It often conjures up images of contrived events filled with sweaty handshakes, awkward conversation and force-feeding of business cards.
Many of the students and young adults I have worked with seem to perceive these events as the singular form of in-person networking.
Thankfully, they aren’t.
In fact, they’re not even the best form. Authentic networking looks and feels very different.
It feels a lot like building friendships - mostly because, well, that's exactly what it is.
Authentic networking is intrinsically-motivated, long-term, meaningful relationship building with people who share common values, beliefs and interests.
Sound more enjoyable? It likely is – and that's exactly why I recommend that all young people get started on it right away. The good news is that you are likely already doing it. The challenge is that you may not realize it until many years from now.
So what separates authentic networking from friendship-building, you ask?
Very little - the process of relationship building is the same. The only difference with authentic networking is that, when the stars happen to align, these friendships can improve work or commercially-related aspects of a person’s life.
The best way I can describe authentic networking and its benefits is through my current business partnership, Escape Manor for Business. To paint a clear picture of where the seeds of this partnership were planted, we need to go back to 2004, onboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea, a decade before Escape Manor or MentorU had been created.
That is when I first met Escape Manor Co-Founder, Chris Bisson.
Chris joined the ship to work a short contract to cover the holiday season. I had been there about one month on my first contract working on cruise ships. Suffice to say that, after a very brief feeling-out period, we hit it off.
Following those two weeks, we stayed in touch and would visit each other back home (Chris in Ottawa, and I in Montreal) during our vacations between ship contracts. We worked a few more contracts together and we developed a very close friendship.
We had similar interests, values and beliefs about the world and what we wanted to accomplish in it.
When we eventually "retired" from cruise ships after a few years, I moved to Vancouver to work at the 2010 Olympics, but we stayed in touch and I hired Chris to work a short contract on my team at the Richmond Olympic Oval. We watched Clara Hughes win her record-setting sixth Olympic medal from 40 feet away.
Still one of my all-time favourite memories.
I later moved to Ottawa, where Chris had settled back in. We went through six months of unemployment together and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro a couple of years later. Chris's friends became my friends. We spent a lot of time together on the golf course, in the hockey arena and around the kitchen table playing cards. We supported each other during trying times, including a failed business and an abandoned wedding engagement.
You get the picture – we were great friends. As the saying goes, I would lay down in traffic for him.
Fast forward a few years to the spring of 2015. Escape Manor had opened its doors six months earlier, and had taken the Ottawa entertainment industry by storm.
Chris and fellow owners Billy, Steve and Neil (who I had also developed friendships with) saw many corporate groups using the escape rooms for team-building events, and they identified an opportunity to offer additional value to these guests by providing a professional development component beyond the escape experience itself.
Cue the authentic networking.
Because we were friends, the ownership group knew of my abilities and passion for personal and professional development, and they trusted me. They had seen me at my best, and - equally as important - at my worst. They didn’t just know what my skills were, they had a deep understanding of my character and values.
So, they asked me to build an effective team-building program. No formal business meeting or contract required. They asked me after one of our rec-league softball games, as we sipped a couple of beers.
They could have asked any one of the hundreds of qualified coaches or consultants in the Ottawa area. They asked me because they trusted me completely (or, at least as completely as new business owners can trust a third party to work with their customers).
Trust takes a long time to fully form. Its development knows no precise timeline and the process is open-ended. It is, however, an important outcome of authentic networking.
Whether initiated through civic engagement, recreational sports or some other community-oriented activity, authentic networking is the result of MentorU’s first two fundamental principles for significance: action and openness.
Here’s my advice to all young adults: take action toward people and activities that are intrinsically interesting to you, and remain open-minded to building new relationships simply for the natural emotional benefit they bring to you and the other person. These are the first two steps on the path to authentic networking.
To date, Escape Manor has had over 50,000 groups attempt their rooms, and I have helped over 50 corporate and school groups extract the most important lessons from their team-building activities. A win-win-win scenario that helps build stronger teams, enables Escape Manor to offer a unique product in the market, and allows me to make use of my greatest passions and talents in an exciting way.
As for the friendship – Chris stood in my wedding last summer, and I will be standing in his in one month’s time.
It’s awesome that we get to collaborate on work projects that are meaningful to us both, but it’s just the icing on the cake. It’s the psychic income from sharing important times and emotions with friends that should act as a motivator to “network”.
Oh, I almost forgot – here’s my business card. Let’s grab a coffee, if you agree.