Alumni Networking Rules
Leverage your alumni association to find and win a job, but know the rules about what is and isn’t fair play.
By Andrew Klappholz
“Jamal,” a young finance executive, just two years out of business school, applied for a business analyst position at a large bank. He met with the bank’s recruiter at a job fair in Los Angeles and both agreed he would be a good fit for the job.
On the drive home from the job fair, Jamal discovered he might have a secret advantage – the bank’s CIO graduated from the same college as Jamal, but 22 years earlier. He thought it would be worth the effort to contact the CIO to leverage the college camaraderie to his advantage. Surely, he would have the home-field advantage, making every other applicant the away team in front of a hostile crowd.
Not so, said alumni affairs and networking experts who spoke to Ladders. Jamal’s presumption was more likely to eliminate him from competition and alienate him from his fellow alumnus.
Few applicants would go so far as Jamal (the individual did not give permission to use his real name) considered going – bothering the CIO of a large bank with a cold call on as weak a pretense as wearing the same colors at the pep rally two decades apart – but most professionals do consider alumni association a primary connector to job opportunity. And many wonder where is the line between real connection and mere association?
Alumni associations are a great jumping off point to networking, but it’s just the start. A job seeker is still obligated to make a genuine connection before leveraging an alumni connection for a job opportunity.
“Don’t assume that it gives you an advantage,” said J.T. Forbes, executive director of the Indiana University Alumni Association .
Forbes said his organization’s core mission is to connect alumni, giving them an opportunity to network and stay attached to their alma mater. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the job search is a process and alumni contacts are not built overnight, he added.
“There’s never any harm in reaching out to somebody,” he said. “If you want to approach somebody, you’re better off seeking advice … as opposed to (saying), ‘we’re from the same school; hire me.’ “
Forbes suggests a simple introduction where you disclose that you’re up for a job and just ask if he has any advice about the industry in general. A better way than a basic cold call, he added, would be to meet him through a mutual contact or via a regular alumni association networking event and start up a relationship from there.
If you’ve never met someone before and they’re a high-ranking officer where you want to work, then simply being a fellow alum is way too much of a stretch to be calling on them, said etiquette consultant Nancy Mitchell, founder of The Etiquette Advocate .
“You could look at the bio of any officer and find some connection to anybody you want to if you’re creative enough,” she said. “I wouldn’t play that card.”
Mitchell says that such cold calls are risky because any sense that you’re attempting to take advantage of a nonexistent relationship could have disastrous consequences.
“Would you ever pick up a phone and call a CIO of a major corporation, if you’ve never met them, for any reason? I don’t think so,” she said. “The worst that can happen is they hold that as a strike against you because you did something that’s not appropriate. It’s too aggressive.”
Even if you don’t get through to the high-ranking officer you’re trying to contact — which Forbes and Mitchell agree is the most likely outcome — the assistant screening the call could report it to human resources and remove your application from the running for the open position. On the other hand, if you get through and somehow use your collective school pride to finagle a job, there’s still a downside because your status at the company will be seen as tainted.
“It’s not the way you want to be known,” Mitchell said. “First impressions die hard.”
When to Play the Alum Card
It’s not that networking with fellow alumni is unwise – that’s a significant part of why these alumni associations exist in the first place. It’s mainly a matter of etiquette and tact.
Associations hold networking events many times throughout the year. Large alumni organizations, such as Forbes’ Indiana University association, host events nationwide. The gatherings are wonderful opportunities to meet other professionals who have a shared interest and to build genuine business contacts.
“Networking 101 tells you, you go to these events to build connections,” not to get hired, Mitchell said.
Forbes suggests using such opportunities to grow a network of mutual mentors who serve each other as career advisors.
But what if there isn’t time? Often job seekers are well into the company’s recruitment process when they first learn the company’s leadership includes a fellow alum. Is there an appropriate time to play the school-pride card?
Mitchell says there is – when you’re finally face-to-face with your fellow Hoosier (or Wolverine, or Tiger or Bruin, etc.)
“It would only be OK once the applicant gets to the sit-down interview with that CIO – and then mentions the alumni thing on the way out: ‘nice to meet you; by the way…,’ ” she said.
A similar tactic could be used when crafting your follow-up thank you note. After saying how much you appreciate the fact that they took time out of their busy day to meet with you, you could close on a lighter, yet still professional, note with a little college-dropping or even reference a big football game that’s coming up that weekend.
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