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Tips on growing that all-important network
“Develop your personal network first”
“Casual conversations are the best way to build a network in Brussels,” says Kevin Bradley, an Irish-born public policy and regulatory affairs consultant, and director (energy and environmental affairs) of Hume Brophy. “When my brother-in-law arrived in Brussels in 1985, he knew just one person; when I arrived five years later, he introduced me to many friends and contacts and I grew my own network from there.”
From public policy contacts to trade, Bradley has developed an impressive mental Rolodex, which he uses to cross paths with the interesting and influential people who converge in the European capital every day.
For him, networking is not all about closing business deals – he advocates having an open mind and being able to connect other people. This is a particularly useful skill within professional networks where members include big international companies and consultancies, such as the national chambers of commerce, the Society of European Affairs Professionals and other organisations at European level that host regular events.
Bradley is passionate about his work, but also about football and golf. In fact, his preferred way of networking is through sports. One day he plays football with secretary generals of European associations and the next golf with heads of business. These activities have both men’s and women’s teams, where high-level executives come to let off steam. “I truly believe clubs are a completely underrated way of building a network,” he says.
Whether through occasional or regular events, Bradley’s philosophy for networking in Brussels is to nurture relationships with like-minded people and interests, whatever they might be.
“Be prepared to talk business anywhere”
Mark Cunningham’s 17 years of public affairs in Brussels have brought him far beyond the circles of his initial UK career in accountancy. Working for great firms and enjoying a well-rounded family life are the environments that have enabled him to meet people from all walks of Brussels life, in his role as a partner at Cabinet DN consultancy.
“Brussels is a fantastic place to raise a family,” he says. “It’s got a great health system, lots of open space and plenty of good schools to choose from.” The international school his children attend is a great way to meet fellow expats – and to make business links.
English-language business associations such as the British Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors also enable him to stay in touch with the UK, and to find out about other opportunities for networking that go beyond business circles: “As a member of the Brussels Institute of Directors, my membership benefits go beyond the exchange of views and ideas with fellow board-level executives.”
Cabinet DN is a member of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think tank that boasts an impressive list of corporate members. Cunningham’s counterparts in other consultancies and their main clients meet there to work on EU policy with research staff.
It also occasionally hosts events in its offices near Place Luxembourg – a particularly active networking zone for young lobbyists – and organises seminars and social activities for its own networks.
Cunningham particularly enjoys going to events that mix business and pleasure, such as the Brussels Accessible Art Fair. The VIP nights not only bring together institutional and private companies around a shared interest in art, but also provide an opportunity to meet the fair’s partners and sponsors at professional networking events.
Another of Cunningham’s preferred ways of meeting people is to participate in good causes, which bring together people around a shared interest and common values. He is involved in the Giraffe Project, a charity founded by Denise and Richard Baines, to sponsor the education of children in Kenya. This dynamic organisation raises funds and organises local events, and is prominent at the Brussels 20k run in May.
You can meet Mark Cunningham at meetings of the Professional Accountants in Belgium, European Movement Ireland, the Irish Belgian Business Association, Aspria health clubs, Brussels Children’s Gaelic football team (where he is a coach), BBRFC-Celtic rugby club, and via LinkedIn.
“Get on Twitter!”
Dutch-born Alice Stollmeyer is “the most influential Twitterer on EU energy and climate policies", and has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter who wait with bated breath for her updates and insights into energy and climate policies.
This passionate tweeter – director of @StollmeyerEU – refers to herself as a “digital lobbyist”, as she uses the internet to build her networks and influence policymaking. In Brussels, the Twittersphere is particularly used to monitor activity and opinion on policy issues: commissioners and MEPs publish their news via their Twitter accounts, campaigners push their opinions, and lobbyists monitor them all...
Although a computer screen might not sound like the best way to network your way around Brussels, it’s an interesting starting point. With a strong point of view in a specific field such as energy and climate policy, Stollmeyer is – after two years of online activity, a regular presence and good timing – someone whose opinion is listened to.
When networking online, the main challenge is to develop trust and establish expertise around a topic, and then to meet in person. Stollmeyer emphasises that the point of networking is not to make friends, but it can of course happen.
By following the right sources of information and making connections with the people responsible for policy in this area, she gets to meet the people who have grown to know her positions. She carefully plans which events to go to, knows where the right people will be – and finds most of her information online.
“I am doing this for the planet; I really want to make a difference,” she says. As opposed to more traditional ways of lobbying, where the use of Twitter is still in its infancy, Stollmeyer uses it to give her opinion and interact directly with senior EU decision-makers and other EU stakeholders.
This article was first published in The Bulletin Business Guide 2015