Dale Kramer Cohen, W’76, teamed up with Princeton alumnus Chris Colvin to launch IvyLife, the online business networking community in 2009, just as the economic turmoil reached its pinnacle. It was a time when the prevailing approach to professional networking, to simply try to sell yourself, was losing favor. People were beginning to realize they need to help each other to succeed, says Cohen, chairperson of PennNYC, Penn’s alumni association in New York City, and a member of the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women.

“The economy has made people realize, ‘I have to think about what I’m doing in a different way. My connection to other people matters more,’” Cohen explains.

IvyLife gained traction quickly thanks to this shift in attitude and has 40,000 members worldwide. The firm creates a comfortable atmosphere in which people can get to know each other as whole individuals, not just as business personas. It also hosts regular networking events for its members. Alumni who attend an IvyLife morning coffee meeting can expect three questions with their caffeine: who are you, what are you passionate about and how can you help others in the room?

The question about passion can take some people aback, but finding common ground and shared values around accomplishments is integral to building relationships, Cohen says.

CEO Business is Booming

“The relationship has to be based on something other than, ‘I need this,’ and should be based on ‘I like you,’ or ‘I can help you’—a connectivity other than a pure business need,” says Kenneth Beck, WG’87.

“The reality is you are building relationships so that if you need something, you are comfortable talking to that person,” he adds.

Too many people perceive networking as a business card exchange, with little follow-up, Beck believes. “I’d rather get to know five people and get to know them well than collect 150 business cards and never talk to them again.”

Like Cohen, the entrepreneur Beck has made a business out of helping others network. He is co-founder and CEO of CEO Connection, founder and CEO of Beck Enterprises, and president of the Wharton Club of New York. And like Cohen, Beck’s business is doing well through the downturn.

Beck and George Bradt, WG’85, started CEO Connection in 2005 to focus on the rarified CEO level at midsize companies, an underserved, and underconnected, population. “They can’t talk to their boards, they can’t talk to their employees,” he says. “Only another CEO understands what they are going through.”

CEO Connection helps top executives bond through forums, dinners and boot camps. Beck says he and his staff are in regular contact with approximately 5,000 CEOs from industries across the board.

Beck says that CEO Connection has been conducting boot camps for about seven years with no sign of slowing down. About 250 CEOs in total have gone through the boot camps, which are designed to foster peer relationships while exploring issues of transformational leadership, stewardship, human capital and communications. Participants sign a nondisclosure agreement, ensuring everything discussed is off the record, he adds.

In good economic times, the networking exercise is a “want” for executives, while in bad times it becomes a “need,” Beck explains.

Like CEOs, the behavior of board members is dependent upon the economic climate. Julie Hembrock Daum, WG’79, co-leader of the North American Board & CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart, a global executive search firm, says that during this economic downturn board members are largely staying put. Daum works with corporate boards to recruit board members and CEOs. Individuals who want to be on a board also approach her firm, usually through an intermediary. Regardless of the job market, a good contact can always open the door to more opportunities, she explains.

“If the person isn’t credible, people won’t pay attention,” Daum says.

Executive Assistance

Executive recruiting overall has returned to an upward trend. According to year-end numbers from the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), which represents firms employing more than 8,000 search professionals worldwide who handle approximately 70,000 senior executive searches each year, executive search consultants saw their third best year on record in 2010. The industry grew 28.5 percent in 2010, versus its 32.5 percent decline in 2009. The average number of searches started jumped 24 percent, and average revenue per consultant increased by almost one-third. The industrial and financial sectors still held the top market share for searches (25.6 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively), with consumer products and technology following (17.2 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively).

Based on the latest data available from the AESC for the second quarter of 2011, the recovery in executive recruiting continues. Average revenues per consultant in the second quarter of 2011 increased 9 percent over the same quarter in the previous year and the average number of searches started by 5.4 percent.

Still, the economy has impacted the type of candidate on the other end of these searches.

Due to the economy, says Jane Bierwirth, WG’77, managing partner at Higdon Braddock Matthews, an executive search firm for the financial services industry, about a quarter of the viable candidates she talks to are currently unemployed. That number has grown significantly in recent years. Being unemployed has less of a stigma than it used to, Bierwirth adds, but candidates still need to know what they want and have a plan to achieve it.

