Paul Capriotti admits that he was a bit bone-headed when he enrolled in Columbia Business School in the fall of 2006. After a fruitful career coaching football at Harvard University and the Buffalo Bills, he thought the program would be all about learning how to structure deals and read a balance sheet.
Capriotti, 39, gave no consideration to the other valuable things that his tuition money was buying, namely access to one of the most powerful alumni networks in the world.
"My entire career progression is because of the Columbia network," he says. "I have no idea how I would have made it without it."
In explaining his resume, Capriotti lists the names of people far more often than he mentions companies. They were all strangers; fellow Columbia graduates who took his phone calls, answered his e-mails and granted him interviews or more references.
As a result, Capriotti adroitly managed two job switches and two career shifts as the economy floundered in recent years. He went from the gridiron to selling pharmaceuticals for Pfizer, to trading natural gas at NYMEX and onto managing hedging operations for National Grid Plc, a massive British utility.
"To be able to get this type of job with hardly any background in it, to me, is kind of incredible," he says.
The key was staying connected, making those phone calls. Don't wait until you lose a job to tap into your alumni network.
Like airplane factories during WWII, the alumni networks of top business schools are working at a furious pace, trying to keep job casualties as low as possible in a violent and unforgiving economy. Even as on-campus recruiters disappear, they are hosting a rash of new networking events, blasting out contacts as a sort of workplace triage and launching a host of new features like online "Webinars" to help former grads get an edge.
And for employers, alumni networks act as free headhunters, providing a list of reliable candidates.
Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management considers a lifetime of free career coaching part of the degree. Last year, about 4,000 of its 51,000 alumni scheduled sessions with the school's seven coaches.
And since the crisis started, Kellogg has been hitting its circuit of 120 alumni chapters with two new workshops: speed-networking, which it has opened to other business school grads, and "turbo job-search," a three-hour program covering everything from resume tips to salary negotiating tactics.
"At any time, whether the market is up or down, there's a lot of activity and engagement," said Marisa Voorhes, Kellogg's interim director of alumni relations. "It's a really pay-it-forward kind of community."
Bottom line is: explore. Most alumni networks offer much more than a directory and sporadic networking events.
As far as alumni networks go, Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business may be the best-of-breed.
About 65% of Tuck graduates donate money every year, roughly 30 percentage points ahead of most top business schools, according to Dave Celone, director of annual giving and alumni services at Tuck. In recent years, the annual pot has totaled about $5 million. Almost 10% of the school's 8,600 alums volunteer to raise funds or otherwise fertilize the network.
And every major metropolitan area in the U.S. has a branch of the alumni club, some more active than others.
"If we see that there's a spot where things aren't happening, we try to kind of stir the pot and bring the dean out there or do something else to get things going," Celone says
The result of all this "cross-polination": more than 70% of jobs landed by Tuck graduates come, at least in part, from alumni connections.
Give back. Donations help your school in national rankings, fund alumni network activities that could land you a job, as well as keep your name familiar with folks in the career services department.
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"Whenever they [alumni] get a call from another Tuck student or alum, they pretty much drop everything to speak with them, whether they know them or not," Celone says. "And that's worked very well in the downturn."
When the recent crisis hit, the Tuck network immediately made a list of its younger members in the finance industry and shot each of them the names and numbers to at least two more senior -- and theoretically more secure -- members in the field.
"Even for those financial services alums who weren't in the unfortunate position of losing a job, they were happy to know that option was there, if they needed it," Celone says.
Business schools, in turn, have every reason to help their graduates succeed. After all, they are only as good as their reputations and their rankings. And the best schools -- the Harvards of the world -- get more than $4,000 a year, on average, from each former student that gives back.
"It's a mutually beneficial relationship," explains Jane Willis, managing director of the career-management office at the University of South Carolina's Morse School of Business. "If we can be a resource for them, they certainly turn out to be a resource for us."
However, Capriotti, of Columbia, notes that connections will only get one so far. Preparation to meet with a fellow alum should be just as vigorous as gearing up for a job interview. Do your homework on the person, the position, the company and the industry.
"The other part of the equation is I had a genuine interest in what I was doing, so it wasn't like I was calling and looking for a handout," Capriotti says. "I could strike up a very insightful conversation on the nature of the business."
-- Kyle Stock
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