As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ivan Misner, Founder & Chief Visionary Officer, BNI (Business Network International).
Dr. Ivan Misner is the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of BNI, the world’s largest business networking organization. Founded in 1985 the organization now has over 9,500 chapters throughout every populated continent of the world. Last year alone, BNI generated almost 12.3 million referrals resulting in $16.7 billion dollars’ worth of business for its members.
Dr. Misner’s Ph.D. is from the University of Southern California. He is a New York Times Bestselling author who has written 24 books including one of his latest books — Who’s in Your Room? He is also a columnist for Entrepreneur.com and has been a university professor as well as a member of the Board of Trustees for the University of La Verne.
Called the “Father of Modern Networking” by CNN and one of the “Top Networking Experts” by Forbes, Dr. Misner is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on business networking and has been a keynote speaker for major corporations and associations throughout the world. He has been featured in the L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York. Times, as well as numerous TV and radio shows including CNN, the BBC and The Today Show on NBC.
Among his many awards, he has been named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the Red Cross and was recently the recipient of the John C. Maxwell Leadership Award. He is also proud to be the Co-Founder of the BNI Charitable Foundation. He and his wife, Elisabeth, are now “empty nesters” with three adult children. Oh, and in his spare time!!! he is also an amateur magician and a black belt in karate.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
It’s my pleasure to talk to you. Most everyone feels like they are very busy. I prefer to think I have a very full life. It feels more positive and less overwhelming.
My story is the classic example of “necessity being the mother of invention.” In the early 1980’s I started a management consulting business. I got most of my clients from referrals and speaking engagements. The speaking engagements were easy enough to get. The referrals, however, were more challenging. I participated in a lot of different networking groups. Many of the ones I went to were incredibly mercenary, in that everyone was trying to sell to me. I’d leave those meetings feeling like I’d been slimed and needed to go home and shower. Other groups I went to were totally social. It was about happy hour and hors d’oeuvres with little business being done.
I didn’t like either of these kinds of groups, so, in January of 1985, I formed a small networking group focused on doing business but wasn’t completely mercenary. It was relational in its approach to networking but wasn’t totally social. The glue that would hold it together is our early core value of Givers Gain. This philosophy is rooted in the concept of what goes around, comes around. That by genuinely helping other people with their business, they would do the same for you.
What I discovered was that most businesspeople, not just me, where incredibly hungry for referrals. People soon asked me to open a second Chapter and a third, and a fourth. By December of 1985, I found myself with twenty Chapters of what is now called BNI (Business Network International).
It was at this point I realized we don’t teach networking in college and universities, or anywhere in the world, despite people desperately wanting to get more business through referrals. Consequently, I decided to focus on scaling the company into something that could help many more people than I ever could as a consultant. Today, BNI has over 9,500 groups with about 270,000 Members in more than seventy countries around the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
This is a true story about learning from other people’s experience and listening to those people when they give you advice.
There are “tried-and–true” business techniques that are so simplistic they seem they cannot be really effective. Many times, we try to re-evaluate, improve upon and complicate them. An experience I had once while taking a vacation reminds me how we try to make some things harder than they really are.
I was in Hawaii enjoying the surf when, unbeknownst to me, the water became thick with Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish. Suddenly I felt a stinging sensation across my chest. I wiped my chest and lifted my arm up out of the water. I saw the tentacles dripping off me and followed them with my eyes about 8 feet away to the body of the Man O’ War jellyfish. With mounting alarm, I shook the tentacles off my wrist back into the water and quickly swam out of the surf to the shore.
I ran up to the first hotel employee I saw, a beach waiter, who was serving drinks to a couple just off the pool deck and urgently exclaimed, “I think I’ve just been hit in the chest by a Man O’ War jellyfish! What should I do??”
“Are you feeling any pressure in your chest?” he wanted to know.
“No, none at all,” I replied anxiously.
“Okay, okay, here’s what you need to do. Go to the market off the lobby and ask for some vinegar and meat tenderizer. You’re going to want to spray the vinegar onto your chest and then shake the meat tenderizer onto the same spot and rub it all around. You’ll be fine,” he assured me.
Well, I must say that I was less than impressed with this bizarre advice. He was entirely too calm and that was entirely too easy to be a real solution — not to mention it was just plain strange. I figured he was doing a version of “let’s goof on the tourist,” so I moved on to ask someone else for help.
I spotted a hotel employee standing not too far off and gingerly jogged over to him, urgently repeating my exclamation, “I’ve just been hit in the chest by a Man O’ War jellyfish; what should I do?!”
He said, “Are you feeling any pressure in your chest?”
Oh boy, I thought, next he’s going to tell me to get some meat tenderizer! I thought he was kidding, or maybe I was in a bad dream and just couldn’t wake up.
“No, I’m not feeling any pressure in my chest,” I reluctantly responded.
“Okay, then go the market off the lobby and ask for some vinegar and meat tenderizer. You have to get that on your chest and rub it around and then you’ll be just fine,” he said reassured.
I felt anything but reassured. By this time, I thought maybe I better find someone who might really know what to do. I headed to the lobby, thinking the hotel manager would be a good choice to get a straight answer from.
There, at the front desk, was a mature gentleman wearing a badge that read: “Hotel Manager.” Surely, I thought, this guy’s not going to “goof on the tourist.”
