A room full of people from all walks of life and a three Michelin star chef cooking your meal, all under the roof of a building that seems to live and breathe history. It sounds like the opening scene to a book or film, but this was in fact a reality, thanks to Sajna Rahman and Andrew Hulbert – easily two of the most generous professionals I have met. Tomorrow Meets Today (TMT), which myself and Esme attended last week, could be described as a networking event, which it certainly is, but it’s also much more than that. TMT is an evening of inspiration and collaboration between those that are leading the way now and those that hope to one day soon; an informal exchange of ideas and advice for today and tomorrow. Networking with a purpose, you might say.
So with guests representing the present and future, the only thing that was needed was something to symbolise the past. And what better than the venue that was selected for this year’s edition: the grand dining room of Innholders Hall – a site that has been in continuous use since at least 1670. Granted, the oak cladding that lines its interior has been restored numerous times in the years since (notably after bomb damage in 1941), but it was clear that we were all in the presence of a building that had seen it all. The phrase ‘if walls could talk’ came to mind, but luckily they didn’t need to.
The evening began with a potted history of the Innholders building, which served as an interesting preamble for the discussion that was to follow. TMT 2017 was then formally kicked off with an introduction and explanation of the evening’s proceedings from our hosts. The eight leaders, who represented ‘today’, were to be divided into teams of two, moving across four tables as each course was finished. The future leaders, who represented ‘tomorrow’, were to stay on the same table while rotations were completed. All guests were encouraged to share their experiences in work and life, and also to think about how they ‘pay it forward’ – the chosen theme for TMT 2017. Once the dinner was over, guests would then retire to the lobby for more drinks and discussion. This format proved a great success; it gave everyone had a chance to meet and no two rotations were the same.
Courses started as quickly as they finished, so everyone had to get stuck in – no room for boring small talk here! Even though the leaders’ stay on each table was brief, conversation felt natural and genuinely valuable. The brevity of this format fuelled a collaborative and honest atmosphere – a refreshing change from your typical convention centre or exhibition setting. With each leader coming from a different background there was no shortage of topics to discuss. The variation of each career path was impressive to hear about, demonstrating that life is rarely set in stone and change will often come from the leftfield.
Within a few hours my table had spoken with non-executive directors, facilities veterans, PR and communications specialists, authors, public speakers, and business strategists. These leaders all shared a common ground having experienced great success in their respective careers, but not without obstacles to get over somewhere down the line. Learning of these difficulties was enlightening as it showed the greatest achievements are often borne out of even greater challenges. As one leader commented: “You just have to crack on and eventually you will find the correct path to follow. Trust in your abilities”. Sage advice for life in work and out of it.
Networking is so often first impression led, it can be demoralising when it feels like you’ve not made the most of an introduction. It’s said that it takes a far greater amount of cognitive activity to undo a bad first impression than it does to create one. That pressure is often at the front of people’s minds when they enter a room, but as leaders showed it need not be. One leader asked the table to think of professional relationships – and indeed personal ones outside of work – as social bank deposits. You ‘pay in’ to your relationship with someone by offering time and support to them, and in return you’ll receive similar investment as ‘interest’ on that initial deposit. An interesting analogy, and one I thought nicely sums up the idea of ‘paying it forward’.
Hearing distinguished professionals discuss the importance of developing an ongoing bond with colleagues was particularly encouraging, especially for those of us who had encountered the ‘not enough experience’ conundrum when searching for a career after full-time education. Leaders agreed that it’s not solely about the first introduction, but rather keeping an open mind and allowing time for a ‘human’ rapport to develop. Future leaders in attendance who were further down the line in their careers were testament to this, as they said it often began with someone simply giving them a chance. For me, it was great moment to see this theory translate in the ‘real’ working world – a ‘lightbulb’ moment for sure.
In a room full experience, it was hardly surprising that a lot of conversation centred around the skills required to realise full potential. This discussion led guests onto the importance of drive and ambition. Each rotation brought up something different, but a key messaged remained each time leaders took their seats at a new table: success rarely, if ever, happens on its own. Recalling this old adage seem to underline the great thing about opportunities like TMT: they are as much about sharing time-tested advice, as they are about curiosity, discovery, and inspiration. When you mix these things together good things are bound to happen, you just need the right environment for them to interact.
As the evening progressed it was evident that the biggest career success stories often sit alongside a passion. Something that fulfils personally, as well as professionally. In some cases, these efforts blurred the lines between work and life. Diversity in industry, education, personal development, and community initiatives were just some of the things that leaders had pursued, or continue to pursue. The work-life balance is inherently personal, everyone has their own way of managing the scales, so it was interesting to hear how these activities had often made their way into the working lives of very successful people. What was more significant, however, was hearing how these ‘extra-curricular’ efforts had often become central to the success of their business.
With the event being by invitation-only, I felt very lucky to be part of it all. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to sit next to someone who has done (literally) thousands of TED talks or has a seat on the board of an international organisation. While the meal was delicious, the venue incredible, and the company excellent, for me it was the feeling of possibility that made the event such a success.