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ALUMNI PROFILE: Joe Sweeney (MBA ’84)

New York Times best-selling author and networking expert joins Graduate Alumni Board

by Christine Cox

April 28, 2014

Tag: Alumni

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Joe Sweeney stands near the statue of Ara Parseghian.

Decades before his book, Networking is a Contact Sport, hit the New York Times Best Sellers list, Joe Sweeney MBA ’84 had his first networking experience at 8 years old. It happened at Notre Dame. And with legendary Irish football coach Ara Parseghian.

“Two of my eight older brothers were studying at Notre Dame at that time. Jack was in the seminary and Tim was a walk-on quarterback on the freshman football team—they didn’t allow freshmen to play on the varsity team,” Sweeney recalls. “Tim kept talking about getting an athletics scholarship and a spot on the varsity team the next year.”

Young Joe would have done anything to help his brother. So when his family was visiting campus in December 1966, he sneaked away to Coach Parseghian’s office. “I asked the secretary if Coach Parseghian was available, and it turned out he was. Coach came out and shook my hand and we chatted about the great football season. I was very confident, not nervous at all.

“Then I asked him if he’d please give Tim a football scholarship. And Coach was very kind and promised to give Tim a ‘good look.’ I was on cloud nine. It was this experience that taught me the lesson of true networking—doing something for someone else.”

Whether it was Joe’s work, Tim’s talent, or a combination of both, Tim did get a football scholarship the next year. And, with his first taste of networking under his belt, Joe unwittingly started down his life’s path. These days, he’s in demand as a speaker on numerous business topics and has given nearly 200 talks worldwide in the past three years while continuing his work as an investment banker.

Joe joined the Mendoza Graduate Alumni Board this year, and answered five questions during the board’s visit on April 11.

Why did you choose Notre Dame for your MBA?

I had three older brothers who graduated from here, so I knew it was a special place and a values-centered place and not just about numbers. Plus, I played basketball in college and really wanted to play in the famous Bookstore Basketball Tournament. Our team won both years I was here, and we faced Lou Nanni (ND vice president for university relations) and his team both times for the championship. Lou and I still talk about it every time we see each other.

How did your MBA experience at Notre Dame influence you as a professional?

I came to Notre Dame with a little different mindset than other MBA students. I already knew I wanted to buy a business. Near the end of my MBA program, I started writing letters to business owners in the Midwest. I put each business name and contact information on a 3-by-5 card and then wrote 1,300 letters. The Notre Dame connection helped me network with business owners. The alums were interested and invested in helping me succeed.

What do people need to know about networking?

The most common misperception is that networking is about getting something. Most people think of networking as a bunch of alpha males at a cocktail party chasing you down with business cards. The truth is that you network to give and serve, not to get something out of it. And if you figure this out and do this effectively, you will get everything you want and more.

Why do you think your networking book became so popular?

Because most people have the wrong frame of mind about networking and want to learn the truth. When I think of the greatest networker, I think of Mother Teresa. Her whole mission was to help others get what they need.

What can you say about your upcoming book?      

It’s called Moving the Needle: Get Clear, Get Free and Get Going in Your Career, Business and Life (Wiley). It’ll be released in August. The book is a result of feedback I got from the marketplace and explains how to change behavior and improve performance by focusing on how to get clarity, get free, and get going. I think there’s a universal appeal, and I feel blessed to share this message.