Learn to harness our alumni network in a 21st century way.
By Erica Dhawan
I have spent much of my time since my Wharton graduation working like a maniac, and I suspect many of you have been doing the same. My focus has been helping companies prepare for the global workplace of tomorrow, and one thing I’ve come to see is just how powerful it can be to count on your alumni network to get big things done in your career.
The realization is part of a larger trend: There is a rising force within the workplace, which is something I have come to call “connectional intelligence”—the human ability to combine knowledge, ambition and human capital, forging connections on a global scale that create unprecedented value and meaning.
This isn’t simply about obtaining more networks or connections. This is about cutting through the noise of our social media universe and leveraging our communities—like the Wharton alumni network—to make meaningful connections. Simply building a network doesn’t lead to measurable change. Getting your career started and building something new and innovative that actually changes people’s lives is about making the smart connection, getting the right people together, collecting the important data and using resources in the smartest way. It’s about pushing yourself to be curious and creative and making connections with purpose with people who care about the issues that you do.
One of my favorite stories that highlights the power of connectional intelligence is that of a woman named Jeannie Peeper. When Jeannie was 4 years old, the Mayo Clinic diagnosed her with something called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive (FOP), a disease in which new bones grow from embryonic stem cells, then attach themselves to the original bones and eventually make movement impossible. FOP is what the medical profession considers an “orphan disease” because it is so rare and, therefore, highly understudied and misunderstood. That is, it was misunderstood.
Everything changed when Jeannie met a physician named Michael Zasloff, who had seen a case of FOP years prior when he was a surgical intern. The disease piqued his interest, and he continued on to work with an additional 18 patients before he met Jeannie.
Jeannie leveraged Zasloff’s connections. She started by sending a letter and a questionnaire to each of those 18 patients, of which 11 were still alive. When the 11 FOP patients all responded to Jeannie, she made a point to visit each one of them in person, despite her mobility constraints. Jeannie then created a quarterly newsletter that she sent out to her FOP friends. The group came together and started to compile data, recruit doctors and get people to start thinking about FOP— leading to connecting hundreds of people together. Jeannie’s efforts, backed by her connections, raised more than half a million dollars in 2012 for FOP. Now, thanks to Jeannie and the other 11 FOP patients, there is a small team of physicians who strictly study and care for those with FOP. And by the way, this all happened at UPenn.
Another example of harnessing the power of connectional intelligence is the story of Ampush, the San Francisco-based mobile advertising company. The three founders, Nick Shah W06, Chris Amos W06 and Jesse Pujji C06 W06—friends throughout their Wharton undergrad experience—joined together to leverage the new world of social media and analytics-based advertising methods. Ampush has not only hired many Wharton alumni but has become a go-to place to build relationships among members of the Wharton community in San Francisco.
Instead of just looking to grow your network and make superficial connections, think about the skills that you are using to build meaningful relationships. Aim for quality in your connections rather than quantity by focusing on the traits I list below and reflecting on the questions.
How well are you framing and asking different questions from all parts of your life to the Wharton community to gain new perspectives?
If you are interested in learning about government regulation or the newest in management thinking, consider calling up a professor or connecting with Wharton Ph.D.s to raise your curiosity on a topic.
How well are you taking different ideas, resources or products from the alumni network and combining them to create new concepts and new ways of thinking?
Expand your search beyond your field when reaching out to your alumni network. If you’re looking for a job or deciding what your next professional move is, gather ideas from professionals in different industries and combine them to form your game plan. Even if you think you want to work in a structured corporate environment, meet with a freelancer to see what you can learn from his or her way of working.
How well are you bringing the Wharton network together to create, spark new ideas, and develop care and understanding?
Create a “topic of interest” group on the Linkedin Wharton alumni group that brings together different ideas on a topic, from youth unemployment to private equity. You’ll connect with likeminded people, share resources and build your network across the Wharton alum community.
How well are you sparking and engaging in diverse and difficult conversations with the Wharton network, even in the face of uncertainty and fear, and keeping these ideas and connections alive and amplifying them?
Having the shared bond of an alma mater can be a great way to bring divergent opinions into the same room. Pick a topic you care about or some new controversial research, and contact opinions on both sides. Organize a friendly debate or salon, making sure to emphasize the supportive atmosphere of an alumni gathering. This will ease some tension that might naturally arise when individuals who stand on opposing sides of an argument meet face-to-face.
How well are you mobilizing and igniting the Wharton network with other communities to activate and create change?
Create a gathering for Wharton alums at conferences, industry organizations and meetups. Are you going to SXSW? A finance conference? Any sort of meeting like those could draw in people from UPenn, and as alumni you have something in common and therefore a reason to connect. Don’t be afraid to bring two different worlds together.
Again, your focus should be on purpose, substance and quality versus sheer quantity. Whether you want to leverage your Wharton alumni community to get a new job, learn about a new industry or network at your next conference, you can use your connectional intelligence to get big things done at the same time.
Erica Dhawan W07 is the co-author of the book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence with Sajnicole Joni. As CEO of Cotential, she consults with leaders and organizations to harness the power of connectional intelligence. Learn more at ericadhawan.com and on Twitter at @edhawan.