Business Networking and Mixing Politics
And to a certain extent this might have been true in years past and maybe even still valid in certain circles today. But it is not true today for successful people who are secure in themselves, professional, centered and open to agree to disagree.
I know because I hosted a controversial business networking event that proved this traditional fear-based wisdom of mixing politics with business to be wrong.
At the time, I had been hosting CoolTea Talks for two plus years and ever since CoolTea absorbed the Connecticut New Media Association (CNMA) we kept to their Westport VFW-399 venue on the second Thursday of the month schedule.
Technically it was Thursday January 8th 2004 when I hosted this CoolTea Talk at the Westport VFW that first proved my point.
This event originated in late 2003 when speaker-author-artist Janet Luongo volunteered to show a movie and then moderate the discussion after the showing.
Janet was an early CoolTea Talk panelist and her February 2002 Power of Personal Presentation panel participation, namely her People Skills That Payoff segment, was wildly successful and well received.
So when Janet pitched her idea about the movie, initially I was a bit reluctant to break with traditional business networking wisdom, but decided to give it a whirl.
The movie she wanted to show was controversial at that time and stirred vigorous emotions about being unpatriotic from people on the right, and was touted on the left as being something every American citizen should reflect upon.
Here is an excerpt from one of Janet's 2003 emails to me in advance of the Jan 2004 CoolTea Talk event planning that summarized the movie and its intent:
"Uncovered: the whole truth about the Iraq war" produced and directed by Hollywood director Robert Greenwald was sponsored by www.Moveon.org, the Center for American Progress in association with Artists United.
Its purpose is to educate the public about unsettling distortions of intelligence. It includes interviews with CIA analysts, Pentagon and foreign service experts, weapons inspectors, anti-terrorist experts and Ambassador Joseph Wilson. For more information see: www.truthuncovered.com.
A discussion will follow the presentation of information every American citizen needs to know. It was shown so far in 2000 house parties across the country, seen by over 50,000.
So event plans were set in motion. I modified the web site and started to promote the upcoming CoolTea Talk to the CoolTea guest list - an email newsletter with several thousand strong at the time.
First came a backlash of emails scolding me for mixing politics with business networking.
One gentlemen from Westchester, to this day, I can recall our email thread about his having loved CoolTea MixedBrew events over the years but this mixing of politics, he being from the conservative right and despite not having seen the movie, felt deeply it was a left-wing, Hollywood propaganda thing and would no longer be able to attend CoolTea events thus asked to be removed from our CoolTea guest list.
A half-dozen or so other emails with similar frustration also streamed in.
Yet there was the opposite set of emails with many praising CoolTea for our courage to show something that was controversial, at a time in American history when many citizens wanted to understand the truth.
The Night of the Event
Fast forward, we held the event. The room was full. The 6:00-6:30PM registration and casual networking slot was a bit more reserved then usual. The 6:30-6:45PM attendee self-introductions with the wireless mic changed all that as people commented about their hopes or suspicion about the movie. But when all the commercial blurbs were finished, the movie aired from 6:45-7:45PM followed by an AMAZING moderated discussion.
There was no shouting, no yelling, no swearing, no insulting. Nobody walked out, let alone in a huff.
There was however an international body of attendees representing the colors of the human rainbow, ethnic backgrounds as diverse as the UN, corporate and professional backgrounds as diverse as the US economy itself.
Several data points of attendee conversations from that night are still anchored in my mind.
One of which was from a six-figure professional woman - a film, video and new media manager employed by a then high-end, big-five consulting firm.
She spoke slowly and deliberately about her middle eastern family roots and an early childhood in said region. She commented about the film but went on to comment about how a film like this could never be openly shown in her childhood village let alone be openly discussed objectively with such opposing voices.
I also recall the memory of two very professional, seasoned silver-haired corporate executives who approached me at the end of the event.
"You know Chuck - Brian and I would like to thank you for hosting this event. While neither of us agree with the other, and neither of us will ever change the mind of the other, we did find common ground and have set up an appointment to get together for lunch next week."
Brian and Doug had huge smiles on their faces as each shook hands with me then departed their separate ways.
A couple years later, at a separate CoolTea networking event, they came up and confirmed their ongoing professional friendship and various engagements - and again acknowledging that each could agree to disagree but it was that initial Jan 8th 2004 CoolTea Talk and the respected dialogue that brought them together.
Cleaning Up After the Event
My last memory from that Jan 2004 CoolTea Talk was when cleaning up and breaking down the room.
I remembered reflecting on the frustration of email people opting off.
I remembered the pause at making the decision to risk my reputation and brand to present something a bit different - something that I was not sure if I agreed with or not.
I reflected on those who attended that seemed to walk away with gratitude for the evening.
And then I laughed a bit with silent applause to the Universe's Management Team when I reflected on where said CoolTea Talk had been hosted.
"Of course. The Westport VFW-399. The irony of the extreme right and supporting the war unquestioned and the President no matter what the lies and/or deception might have been or not have been. Yet the very place, the VFW, this is why the warriors of past and present fought. For our rights to be able to discuss, to share, to agree to disagree, to understand, to pursue truth, to get better. What a gift to host such an event in this venue."
Then I thought about the ego of other networking event organizers who prodded me about hosting CoolTea Talks at a humble VFW vs their events hosted at posh, fluffy venues with four and five star ratings.
The Westport VFW-399 is dedicated to Joseph Clinton and while I've never met the man, I recall his portrait and name in the room where I hosted many a CoolTea Talk.
That night, I gave a silent salute to him and people like him as I packed up and cleaned the room.
I left my check for the room rental fee with the bartender, then proceeded to drive home thinking of how great this country is because of the sacrifices of others who while they might not agree with us, maybe even be radically opposed to our views and thoughts, together we agree on a framework of speech and individual liberties that allow us to have a public commons that has carried us, officially, since 1776.
[tab:Democracy Demands Discussion]
Democracy Demands Discussion
So while the safe bet is maybe not to bring mix politics and business networking, I say humbug.
After all, politics is business. Legislation, lobbying, the rule of law, the very systems of governance - all critical to a sustainable society, are indeed business-centric.
I had a friend once who ran a political men's society and part of their motto was "Democracy Demands Discussion."
And I think he is right - discussion that is and thus there is nothing wrong about discussing politics in a business networking venue, as long as there are a few principles that are adhered to by all sides.
Which leads me to -> CoolTea Party Principles