Networking is an indispensable part of making our way in the corporate world. But it too often gets a bad reputation. It might stem from the queasy feeling many of us get about the idea of “selling ourselves” or handing out business cards left and right; in truth, I believe the most effective networking shouldn’t feel transactional at all. It should be about relationship building, in a mutually beneficial way.
But the real problem with networking, for many of us, may come down to the environment in which we typically find ourselves during these moments. Most of us don’t organize our adult lives around the idea of thrusting ourselves into a room full of strangers, maybe lubricated with alcohol and scarfing down some less-than-healthy appetizers. The entire experience can feel more like being at a cattle call than network building.
What if there was a better way? What if we could re-orient our approach to building our networks around activities that we actually find joy in, like exploring the great outdoors?
This epiphany came to me a decade ago when I was attending the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. I was able to sneak away for a bit of downtime on the weekend – cycling in Marin County and exploring Yosemite National Park. I was blown away by some of the pristine beauty nestled all around San Francisco: Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and the other corners of the Bay Area that set my soul ablaze, even in the traditionally bleak month of January.
I found myself as energized by my time in the outdoors as I had been by my experiences at the conference. That’s when the idea hit me that there may be a better way to build relationships that involves coming together not in a stuffy hotel ballroom but outdoors, enjoying nature, exercising. Yes, we’d still be talking business, but in an inspiring and relaxing environment that can better stimulate creativity and reflection.
I had seen firsthand, from participating in triathlons, the transformation that can take place when you step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself on a physical, primal level. Why not bring that same ethos to larger teams and networks as well?
The first such trip I organized was a three-day trip to Yosemite. It had some nerve-wracking moments, to be sure. What if something went wrong with the colleagues and contacts I had recruited and sold on this crazy idea of mine? But my fears eased as the big day arrived; I saw the excitement of people preparing for the trips, and meeting up on arrival. Once the trip was underway, people were enjoying funny and relaxing moments together – as well as challenging themselves with strenuous climbs that helped to suddenly put our day-to-day corporate anxieties into some perspective.
The trip ended, but the feelings it inspired endured. Our bond and relationships continued to thrive long after we returned home, as we shared memorable photos and memories from the trip. We never stopped thinking and hoping for the time we could all gather outside together again. We were hoping to make it a tradition and had a follow-up trip planned for early 2021; as you can imagine the trip we envisioned was quickly scrapped as the virus spread around the world, though many of us continued to connect virtually to keep our bonds strong.
When I reflect on the trip, I, of course, recall the scenery and vistas of the great outdoors. But my memories continued to be centered, first and foremost, around the people on the trip. I remember one guest who encountered one delay after another; his baggage was lost by the airline and we needed to make a detour to help him pick up the right equipment. It would be easy for the other participants to become impatient. But that wasn’t the attitude at all; we had very quickly formed a team, a cohesive bond, and a sense of solidarity that wouldn’t let us leave any single person behind.
Throughout the pandemic, I have spent a lot of time brainstorming about hosting one of these networking events in Europe. The opportunity finally arose with a biotech investor conference coming to Milan as COVID restrictions began to ease. I threw myself into organizing a new multi-day trip, but this one would be extra special as it would take place in my home country of Italy. I could utilize my local knowledge to put together something special, including sharing hidden gems of the Italian Alps.
There were 15 people on the trip, including leading biopharma CEOs, serial board members, venture capital investors and 2 of my closest colleagues. Some of them had been on the previous trip. We had the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities, including a personalized cooking experience with a chef, strenuous hiking and dinners organized around icebreaking and introducing ourselves to one another. We also mountain-biked and did a treasure hunt.
We unplugged and stepped away from the incessant dinging of our emails for face-to-face chatting and laughing while hiking our way up to a mountain summit.
We made memories together that you never come away with after a traditional conference: conquering summits, cycling through beautiful valleys, exploring ancient canyons, taking refreshing baths in the cold mountain river.
People told me that they left feeling like their souls had been enriched. And the connections live on beyond the events, as we continue to partner and work together. That is the most gratifying part of these experiences: seeing strangers become friends and colleagues, who go on to collaborate, strike deals, and help one another in their business dealings.
My takeaway is simple: the modern world has made it easy for us to disconnect from each other and from our natural environment. The secret to building stronger ties with one another begins with forming stronger ties to the wilds of the natural world around us.
If you want to go farther and deeper – begin by going outside.