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    The invisible networker


    aa14-feb-mar-2006-the-invisible-networkerGet to know as many people as possible and remember your manners. That was the advice that helped ex-soccer player and professional networker Jon Burgess survive the mean streets of East London, circa 1983. It also became the underlying principle behind his groundbreaking and Australian-born networking philosophy. Paul D. Ryan meets the original Invisible Networker.


    I meet up with Jon Burgess for a morning coffee in Richmond on what is evolving into a baking hot summer’s day. There is already a sheen on my brow, but Burgess looks cool and composed in his expensive suit. I later discover that he is an ‘ambassador’ for the elite men’s clothing label Henry Bucks, and has a similar relationship with Montblanc. In the world of Jon Burgess, it seems that clothing sponsorships are no longer reserved for the sporting elite.

    He looks his age, 39, and carries himself easily, informally. But there’s something else there, just out of reach, which I later decide is tenacity. It’s a trait you often find in sporting types and gentlemen of modest height.

    We start chatting and, right off the bat, he asks me to tell him about myself. So I find myself in an unusual and slightly surreal role for a journalist – being interviewed by my interviewee. And it isn’t just about this article or about Anthill. Before I know it I am relating salient moments from my childhood to my nodding, empathetic companion. I’m being networked.

    In search of a network

    The networking world is a bag of liquorice allsorts. For every genuine expert there exists a glut of cranks and promise peddlers looking for a taste of the corporate honey-pot.

    Most networking philosophies focus on the student’s ‘game’ – a magic combination of orchestrated serendipity and chutzpah. They either assume that most networkers are little guys with big ideas, who need some face-to-face time with that elusive CEO, or in-house sales people in search of doors to bust down.

    But according to Burgess, effective networking is rooted in everyday interactions. It is not about forging artificial relationships with big players. Neither is it about getting results at all cost.

    In fact, his personal evolution into the world of networking can be traced back to the mean streets of London, circa 1983, and a chance meeting with a skinhead called Denis.

    London calling

    As a child, Jon Burgess wanted to be a soccer star – the next Craig Johnston. As a 15 year-old, when most boys are learning to shave and going out on dates, Burgess embarked on a bold journey. With the blessing of his parents and the support of an English aunt, he headed to England, alone, spurred on by an opportunity to train with West Ham United.

    On his first day on the London estates, Burgess recalls, he was kicking a soccer ball on the street, by himself, when a skinhead approached him and demanded to know, "What the fuck ya doin’ in my area?"

    "I just froze," says Burgess. "I didn’t know what to say. I eventually told him that I was there to play for West Ham, which was lucky because that was his team. He said, ‘Look, I’m going to teach you two important lessons: remember your manners and get to know as many people as you possibly can.’ That’s essentially how I survived there, because a lot of my friends had faces like British Rail. It was a great place, but the suburbs were a real challenge. You had to get to know people very quickly. I survived five years in London without really getting ‘touched up’, as they call it. That was my first lesson in networking."

    As a junior footballer, Burgess was good, but not quite good enough. After five years of travelling through England donning boots for any club that would give him a run, Burgess ended up having a chat with Tony Brooking (brother of West Ham legend Trevor Brooking).

    "I asked him why I hadn’t made it. He said to me, ‘Aussie (that was my nickname over there), you had more ability than anybody I’ve ever seen. You just couldn’t put it together on the day consistently.’ It’s the same in business," says Burgess, palms open to the sky. "It doesn’t matter how skilful or bright you are, you have to put it together on the day. That was the second big lesson I learned while abroad."

    Career decisions

    At the ripe old age of 20, Burgess’s dream was all but over and he admits to being totally lost for the next few years as he poured over the carcass of his nascent football career and tried to make sense of his future. His dream hadn’t worked out, but in pursuing it he had unwittingly refined his skills as a networker: someone who could access people of influence and create opportunities.

    "I became very street smart," says Burgess. "What most people live between the ages of 24-34, I lived when I was 15-20. I got to meet a lot of people. I saw a lot of things that I don’t like to remember. But it was a great experience. Without that upbringing, I don’t think I would be here doing what I’m doing today. When you have to network to survive, and everything is on the line, you need to learn fast and the lessons are burned onto your soul. Meeting my first skinhead, going to a bar and building relationships with people – not for the right reasons but for safety reasons – really changes you."

    Burgess’s formative education was on the ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ streets of Essex, where firms (not gangs) ruled the neighbourhoods and broke anyone who didn’t play their game.

    "I realised that I had to get to know a wide group of people. As long as I showed respect and manners and always said hello to them, that always got me through. And that is essentially what I do today. It’s what every great networker in the world does."

    Burgess tunes out for the briefest of moments, gazing beyond me to the thought he is apprehending.

    "Remember your manners," he says with a smile. "I think that’s what networking is missing. I think we are just taught to be very predatory – that title, that card, that person. I think that those five years in England, tough as they were, were very positive."

    Show me the money!

    At the age of 20, Burgess returned to Australia. He worked briefly for his father as an air conditioning mechanic before going his own way. He then spent time in the mail room at the National Bank, then selling detergents, and finally entered the printing world where he began to find his feet for the first time as a professional networker.

    And then he saw the film Jerry Maguire.

    "Sitting in the cinema, a word came up – kwan, which is now the name of my company," says Burgess. "Tom Cruise was saying to Cuba Gooding Jr, ‘You have to get the chip off your shoulder. You have to get back to where it all started, and then you’re going to earn the dollars you’re always talking about.’ Gooding says, ‘It’s not just the money I deserve. It’s not just the coin. It’s the… kwan.’ Tom Cruise says, ‘Great word! What does it mean?’ Gooding says, ‘Love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The package. The kwan.’

