The old adage is true: It's not what you know, it's who you know. The people that you surround yourself with have a profound impact on the quality of your life. In fact, scientific research from Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that our networks influence our risk for obesity, the likelihood of divorce, voting habits and even happiness.
It is no surprise that most people join an MBA program to build a strong network that can support their career aspirations. However, is it possible to have an MBA-level network without paying $100,000 or more a year?
As a known connector who has never received an MBA, I would argue that it's not only possible but likely the better option. Over the past few years, I've built The Influencers, a global community of more than 1,000 thought leaders, including Fortune 500 executives, Nobel Laureates, Olympians, award-winning actors, and musicians.
I've learned that although an MBA program may be valuable, you can get a better network without sacrificing two years in the workforce or paying a fortune in tuition and fees. Instead, take on a two-year networking project.
1. Identify who you need in your network.
I often see people try to meet as many people as they can at events. They think the more people they meet, the more opportunities will open up.
In reality, it's more important to curate your community. You may have 3,000 contacts in your phone, but if none of them have expertise or connections in your industry, it doesn't matter.
Research specific people to connect with based on your goals, and keep track of them in a spreadsheet. Are you looking to meet investors? Journalists? Experienced business professionals? Technical experts and scientists?
At the same time, value diversity. If your community is made up of people who work in the same industry or act, think, and look like you, what are you learning? Nothing. Surrounding yourself with a diverse group of smart and successful people gives you a greater global perspective, and ultimately, forces you to grow in ways that you didn't know you could.
2. Find a way to connect.
Getting an introduction or meeting with a high profile individual can be difficult, especially if you don't have a recommendation from their inner circle. You may have to go to several events to connect with them or someone in their network. Even worse, you may be going to the wrong types of events.
Hint: If the event has "networking" in the title, it's probably not worth attending. Industry influencers already have strong networks and are unlikely to attend an event simply to meet people.
Instead, go to events that have expert speakers (brunchwork, SXSW, PopTech) or are focused around an activity (Daybreaker, ZogSports). Since people bond over shared activities, it's more natural to connect with them at these events. Plus, because you have common interests outside of business, the connections will be more meaningful. (Full disclosure: I have invested in brunchwork.)
Alternatively, ask your friends for introductions. It doesn't have to be your best friends. It can be an old co-worker or an acquaintance, as long as they can honestly speak to your character. In fact, according to LinkedIn research, it is most often through those weak connections that people find job opportunities.
Pro tip: If attending a bunch of events isn't for you, organize your own, but make sure it is unique and valuable enough to attract the crowd you want. I run a monthly event in three different cities as a way to stay in touch.
3. Be generous, but not to a fault.
Being kind and generous to others is important when trying to build relationships. However, being too generous can decrease your success and happiness.
Wharton professor Adam Grant studied three groups of people: givers, takers and matchers. Givers were disproportionately generous to others. Takers were always taking the generosity of others without reciprocation, and matchers were as generous to others as they were to them.
He found that givers were both the most and least successful. Why? The least successful helped others so much that they couldn't help themselves. The most successful were generous, but not to their own detriment.
Don't think that simply because you are generous to someone that they will return the favor. If someone is taking advantage of your generosity, it may not be worth it to have them in your network.
Get serious. Starting today, you have two years to build a strong community that will influence the rest of your life. You don't need to be an extrovert or have an MBA to do it. The key to successful community building is in the quality of the relationships not quantity, so do what is right for you.