The Carlson School offers ample opportunities for students to hone their networking skills, connect with peers, and initiate valuable mentor relationships. Careers can flourish based on relationships, and amid an increasingly competitive job market, it's all about who you know. MBA alumnus Lars Leafblad, ranked among the best-networked professionals in Minnesota, has built a flourishing career around his natural talent for connecting people.
Leafblad began building a network early. He recently uncovered a childhood journal that contained a categorized list of his third-grade class, sorted by relationship (best friends, sort of friends, not friends). This innate knack for mapping connections with others has manifested itself at every stage of his education and subsequent career, and he now does what he loves most: facilitates opportunities for others to network.
Connectivity leads to opportunity
Preceding today's hyper-connected social media landscape, Leafblad initiated a channel for students and alumni to meet and collaborate. In 1997, he started the St. Olaf Alumni Partnership (SOAP), a network for the school's students and alumni.
"My sophomore year, I stumbled across the alumni directory. I thought, 'these are 30,000 people that I meet only twice a year. Why don't we see each other more?'" he says.
From there, the school encouraged him to reach out to alumni, and supported his effort to foster engagement with students. The SOAP network guided Leafblad to accept an internship at a start-up, which convinced him to pursue a career in business. From there, he worked in management development at GE, joined e-commerce startup four51, worked in alumni relations for St. Olaf and the development office of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and recruited executives as a partner with Keystone Search. In 2006, he earned his MBA from the Carlson School.
"I feel very fortunate to see my career journey unfold as it has. I'm getting closer to the heart of what I love to do most, which is to connect with others and build networks for opportunities to be created," he says.
Continuing a legacy of development
Today, Leafblad is transferring his knack for boosting others' networks to shape better leaders, through his new role with the Bush Foundation, a private foundation in St. Paul established in 1953 by 3M executive Archibald Bush and his wife, Edyth, that works in communities across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography. He's charged with positioning the Bush Fellowship program, a nearly 50-year old leadership development program, to continue to be impactful and relevant in an interconnected world.
"How can the Foundation build on 50 years of program evolution to best support the development of leaders in this day and age, in this interconnected world in which we live?" he ponders. "We'll be exploring how the program can continue to best support individual leaders in our region, in keeping with Mr. Bush's personal legacy of a commitment to leadership development."
Pollen sparks serious buzz
Perhaps the most compelling proof of Leafblad's impressive network is BePollen.com, an organic community of civic-minded connectors who share ideas, career advice, and development opportunities with one another. The robust online community known today as BePollen began as a workaround to his inbox problem.
In 2009, the then-executive recruiter was buried in emails from friends, family, and acquaintances who anticipated they would soon be looking for a job, and needed guidance. So he began aggregating their input and requests into a weekly email outlining openings, highlighting talented people, and promoting networking events. The "Lars Email" list ballooned to 1000 recipients within a year. MinnPost began publishing the content on their website, and Lars teamed up with developers at PaperDarts.org.
Today, the community is 6000-plus strong, made up of professionals across hundreds of companies, foundations, state agencies, and more. Leafblad is happy to report the network is completely self-governed.
"BePollen reflects Minnesota's civic DNA of being willing to help one another, as long as it's easy and transparent. It's just amazing," he says.