Maintaining Professional Networks in Good Times and Bad

3d low-poly people at street with connections.

“Oh, ye of little faith.” Eleanor Byers imagined her mother scolding her with these words for questioning the strength of relationships formed by her husband while attending an executive education program at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario.

While Dick Byers was across Canada focusing on professional development, his wife was back home in Calgary managing a monster move, which involved “packing the first 19 years of our marriage into boxes.” Despite being exhausted when attending the program’s final weekend with spouses, she was quickly impressed.

“Before I had time to catch my breath,” Eleanor Byers noted in an essay she later penned on the topic, “the school’s dynamic faculty was sweeping us off our feet, feeding minds and bodies with thought-provoking workshops and scrumptious meals. Every hour of the weekend was planned with meticulous attention to detail, and my batteries were soon recharged by the energy and enthusiasm of this team.”

Dick Byers’s calls home had described “jam-packed days of lectures and case studies woven between early-morning jogs and a host of other physical and social endeavours,” so his wife had no doubt that bonds were being formed, especially between a subgroup of program participants from Calgary, who collectively hosted Western Canadian theme nights for their classmates—complete with hay bales and home-on-the-range-style music—to help everyone wind down after intensive days of self-discovery and reflection.

After what she experienced in just two days, Eleanor Byers was also convinced that program graduates would return to their respective workplaces “armed with a wealth of inventive ideas.” And yet, without much else beyond the program in common, she didn’t think any of them would remain connected for very long.

Simply put, despite seeing immediate value in the executive education program, Eleanor Byers had little faith in the longevity of the bonds that her husband had developed with his classmates as she watched the subgroup from her hometown depart campus with heads poking out of taxis to shout: “See you in Calgary.”

But as fate would have it, the network in question outlasted this lack of faith.

The professional network formed by Dick Byers and other Ivey classmates from Calgary got its start in the summer of 1979, and it is still going strong after helping its founders navigate numerous recessions, not to mention a pandemic. In fact, despite multiple retirements, its surviving members would still be meeting regularly if COVID-19 hadn’t intervened.

Inspired by this success story, this article briefly examines the value of peer networks, then offers advice on how to maintain and grow professional relationships when large physical gatherings are not an option.

We then look back to the summer of 1979, highlighting how an enterprising group of Calgary natives managed to maintain a professional network for over four decades after attending the 32nd annual Management Training Course (offered by Ivey when it was known as the University of Western Ontario’s School of Business Administration).

Why Peer Networks Matter

There is no such thing as a perfect executive, or even anything close. Everyone makes mistakes, which is why managing effectively is all about learning to learn from your errors while maintaining a fair understanding of your ever-changing strengths and weaknesses.

Good judgment, not perfection, is the goal.

As former Bank of England director Sir Andrew Likierman recently noted in Harvard Business Review, leaders need many qualities, but good judgment tops the list. “Those with ambition but no judgment run out of money. Leaders with charisma but no judgment lead their followers in the wrong direction. Those with passion but no judgment hurl themselves down the wrong paths. Those with drive but no judgment get up very early to do the wrong things. Sheer luck and factors beyond your control may determine your eventual success, but good judgment will stack the cards in your favour.”

Maintaining good judgment requires a serious commitment to the ongoing development of leadership skills, not to mention leader character. But as explained by Likierman, now a professor at the London Business School, leaders with good judgment also “have a breadth of experiences and relationships that enable them to recognize parallels or analogies that others miss—and if they don’t know something, they’ll know someone who does and lean on that person’s judgment.”

In other words, good judgment is a team sport.

And that, in a nutshell, is why peer networks are so valuable.

The Value of Networks

Developing a robust peer network has long been considered mission critical for business professionals. In addition to improving judgment via regular access to independent perspectives from people who will give it to you straight, they generate career and business opportunities. A well-developed network—as more than a few people today can attest—also serves as a support mechanism, helping individuals manage unexpected market or career disruptions and personal challenges.

Unfortunately, there are limited ways to form and expand meaningful networks outside of the workplace. Before social distancing, this could be done attending industry conferences or social events. But this takes considerable effort, since networking is much more than a numbers game. Indeed, even people who love working a room can find themselves with little return on time invested because good professional networks are based on shared connections.

“Since the personal and professional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak represent an unprecedented common experience, anyone who puts a little time and thought into virtual networking can easily build a more robust professional network.”

Offering shared learnings and experiences that support peer network development contributes to the value of business school programs. As Jeff Schmitt observed in a 2015 Poets and Quants article, business schools offer extraverts and introverts alike an instant professional network that extends well beyond classmates to alumni. “It’s natural,” he writes, adding “people want to help those with whom they share a common bond. Attending their alma mater proves that you have the chops to be a difference-maker. It is that unspoken reinforcement that you are worth their time.”

However, if you want them to last decades, even business school networks require regular maintenance, which is obviously more difficult when physical distancing requirements exist.