Bierwirth has to know what she and her clients need in a candidate. Executive recruiters rely on networking to find potential candidates for their clients.

“My network is incredibly important,” Bierwirth says. “I have to judiciously use my time to talk to people and find potential candidates.”

Looking at a resume doesn’t tell you about a person. Bierwirth digs deeper to tell if the candidate would be a good fit for a client.

“It’s like being a reporter. You have to find the story, find the thread that holds the career together, and crack the nut,” she explains.

Wharton Networking

Networking within circles of Wharton alumni makes it easier for others to understand this story. At the Wharton Club of New York, of which Beck is president, Beck launched the Business Leads Council, a group of noncompetitive club members who meet regularly to help each other generate new business. Beck explains how he has created a more relationship-driven club through small, interactive events that encourage members to help each other while promoting their own interests.

Within less than a year, Beck himself generated $1.5 million in sales for the furniture business he had at the time based on contacts he made through the council. Today, the club has 220 volunteers, 35 committees and 200-300 events, meetings and activities a year.

Adding networking sessions to Wharton’s 10-year reunion in May helped make the event one of the school’s most successful reunions.

“While the intention was for people to reconnect, we thought, ‘Why not give people the opportunity to network?” says Ruth Golan, WG’01, the reunion chair. “We wanted to deliver more value to the reunion.”

As a WG’01 Class Ambassador and Alumni Representative, Golan says, it was a natural fit for her to chair the reunion.

“I really wanted to deliver a great experience for my classmates and make the weekend meaningful for alumni personally and professionally,” she says.

The networking sessions gave alumni the opportunity to meet others in their field or geographic region and took a variety of formats, from panel discussions to more informal gatherings, notes Golan, an entrepreneur with an investment banking and private equity background.

Recruitment of alumni with star power to host the sessions, including John Sculley III, WG’63, former Apple CEO and president of PepsiCo, certainly didn’t hurt either. Approximately 1,000 people participated in the networking portion of the reunion.

Golan also made all participants’ profiles on WhartonConnect, the global network for alumni and students, available to facilitate introductions.
A potentially valuable contact could be sitting two seats away from you and you wouldn’t know it, she explains.

“Wharton has such a strong network and we need to encourage people to use it more,” Golan says.

Golan also points to resources like WhartonConnect, the Global Alumni Forums, the Wharton Alumni Handbook and the Wharton Alumni LinkedIn group.

“All of these great resources and tapping into the Wharton network can be accomplished in just a few clicks,” Golan says.

‘Take the Call’

One of the key reasons for the success of the Wharton Club of New York is the willingness of alumni to help other alumni. Beck, entrepreneur and president of the club, coined the phrase “Take the Call.”

It’s a concept based on three premises:

  • Wharton alumni should buy from Wharton people.
  • Wharton alumni should hire Wharton people.
  • Wharton alumni should help Wharton people.

Define “help” here as advice, direction, friendship, referral, or essentially any favor within reason and the law to other Wharton alumni. The Wharton connection should be the deciding factor.

As Take the Call is based on a “help to be helped” morality, the other half of the logic is that the Wharton Alumni Network is a tool for business, career, social and intellectual growth, and alumni should take full advantage of it.

Testing the Limits of Social Networking

Has social networking impacted, perhaps even democratized, the formal business of professional recruiting? Our experts diverge in their views.

“I feel like social media is a gift. It makes people more accessible,” says Golan, who believes everyone needs a professional online presence.

Cohen, co-founder of the online networking community IvyLife, concurs, though she warns that too much reliance on social media can also be alienating. Communicating solely via social media can reduce people to faceless text, thwarting the development of a real personal connection.

“Technology is an incredible enabler to bring people together, but it’s not where the power resides,” she says.

Beck takes a cautious approach to social media. He only connects with people on LinkedIn if he actually knows them, for instance.

“It’s interesting how best to use social media in networking, and I’m not sure there’s a right answer yet,” he says.

Regardless of exactly how it is accomplished, balanced networking efforts that result in more meaningful relationships will be more successful and satisfying than scattered, superficial interactions.

“We want to connect and cultivate life-long relationships,” says Cohen. “Networking should be a permanent fixture in your personal and professional life.”