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An ASB Student Shares How to Become the “World’s Best Networker”

“I got my first job during a short plane ride from Zimbabwe to South Africa,” Tawanda Mutsopotsi, a recent Class of 2019 graduate, says. “I sat next to this guy and we started talking about the economy, sports, and politics. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘banking,’ and he asked, ‘Have you considered working in this country?’” For most people, this kind of conversation is a rare stroke of good luck.

But for Tawanda, whose classmates gave him the superlative “world’s best networker,” opportunities seem to arise with every new connection that he makes. For example, during his off-hours on an Action Learning project in Indonesia, Tawanda was approached by a stranger on the golf course who asked to play with him. After conversing for eleven holes, Tawanda was surprised to find a convoy of SUVs approaching them.

He eventually found out that the stranger was a popular presidential candidate in the country, who continues to keep in touch. He also spotted a popular South African politician at his hotel on a trip to Abu Dhabi to watch a Formula 1 race. Though his friends advised him to “not embarrass himself,” he walked up to the politician’s entourage and made small talk.

He was not only invited to watch the race from the VVIP area, but got the politician’s direct phone number in case he later needed a job. In fact, his first post-MBA job offer came through this chance meeting. Some people seem to be born with a natural talent for networking, while others struggle to make connections that last. But despite appearing to be a “natural,” Tawanda believes networking is a skill that can be learned, and that ASB helped him take his networking game to the next level.

He notes that, during Board of Governor’s meetings or similar events, most MBA students wait with business cards in-hand for their turn at a thirty-second career pitch. By his second semester, he had abandoned this as a networking strategy. Instead, he comes to events without an agenda, later finding the people he’s met on LinkedIn and sending a personalized connection request.

“You start meeting them for drinks or coffee, or a game of golf. You shouldn’t tell them right away that you’re looking for a job. Just by being with them, they get to know your likes, dislikes and aspirations, and they can propose opportunities for you,” Tawanda says. With this advice, he touches on a common theme taught at ASB: the importance of soft skills (we call them “smart” skills). He notes that even those networkers with a great deal of natural ability should continue to actively develop these skills.

Why he’s a natural networker

Tawanda’s practice began early. He grew up in Zimbabwe with six siblings and has always been surrounded by family. Early on, he learned how important it was to have a support system, and seeks out environments that put him in the middle of the action. Because his house was close to Zimbabwe’s main airport, Tawanda first wanted to become a pilot. As he saw flights take off and land each day, he fantasized about being on one of them and traveling to exotic destinations.

Then, in high school, his career goals changed. He grew to admire bankers, if only because he would be able to wear a suit every day. Having landed his first job in the banking sector, he appreciates the knowledge that he’s gained about financial markets, as well as the personal growth he’s experienced. Most of all, he’s appreciated how it has helped him develop his networking skills.

At the bank, half of his job was client-facing, which meant he was meeting or entertaining clients every day. That was when he began networking on a different level. “When you’re growing up, it’s just about making friends and you don’t expect anything to come of it. Now, it’s all about maintaining relationships or gaining new clients on behalf of the bank, but you also gain personal relationships,” he says.

How ASB helped kickstart his career

While he didn’t want to move away from the banking sector completely, he joined ASB’s MBA program to leverage his current financial knowledge and take his career, as well as his professional relationships, to the next level. What first struck him about the program was how diverse the MBA class was. With the Classes of 2019 and 2020 hailing from 29 different countries, he gained a truly global network of friends and colleagues.

His class included people from Brazil to Turkmenistan that he wouldn’t have otherwise met, all with varied expertise that helped him learn unfamiliar subjects more quickly. He was also impressed by ASB’s intensive Action Learning curriculum, which he calls “the heartbeat of the school.” The projects helped fulfill his childhood dream of traveling to places such as Vietnam and Indonesia, all while working on impactful business challenges with companies such as Unilever.

“Every single project teaches you a lot about business culture in Asia,” he says of the Action Learning curriculum. “As a non-Asian, it was a learning experience every day.” Most importantly, through his Action Learning projects, Tawanda learned how to be part of a team. He notes that, though most people label themselves “team players” in cover letters and job interviews, few have experienced what it is like to be part of a highly diverse Action Learning team working in a foreign country. And from a networking perspective, he claims, “ASB was the best decision I ever made.”

Tawanda’s networking advice for MBAs

For incoming students looking to enhance their networking skills, his advice is to not overthink the strategy. While some students are afraid to sacrifice precious networking time to make small talk rather than pursuing their goals, the latter could be more counterproductive in the long run. Instead, he recommends being authentic and approachable.

He believes first impressions are often made based on subconscious “cues” or “vibes,” and that as a result, people who approach relationships with a transactional mindset fall far behind those who are genuine. When Tawanda met his first employer on that long-ago flight to South Africa, he never could have known where he would end up years later. But on the flight, he learned a lesson that he would take with him through his journey at ASB and beyond.

For when he expressed his doubts about getting a visa in the country, the banker laughed and said, “Sometimes you just need to know the right people.”
Tawanda now echoes that advice for those who are just starting their MBA journey at ASB. “Build a bridge all over the world,” he says, “because you can never know when you’ll have to cross it.”