In March, right at the beginning of the pandemic, I made a life-altering decision to apply to Executive MBA programs. In August, I started my first quarter at University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I entered the program with high expectations and a keen awareness that it will be an unusual quarter.
Now three months into the program, I must say, I am not disappointed. The instructors are excellent, my cohort is engaged and supportive, and in this short time my world-view has already started to change for the better.
Transitioning from a “busy professional” to a “busy professional attending a rigorous EMBA program” presents its fair share of struggles, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic gave rise to some additional challenges. Our global study tours got postponed, and we are learning virtually and attending classes on Zoom, which means we have not yet met our fellow classmates or faculty in person. A big component of an EMBA experience is building camaraderie with the cohort, typically through social events and shared experiences. This year, because of Covid-19, that is simply not an option.
The biggest challenge EMBAs face today is not being able to network in person — how does one network and build relationships with a cohort they have never met?
My initial response to the situation was frustration and doubt. I even questioned whether I made the right decision to start the program this year. After much thought and reflection, I re-aligned myself and started looking for the silver lining, figuring out how to make the best of our current situation.
MY APPROACH TO NETWORKING
I have always viewed networking as building lasting friendships and genuine, mutually beneficial professional relationships. Looking back, the most interesting people I’ve met, the best projects I’ve landed, the best resources I’ve found all have been through my personal network or my network’s network. Living through months in quarantine, I have grown to appreciate the value of human connection and social capital even more. Although, I’ve had to be creative, proactive, and step outside my comfort zone quite a bit. Here are some ways I nurture and enhance my professional network during the pandemic.
First and foremost, it’s important to get comfortable with the technology. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack, Microsoft Teams — whatever collaboration platform you choose to use, it’s important that you make yourself available. In the beginning it was quite awkward to be on camera all day, for work and for school, but soon it became second nature.
Second, remember that we are all in this together. In the absence of in-person social and networking events all EMBA students (and professionals in general) are worried about not being able to network effectively. More than six months into the pandemic, people are now more open and willing to connect than ever before. It’s a great opportunity to reach out to someone you haven’t talked to before and ask if they would be up for a virtual conversation. Everyone I’ve reached out to with a request to connect has responded positively and enthusiastically.
ONLINE NETWORKING HAS BROKEN THE BARRIERS OF LOCATION
I have been able to reach out to several of my colleagues in Booth’s London and Hong Kong cohorts. Zoom has made it possible and so convenient to connect with anyone across the globe. In the “normal” world, I am not sure how much effort I would have put into expanding my network globally.
The EMBA Program Office at Booth organized several Zoom speed-networking events. That is one of the best use cases for Zoom’s break out room functionality I have seen. You get ~10-15 mins to interact with a randomly selected group of people from the cohort. I utilized those sessions to establish rapport where possible and then contacted those individuals after the session for a one-on-one conversation.
Slack’s Donut App has been godsend. It randomly matches people every week (you can adjust the frequency as needed). Once you are matched with someone, you just set up a virtual coffee with them and invite them for a conversation. It gives you an excuse to contact the person you are matched with and eliminates the awkwardness of reaching out to someone cold.
During class weekends, EMBA cohorts typically go out for happy hours or other group activities after class. I wanted to replicate that experience virtually, but I was quite familiar with the awkwardness of Zoom happy hours. One solution: an activity-based get-together. So I set up online wine-tasting and combined it with pub trivia. That made the introductions and conversations more organic. The second time around, we did bourbon tasting and trivia. We are in the process of setting up a fourth such event, and it has become a regular for the cohort — we meet every few weeks for a themed tasting and trivia night.
Give yourself a measurable networking goal to achieve. I’d even encourage you to reach out to unlike-minded people, someone from a different field of work, someone who you normally wouldn’t reach out to; aim for as much diversity as you can. For me, it is talking to at least one new person every week – from my cohort, a different cohort, an alumni, or a professional LinkedIn connection. Making it measurable gives me a clear goal to work towards and thus makes me more likely to act on it.
Be generous. Be kind. Add value. Share an article you found interesting on LinkedIn or group chat (most cohorts have that). Share a job opportunity you heard about that you think others can benefit from. Also don’t forget about the qualified and exceptional contacts in your existing network who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Reach out to them and help however you can.
BEYOND THE ADVERSITY OF COVID, THERE IS OPPORTUNITY
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has changed how the world operates, and certain pre-pandemic ways of life are difficult to recreate in virtual media. Humans long for in person connections with fellow humans, so they can communicate through eye contact, touch, and body language. Through the adversity of the pandemic arises an opportunity to get creative and think outside the box. During these unprecedented times, it’s worth remembering that the technology we have available has eliminated the need to drive across town just to have coffee with someone.
The way we network today has changed. Creating and maintaining virtual relationships is not only fundamental to our mental health, but also for our professional success. What hasn’t changed, though, is the need for human connection that we all still crave, the genuine interest in fellow human beings’ lives, and the appreciation for their time and interest. By going digital, networking has become convenient and most people now welcome the invitation to chat or have a virtual coffee/drink.
This may be a blessing in disguise. I encourage you to utilize this opportunity to connect with your cohort or other professional contacts, to deepen your existing relationships, and to make meaningful new connections.
Sowm Bhardwaj is a management consultant at Utilicast in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and an EMBA candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She has 12 years of experience working in the energy/utilities industry. She is a problem solver who specializes in building new teams and leading diverse and complex strategic and technical engagements. Sowm previously worked at Capgemini and Powercosts; she has a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications engineering and a master’s in electrical engineering. When she is not working or studying, Sowm enjoys traveling, reading, and painting.