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A lesson in networking on the links

September 28, 2010

Students who take Business Golf 101 at NIU don’t learn how to sink a 15-foot putt, but they do learn the value of “turf conferences” as a way to make connections and close deals.

Since 1997, Professor Dan Weilbaker and his NIU College of Business colleagues have worked a day of golf into the curriculum of the NIU Professional Sales Program. The program, which offers a certificate in sales, was the second university-level sales curriculum in the country, and the very first to incorporate business golf into the curriculum.

This year’s event was held Sept. 10 in Bolingbrook.

The event takes up but one day out of the semester, but it is a powerful real-world lesson in the importance of networking, which is at the heart of sales, Weilbaker says.

Like many other aspects of the four-course curriculum, the golf outing is intended to provide an experience that will give students a head start when they enter the business world.

Dan Weilbaker

Dan Weilbaker

“Everything in our program is designed to help students not only understand the sales process, but also to experience it so that they can master those skills much more quickly when they land their first job,” Weilbaker says.

For the golf event, students are each assigned to a foursome with two or three working sales professionals. They spend the day applying lessons learned in a lecture from earlier in the week, in which Weilbaker teaches them how to breakdown a round of golf into a nine, or 18-hole sales call with a focus on getting to know a client and their needs.

Over the years, some students have learned that lesson quickly and exceedingly well. Several have met their future bosses at the event, which is sponsored by several major corporations that send some of their best sales people to meet and evaluate the highly sought-after future graduates of the program.

“The recruiters get to meet students in an informal setting that allows them to learn a little more about their character, and to see if they are the right fit for their corporate culture,” Weilbaker says.

It provides a more complete picture of potential future employees than many other, more formal events, says Cathy Catino, a recruitment specialst for Sherwin Williams.

“It’s one of my favorite events,” says Catino,who has occasionally found prospects at the event. “It’s a great real-world opportunity for students to learn how to network in an informal business situation. “

The day on the golf course also turns into a bit of a homecoming. Nearly a dozen graduates of the sales program attended this year’s event.

“I remember how much I enjoyed the golf outing as a student, and how much it meant to me that these professionals took the time to participate,” says Sarah Riebe, a senior sales representative for Lilly USA and a 2001 graduate of the program. “It’s also a great opportunity for me to network with other sales professionals and keep in touch with the program.”

The golf outing has proven so successful that Weilbaker has added a bowling outing in the spring semester that creates similar networking opportunities for students.