Taking networking beyond the screen

23 March 2018
- Guest Blogs
A guest blog by Wesley Manson, London Regional Manager, (KPMG) Restaurant Associates

Many of the younger generation working in contract catering are of an age where the whole of their adult lives have coincided with the age of social media. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are a natural part of our daily routines and it can be difficult to imagine life without them. We live in a 'now' era - instant communication via email, instant sharing of our thoughts and lives, and instant gratification as 'likes' flood in.

Integrating our lives with social media does have a number of benefits and opens up opportunities that we might not have otherwise. Sites like LinkedIn allow us to connect with a far wider pool of industry colleagues than we could ever have hoped to connect with in the past. We can also network more efficiently, with less time investment, and at our own convenience - be it whilst commuting on the train or at lunch. Social media is also a fantastic platform for companies to showcase what they do, to promote the achievements of their staff, to share ideas and to learn from industry peers.

A false environment

However, the convenience of social media seems to result in many younger professionals being over-reliant on electronic networking at the expense of face-to-face networking, which can have a number of drawbacks. We connect with so many people but on a more superficial level and perhaps build fewer genuine connections. It's also much easier to fall into an echo chamber wherein our networks are curated to include only the people with whom we agree, and we don't get exposure to different or challenging ideas. We can also risk becoming 'keyboard warriors' who can only express ourselves online as we fear being challenged in person.

I think that we as young professionals should make a greater effort to specifically engage with face-to-face networking. There is no need to think of electronic and face-to-face networking as a dichotomy or a choice. Meeting colleagues and others in the industry is a fantastic complement to social media use, allowing us to build strong connections and build confidence.

The value and importance of face-to-face networking was brought into great focus for me recently when I volunteered to assist in the running of the Association of Catering Excellence (ACE) Charity Dinner. One thing that struck me at the start of the evening was how I knew almost nobody at the event beyond their names and faces from social media, whilst the slightly older attendees had personal connections with many others in the room. Whilst I made polite introductions they already had lots to talk about and share.

As the night went on, I got a real buzz out of being with a group of like-minded people, getting to properly know people from many different companies, and truly feeling the passion of the crowd for their shared industry. Getting to meet some very senior attendees, including some who I had previously aspired to emulate professionally, made them feel more approachable - I realised they were in similar positions to me at my age and had the same worries and struggles.

Of course, whilst I had a very positive experience, it is important to remember that face-to-face networking organisations and events like this are not always accessible to younger people. Membership costs for industry organisations coupled with the costs of attending functions and dinners can quickly put them out of reach. It's also difficult to attend an event where they might not know anybody and to have to try to network in a room where they feel like 'the outsider'. It's easy to be put off the idea of attending networking events when social media feels both more convenient and safer, but I believe this can lead to missing out on important relationships and opportunities.

Something else I learned from attending the ACE event was that they, and other industry organisations, are extremely keen to increase membership among young professionals. So what can organisations like ACE do to increase the number of young members? How can they encourage young professionals and provide opportunities to meet peers, to share knowledge, to learn and to build stronger relationships? It can benefit them as individuals but can also benefit the industry as a whole - free flow of ideas promotes best practice and can spark innovation and new ideas.

Here are some ideas which might engage younger professionals:

Mentorship schemes - pairing younger professionals with more experienced colleagues to facilitate career discussions, networking opportunities and develop confidence.

Subsidised or discounted memberships to industry organisations for young professionals to make them more accessible. Similarly, subsidised or reduced price tickets to functions and networking events to bring them within reach.

Events and awards which specifically recognise the work and achievements of young professionals in the industry. One example of this in action is the ACE ‘Robyns’ awards which looks to showcase young talent in contract catering.

Introductory events, or even ‘intro to networking’ evenings to engage with those who have never attended such events in the past and may be scared to do so.

To other young professionals I would say embrace face-to-face networking as a way to complement social media, become a better communicator and further your career. Industry organisations are crying out to get you on board and you will be warmly welcomed!

A note from ACE:

We have been thinking about the next generation and introduced a few initiatives to attract younger members. These include the ACE Robyns award and alumni pop up events for those shortlisted in the ACE Robyns. We are also reviewing our membership rates for next generation, extending to undergraduates and entrepreneurs through EP. We have also invited 21 year old Ruth Hansom, Young National Chef of the Year to join Adam Handling as a patron thus extending our reach to young culinary professionals.

Blog written by
Wesley Manson
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