students from all over the world gathered around to exchange personal stories.

This was the opening for Poets and Quants‘ 2017 pre-MBA Networking Festival, a two-day event in New York City held this May. I had decided to attend the event immediately after the exciting news of having been admitted to the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School because I knew that if I wanted to be successful in my career choices in the next two years, I needed to have a better understanding of what opportunities the market had to offer. For me, this meant more than just sitting in front of a computer and jotting down items on a spreadsheet; instead, I decided I needed to personally go out “there” to the real world to see with my own eyes, so that I could have something almost tangible for me to reference back in the future.

Looking back, the two days had a huge impact on me in many different aspects. From the lunch panel discussions to visiting numerous companies such as ATKearney, Accenture Strategy, Morgan Stanley, and many others, each event was eye-opening and informative.

Today, however, I want to share the lessons I learned about networking. Networking has always been something I’ve been apprehensive about. I’ve never been someone particularly adept in small talk. I could go on about current events but struggled to keep the conversation going. In a sense, I’ve always longed for a framework/guide of sorts to cling to. Through the pre-MBA festival, I came to realize that this mindset was to a certain degree misguided. The pre-MBA festival redressed how I approached networking. I learned invaluable networking advice from various professionals in the industry and through constantly talking with fellow MBA candidates from different schools in the two busy days, I gradually became more aware of what networking meant.

  1. Networking is the bridge between “searching” and “being found”

One great piece of networking advice I learned was provided by Dan Bauer, the founder of MBA Exchange, at the opening session of the Networking Festival. Dan most eloquently described networking as the bridge between “searching” and “being found.” It’s a mutual process, something that requires you to not only identify targets to contact, the “search” part, but also something that requires you to critically examine yourself; know what you can provide, in order for you to be “found.” To establish that bridge, start with simply initiating a conversation. For those unsure how to initiate a conversation, Dan kindly provided seven useful tips when networking:

  • Your handshake, eye contact, and body language send a message
  • Establish a personal connection first, then a professional connection
  • Find common ground quickly by tapping the other person’s interests
  • Advance the conversation by balancing questions, observations, and info
  • Inject his or her name into the dialogue, periodically and naturally
  • Avoid stating excessive opinions, especially on sensitive topics
  • Follow up and keep in touch; getting a LinkedIn connection is a win

As I paced myself throughout the auditorium hall that day, I found the above tips useful for someone like me who was relatively unsure of how to initiate conversations with the numerous participants.

      2. Not everyone is an MBA

Another great piece of advice that left a memorable impression on me was provided by Colleen Baum, a partner at McKinsey & Co. One of the most common errors by MBA candidates that Colleen witnessed in social events was that they often viewed the world only through an MBA perspective. When talking to new acquaintances, MBA candidates would immediately draw up a CV of that person in his/her mind. If that person’s CV was not impressive or could not be leveraged, MBA candidates would promptly move on to the next person.

Colleen remembered such an incident in which an MBA candidate was talking to a new female acquaintance. Once the MBA candidate learned that he was talking to a spouse of an attendee, he immediately lost interest. From a third person view, it was rather apparent and frankly, rather rude. Don’t be that person. Not everyone has an MBA degree and not everyone cares about your MBA degree. Show genuine interest in people you meet. If the person you meet isn’t someone who aligns with your interests, listen carefully to what they say and be genuine in your responses.

Indeed, as the day progressed, conversations I had with people that were most memorable were those that were genuine and lighthearted. Looking back, I am reminded of a passage from Susan Cain’s acclaimed book Quiet: “Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances for those who might fall into the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socializing with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.

      3. Networking is a marathon, not a race

Networking is a marathon, not a race. You don’t have to rush through as many people as possible, nor should you expect immediate results. Think about quality over quantity. In the end, you are dealing with people. And people have sentiment. We long for connections that are genuine and lasting. In business, we often apply frameworks to problems, but with people, you shouldn’t just apply such an approach and hope for yields. Instead, just relax and make real personal connections. Look for the people who click with you and really listen to their stories. With such an approach, even though you might fail to make a business acquaintance, you will still have won a lifelong friend.

As I look back to the two-day event, I feel humbled by the experience. Humbled not only by the people I met but also by what I thought I knew but didn’t. As I start my MBA journey this fall, there will be plenty of people I will meet along the way. And of all those people, if I can make a few acquaintances that are strong, genuine, and lasting, then I know I have succeeded.

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