As the world strives to find a new normal, nobody knows how long it will take for industry conferences or professional events to recover their networking value. A second wave of COVID-19 could also force a renewed lockdown. But as anyone active online can attest, it is possible to maintain and even expand professional networks when isolated by work or a pandemic.

In fact, since the personal and professional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak represent an unprecedented common experience, anyone who puts a little time and thought into virtual networking can easily build a more robust professional network that can help them improve decision-making, identify career opportunities, and overcome personal challenges for years to come in good and bad times alike.

Virtual Networking

The only real obstacle to networking virtually is not taking time to do it. To get started, we recommend putting together a targeted list of business contacts and colleagues and taking a few moments each day to reach out to them.

Whether networking virtually or in-person, the goal is to build mutually beneficial relationships, so be sure to convey more than just superficial interest in how your contacts are doing. You can do this by sharing inspiring messages or providing useful information. Just make sure to prioritize relationships over personal gain. If your motive comes from an authentic place of caring and compassion, it will be remembered.

Using video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype, you can catch up and share experiences with contacts interested in having one-on-one or group meetings that are more personal than professional (although with home schooling, co-parenting, cleaning, and countless other stressors, group chats via text might be a better option in some cases). Honesty and humanity are valued more than ever right now, so don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability by being candid about what you’ve learned about yourself during this period of social isolation. But remember to listen and be mindful of Zoom fatigue.

One major benefit of virtual networking is the lack of geographical limitations, so keep in mind that top-tier networking opportunities have followed everyone online. The Ivey Academy, our full-service executive education and development division, frequently live streams free interactive lectures and virtual fire-side chats on topics ranging from building resilience to spurring innovation during times of crisis (see our event page). Other online networking opportunities can be found by searching websites like Eventbrite. So, look around for events that interest you and use them to make new connections across the country or around the world. Many of these events are designed around the “speed dating” concept, so you can significantly expand your networks from the comfort of your home office.

Social media also allows you to diversify your network, so you should be an active participant on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—and not just when confined to your home. While you are at it, remember that profiles are the first thing anyone sees when searching about you online, so make sure they’re accurate and complete, not to mention brand positive. LinkedIn’s networking algorithm (a method of determining what content your connections will see) is particularly friendly toward user-generated content, so consider publishing original content.

Volume isn’t the goal, so don’t just push things out. Instead, take time to create readable and useful content that has the potential to inspire your connections to like, comment, and share. Also, remember to interact with content posted by others, using it to solidify existing connections or make new ones. By seeing your regular activity, members of your network will maintain a sense of familiarity—even if you’re not communicating with them directly.

Virtual networking, of course, will never replace the power and impact of connecting in person, so as you network online, think about ways that you can maintain and deepen your connections when larger physical gatherings become possible.

There are many creative ways to do this, but one of the best dates back to 1979, when a group of nine Ivey executive education students from Calgary figured out a simple trick to making network maintenance not feel like hard work—they turned it into actual work.

Learning from MTC79

Despite the unprecedented challenges of today’s world, it would be wrong to describe 1979 as a walk in the park. With no social media, a gentleman peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter in the White House, and the Sony Walkman representing state-of-the-art mobile devices, business leaders and politicians obviously didn’t face the range of burning issues that confronts them today. But there were enough things going on to keep everyone on their toes.

In Canada, spiking oil prices and wage demands were driving up inflation and interest rates while Quebec appeared ready to separate. These issues helped the Progressive Conservative Party under Joe Clark form a minority government in mid-1979, after defeating Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in a federal election, and then helped Trudeau return to power less than a year later. In the United States, the first quarter got off to a bad start thanks to Reactor 2 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, which experienced a partial meltdown in March (just after Hollywood released The China Syndrome, a movie about a nuclear meltdown). Meanwhile, on the international stage, IRA bombers were in full swing as the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Afghanistan and the Islamic Revolution in Iran led to the U.S. embassy hostage taking in Tehran.

In this environment, 124 executives from across Canada and around the world invested in themselves, paying $3,500 (in 1979 dollars) to attend the MTC program, which promised to deploy the Ivey case method—which fosters participatory group learning via the simulation of managing real-world organizational challenges—to help them collectively identify and correct deficiencies in their management behaviours and skills while providing insights into opportunities for personal growth. A precursor to the Ivey Executive Program offered today by The Ivey Academy, the MTC program pioneered advanced management education in Canada when it was launched in 1948, targeting seasoned executives, typically over the age of 35.

In addition to Dick Byers, the MTC subgroup from Calgary that formed in 1979 included Bert Alfaro, Peter Breen, Joe Ewanchyna, Ken McNeil, Robert Orthlieb, John Pollock, Walt Saponja, and Trevor Williams. The group had an age span of 15 years, and although two members worked for the same company, most of them didn’t know each other well before moving into Western’s Medway Hall during the dog days of summer (July 15 to August 17). Comprised of five engineers, one landman, a lawyer, an HR specialist, and a photo-lithographer, they also had divergent interests, ranging from golf, flying, hunting, fishing, and distance running to singing, dancing, gardening, and linguistics.

