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The Value of our Networks

Song suggestion: Grasp and Still Connect, Paul Weller Drink suggestion: Melopepo (melon and almond infusion for cordials), Liquoristerie de Provence

The Bar Forbin reopened this week at the corner of rue Italie and Cours Mirabeau. A lovely renovation has transformed this once faded beauty into favored destination for late afternoon drinks in Aix-en-Provence for my son Jess and me. To see the cafe bar restored, after having sat derelict, graffitied and trash strewn for the past 3 years, was immensely gratifying. It also left me with a tinge of disappointment.

I had taken coffees regularly at the Bar Forbin years ago when it was a dump. I put up with the shady regulars (who probably felt the same way about me), tobacco stained walls and tattered furniture because the drinks were cheap and I liked the feel of the place. “I should buy this cafe and fix it up,” I murmured many times over chipped cups of espresso, with its great location and fine architectural lines.  I mentioned it often to friends when back in the States over late-night beers and discussions about the bosses we endured, the dream careers we imagined, and the desire (no, absolute NEED) to open a bar. “I know the perfect place! It’s squared by two of the busiest streets in Aix, has a great open layout, and is probably available on the cheap.”

Well, someone with more cahones than me saw the same potential and acted on it. The Forbin has been outfitted with a new bar, beautifully retiled floor, freshly painted walls, modern recessed lights, refurbished sliding iron and glass doors, burgundy awnings, and all new outdoor furniture for the deck chairs and tables. Gorgeous, dammit!

I’m a rich talker and a poor doer. My only solace is the company I keep; many of us suffer from the daydreamers’ affliction. I have written in earlier blogs – #5 (The Upside of Hard Times) in particular – about finding one’s Mission and designing a Passion Plan to achieve it. This technique helps me resolve (perhaps a better phrase is “avoid again”) the frustration I feel over too many missed opportunities.

Perhaps my luck with the bar would have turned out better had I sketched out a plan and connected more quickly with the right people in Aix (rather than fantasizing with friends in San Francisco). The greater the things we try to achieve, the more challenging it is to achieve them alone. Tapping into the knowledge, experience and connections of our contacts (and their contacts, and their contacts-of-contacts) expands what is possible and turbocharges the pace at which we move forward.

Meetings, both professional and personal, in the past week have reminded me of the value of networking. On Friday I had 2 appointments in Marseille, the first to introduce myself to a new possible client, the second to follow up on a consulting proposal. The introduction probably won’t turn into a client and the proposal is stalled (what’s new?), but in both cases I came away with unexpected and invaluable connections for my INSEAD classes, where I rely heavily on industry professionals for classroom speaking, student mentoring, and business plan judging. It is so common to go into a meeting seeking “A” and coming out with “B + C.”

Just as unexpected were the outcomes of personal gatherings recently. A fellow student in my weekly French class turns out to be a top selling author and serial entrepreneur; another great speaker for my classes. On the flip side, my friend and a budding entrepreneur Kate turns out to be a certified life coach, with a rolodex of great contacts for me in the coaching world around Europe. This I learn over lunch last Tuesday to discuss her latest start-up idea, neither of us aware of the common interest in positive psychology. Evidence again that the value of our networks is manifested most often in ways we don’t expect or remotely anticipate. We benefit not only from a larger network, but one that cuts across a multiverse of personal interests and professional pursuits.

Too often we stagnate with age, particularly at midlife as we approach the end of Phase 1, our core careers. Why continue to put ourselves into new and often uncomfortable situations, thrown in with strange people, if our small circle of friends will suffice for relaxing afternoons on the links? Well, if afternoons on the links are all you seek, then bore yourself, in both senses of the word, into your tiny 18th hole on earth and atrophy away. If you want Phase 2, your encore career, to reflect more than a lower handicap, then reinvention and the expansion of your social and professional webs into new dimensions is crucial.

A final thought. The word “network” has always sounded impersonal and detached to me, as if its members, the “contacts,” existed solely for harvesting and exploitation.  While I preach the value of working one’s network to death to my students, I’ve always struggled to separate business contacts from friends, and it’s hard to say how this has impacted my career over the many years. I seek out pleasant people and don’t pursue connections with difficult Type As, even when the value in doing so is unquestionable. If you want to work me to your own profitable ends, by all means call. But I’ll likely be as curious about your family and hobbies as your business, and we may indeed end up with cocktails if it’s late afternoon. The Bar Forbin perhaps?

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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