    "That hit on everything that I admire. You have to have good community. You have to have love. You have to be respected by your family and peers and you have to have money, but not in any order. It’s the Chinese concept of completeness. I don’t care what I’m earning. I need to have the full unit to be complete."

    Filled with the Kwan spirit, Burgess called his friend Francis Awaritefe, an unknown talent, and proposed that he become his sports manager – a pitch made then and there, in the cinema lobby.

    "I said, ‘I don’t know anything about sports management but I can access people. Just give me a chance. We’re going to the top’," Burgess recalls with a broad grin. "It took me 12 months but I got him on SBS, with Les Murray."

    Next Burgess built a rapport with Ian Thorpe’s manager, David Flaskas, a relationship that remains critical to Kwan’s network development.

    He started a company, Kwan, initially offering sales coaching. "No one was giving me a chance. I thought, ‘If I can get you to this person, why wouldn’t you pay for that?’ I just didn’t understand it. It was a tough two years."

    The Invisible Network uncovered

    Burgess spent many long nights contemplating his skills as a networker and how best to apply them. The Invisible Network crystallised in one of those A-ha moments.

    "We get business from our clients, we get business from our marketing activities, we get business from our accidental/chance meetings and we get business from our visible networks. But what about our invisible networks? You might meet 500 people this year who could potentially help me. So how do I activate you to help me? That’s the Invisible Network. For the first time in my life, everything came together."

    Burgess and his company, Kwan, are all about activating the untapped potential of existing networks. He claims to have developed the world’s first effective how-to for networking. And in a world crowded with networking celebrities, such as Anthony Robbins and Wayne Berry, he may well be right.

    The difference is practical. I ask Burgess how different his philosophy is from, say, de Bono’s six degrees of separation.

    "de Bono talks about six degrees of separation, but he doesn’t tell you how to get there. I could perhaps get to a bluechip CEO in eight moves, but not unless I knew how to get to each step."

    For a networker who acquired his skills on the streets of London, you would expect Burgess’s approach to be instinctive and personality-driven. However, the theory behind the Invisible Network is simple and pragmatic, not reliant on self-help manuals, analysis of corporate management charts or contrived serendipity.

    The bigger picture

    Burgess starts every relationship by asking his new friend, "How can I help you?" It is guaranteed to pique curiosity, despite the inevitable cynicism. He puts the Invisible Network in deeper context for me, using our new relationship as example.

    "You are now in my visible network. Sure, I’ll look out for you if I feel there’s something. If not, we’ll catch up for coffee and have a good time. But let’s say that you were in my network. I’d find out a lot more about you, so I know who you are, what you do and what a business opportunity for you looks like – and you know the same for me. Everyone in the network is trying to be more relevant to others in the network – and to their clients."

    The system relies on universal commitment within the network to creating opportunities for others within the network without any obvious or immediate return. It’s a bit like Don Corleone without the guns or the horse head.

    When Burgess uncovers an opportunity for a network partner, his name often does not get dropped in the process. He relates the example of an extremely prominent and well-connected member of his network (names withheld on request) – let’s call him Steven – who is connected with another prominent and well-connected individual who is not in Burgess’s network – let’s call him Tom. Burgess discovered an opportunity for Tom and passed it to Steven to give to Tom rather than trying to forge a new relationship with Tom directly on the basis of that one opportunity. It makes Steven look good in Tom’s eyes and may lead to Tom being activated to look for genuine opportunities for Steven. It also gives Burgess a big tick (and a personal thrill).

    "We’re trying to promote a culture where genuine efforts are made to help other people, rather than create a system than promotes token referrals," says Burgess. "That’s the difference and that’s how the Invisible Network came about. Our networks, our clients and friends, are constantly in contact with people who could potentially help us. Why aren’t they activating them for us? Because they don’t know how… yet!"

    Burgess’s own network includes the likes of John Ilhan (Crazy Johns Mobiles founder), Robert Kirby (Chairman of Village Roadshow), Janine Allis (Boost Juice), Carlo Santoro (Regional Director Asia Pacific, Entrepreneurs’ Organisation) and David Flaskas (founder and Director of Grand Slam International).

    "I shouldn’t be able to meet with these guys. I’m not in their financial league," says Burgess. "But I’ve found a way to access these people and communicate with them at a level that they are comfortable with. It’s about finding out a lot more about them first, and trying to help them first, to earn trust."

    Live and learn

    Kwan is now three years old – officially one year in the Invisible Network space – and it is a growing success story. Burgess asserts that he is not about money or ego. He’d rather just fly under the radar.

    Burgess remembers his soccer days in England. He remembers not being given a chance to grow into a professional player. As a result, he is committed to nurturing three graduates every year, to give something back.

    He also remembers the haunting words of Tony Brooking on why he didn’t make it as a professional footballer, and has vowed never again to miss an opportunity. It has seen him take his Invisible Network to corporate heavyweights, such as Westpac Private Bank, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and the elite Entrepreneurs Organisation. He is also pushing into the international market, working with individuals and companies in New Zealand, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Thailand, with further expansion planned. And, of course, Burgess has begun working on an Invisible Network book; something he hopes will launch his fresh new approach to networking onto the global stage.

    After all, with all of those hucksters and charlatans out there who profess to be custodians of the pot of gold at the end of the networking rainbow, it’s pleasant to hear someone as modest and even-headed as Burgess strip it all down to basics.

    "Who matters? Everyone matters. Everyone matters in this world. That’s the difference between my networking approach and everybody else’s. Everybody else goes for the big high fliers. I go for the people under the radar who connect people to the high fliers. That’s the Invisible Network."

    Or, in its most simple form: get to know as many people as you possibly can, and remember your manners