Calgary’s Networking Nine from Ivey’s MTC79 pose for picture to celebrate 30 years of networking in 2010. Back row: John Pollock, Bert Alfaro, Peter Breen (deceased) Ken McNeil, Dick Byers, Walt Saponja, Robert Orthlieb. Front row: Trevor Williams, Joe Ewanchyna (deceased).

But it wasn’t long before they were collectively offering classmates a taste of Calgary cooking and music, providing an alternative to Central Canadian entertainment of the day (which included a disco album by NHL legand Guy Lafleur), not to mention jointly taking “over the campus wall” outings to The Ceeps, a London watering hole that has catered to the Western University crowd for generations.

A lot has changed in executive education at Ivey over the years—and we are not just talking about attire (although white belts and shoes have clearly declined in popularity). As MTC79 headed for campus, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had just made history for being elected Europe’s first female head of government. But while the MTC program was relatively diverse geographically and racially that year, it had no female students or instructors. In addition to benefiting from gender diversity, Ivey Academy programs today complement case learning with experiential workshops, role-playing, and post-program coaching. Many students also take on LEAP projects, which involve working with faculty and peers to solve problems that students bring with them from their organizations.

What hasn’t changed as Ivey’s executive education programs have evolved is the emphasis on creating a one-of-a-kind shared experience that fosters self-awareness in a risk-free environment, enabling participants to learn from each other while forming deep relationships that provide a steady return on investment over the long term. And in 1979, the members of the MTC subgroup from Calgary were determined to get the most out of their program by maintaining the personal bonds created over weeks of collectively opening up to self-development during the day and socializing at evening events.

“We achieved a cohesiveness that has endured over 40 years, which is certainly admirable if not unique,” says Robert Orthlieb, noting the immediate key to this success was agreeing to get together soon after leaving school, while the spirit of shared experiences was still fresh.

As Eleanor Byers noted in an essay commemorating the group’s first 25 years, which was celebrated by a group Baltic cruise, the initial post-class meeting was arranged before luggage from the 1979 summer program was unpacked. Within weeks, a monthly schedule of lunch-time gatherings with rotating hosts was set up. In the early 80s, an annual holiday night with spouses replaced the December lunch, integrating spouses into the network.

Byers attributes the success of this network to a common appreciation for family values, alternative viewpoints, and fellowship. But as Orthlieb points out, it isn’t easy keeping a group of diverse people together for more than a decade, which is why the Calgary subgroup from MTC79 decided to take network maintenance to the next level by developing a joint venture that would challenge them as a group while building on their collective skills and prior experience.

In 1992, resource companies were selling off properties not critical to their overall performance. Recognizing this as an opportunity to leverage existing contacts, generate new ones, and possibly even make some money, the group formed MTC Resources to invest in select oil and gas assets. “We realized we had a bit of an advantage with our contacts and experience, [since we were] able to get information at source,” Orthlieb says.

According to Trevor Williams, the official purpose of the venture was “to invest in and conduct business within the oil and gas industry or such other enterprises as approved by the shareholders.” But keeping connected was the founding objective. With each group member sharing corporate responsibilities as directors and risks as stakeholders, an annual general meeting was added to the group’s monthly gatherings. After being held at a mountain resort, the AGM morphed into another annual social event, which further integrated spouses into the network.

With career horizons shrinking as oil and gas prices were peaking, the group decided to wind down the company years ago. But prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the subgroup from MTC79 continued to gather for lunch nine times a year. “Pooling some beer money [to form a joint venture] became fun and ultimately very profitable, allowing for group action, shared activities, and joint decisions,” says Orthlieb. “And here we are 40 years later.”

The extended Calgary subgroup from MTC79 celebrate 40 years of networking and fellowship in December 2019.

According to Williams, the group’s business generated annual double-digits returns, but the wealth created wasn’t just financial, since the relationships that the venture helped maintain proved invaluable both professionally and personally.

Indeed, as Eleanor Byers noted on the group’s 25th anniversary in 2004, “If Forbes was to measure wealth by the quality of friendships,” the Calgary subgroup from MTC79 “would be grinning from its Top Four Hundred.”

As noted above, the longevity of this inspiring executive education network started with a shared experience on a university campus in 1979. So, whether your professional connections were formed in a business school program or not, keep in mind that everyone on the planet has just shared the soul-searching experience of being isolated from others during a pandemic. And that represents a clear opportunity to connect with others like never before, which can help advance your career—not to mention improve how we collectively face the many challenges and inequities that exist in the workplace and our communities in this disruptive age.

About the Author

Mark Healy is a member of the senior management team at Western University’s Ivey Business School, where he serves as Executive Director of the Ivey Academy, a full-service learning and development….Read Mark Healy's full bio

About the Author

IBJ Editor Thomas Watson is an award-winning business journalist with significant experience in the corporate world, where he headed investor relations (and served as a whistleblower) for a global….
Read Thomas Watson's full bio

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