I walked up to him and repeated my mantra about the jellyfish strike. He looked at me with grave concern and said, “Are you feeling any pressure in your chest.”
“No,” I replied, “I’m not feeling any chest pain.”
“OK, good,” he said. “You need to go down the hall to the small market and get some vinegar and meat tenderizer and put them on one at a time and rub them thoroughly into your chest.”
Finally, I said what I’d been thinking all along… “You can’t be serious, right?” This is a joke, right?”
“No,” he reassured me this was not a joking matter. I needed to proceed to the store immediately and apply that remedy.
I reluctantly trucked down the hall to the store just knowing they were all back there laughing at the goofy tourist who was actually going to do a self-imposed “meat rub” on his chest.
I entered the small market off the lobby and started my search for char-grilled products when I started feeling short of breath. Suddenly, very quickly and forcefully, I began to experience a crushing weight on my chest. Was I having a heart attack?
What happened next was a total blur. The paramedics rushed to the scene. Finally, I was going to get the medical attention I needed. After determining what happened, the paramedic opened his life-saving kit and I knew he was about to pull out a defibrillator. I made my peace with God and I braced myself for the big jolt. Instead, he pulled out — yes, you guessed it — vinegar in a spray bottle and some meat tenderizer! He proceeded to spray the vinegar and then sprinkle the meat tenderizer on my chest, and thoroughly rub the mixture around. Within seconds, the excruciating pain began to subside. Within a couple minutes it was almost completely gone.
What I thought was a big “barbeque joke” on the tourist turns out to be a well-known cure for some jellyfish strikes. You see, the meat tenderizer contains the enzyme papain, which breaks down the toxin proteins and neutralizes them. It sounds too simple to be effective, but it is, in fact, one of the best things to do in that situation.
Thinking back on it, I’m amazed at how many people gave me the solution before I had to learn the hard way. I was sure they had some barbecue grill going for when I returned to the lobby all slathered up with vinegar and meat tenderizer but I should have figured out the staff knew what they were talking about.
I made one of the biggest mistakes people in business make — I didn’t listen to the people who have experience. I assumed I just had to know better… and the truth is, I didn’t.
There is nothing like experience. It beats education every day. The only thing better is a combination of education and experience…or a willingness to learn from other people’s experience. There are many basic business techniques that any successful businessperson knows to be effective. They don’t try to look for something more complicated or involved, because they know from their own experience, as well as the experience of others, what works in business and what doesn’t.
Sometimes we see things that seem too simple to be effective or may hear ideas that you’ve heard before. Don’t dismiss them. Embrace them. Learn from other people’s success. So, go get that vinegar and meat tenderizer and learn from the experts that sometimes the simplest ideas can have the biggest impact.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m a big believer in life-long learning. In fact, it’s one of BNI’s core values. Podcasts, books and videos, are all great tools to incorporate virtual mentors into your life. When I started BNI, a book called The E-Myth by Michael Gerber was extremely important in helping me wrap my head around the need to “work on” the business and not just “in the business.” I used Michael’s principles to help me scale the company. Today, Michael is a good friend who I met about ten years ago and stay in touch with regularly. It’s amazing how life-long learning and relationship building can have a long-term impact on your life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I talk to people all the time about knowing your own personal and professional vision and mission. Your vision is where you want to go, and your mission is how you want to get there. If you’re not clear on these things, other people will create them for you, and you may not like what they create! BNI’s vision is: “Changing the Way the World Does Business.” We strive to accomplish that through our mission, which is to, “help Members increase their business through a structured, positive, and professional referral marketing program.”
Having a clear, purpose-driven business helps create a strong organizational culture, which is key to a company’s success. I believe organizational culture is created through four primary phases: Organizational “processes” lead to “traditions,” which evolve into “core values,” which then create the organizational “culture.”
- Organizational Processes: Create systems and process that work and use those to teach other people in the company, so you reduce the “leaky bucket” experience of losing knowledge within the organization.
- Organizational Traditions: Traditions tell us who we are as a tribe and what is important to us and how we implement them within the organization. For me, in the establishment of BNI, those traditions included things like a focus on relationship building, education, accountability, recognition, and of course — Givers Gain. Each of these items (and more) were the traditions that were instilled throughout the program in the beginning. By making them such an important part of the company, they ended up becoming some of our organizational core values.
- Organizational Values: Core values are the fundamental beliefs and guiding principles that dictate behavior and help people better understand expectations within the organizational context. For BNI, those core values included the five items above, as well as positive attitude and traditions + innovation. Yes, I included traditions in our core values as I realized traditions are critical to the ongoing success of an organization, because they anchor us in the things that create great experiences. At the same time, I understood that innovation was key. Traditions tell you where you come from and innovation tells you where you want to go.
- Organizational Culture: Processes create traditions which lead to core values and the core values lead to the organizational culture. Consequently, the core values that are acted upon within an organization directly impact and create the culture. People in a company need to be fanatics about sharing the core values and implementing them in as many ways as possible throughout the organization. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. If you are part of an organization with a great strategy and a marginal culture, you’ll struggle. If you are part of an organization with a marginal strategy but a great culture, you can do well. However, if you are part of an organization with a great strategy and a great culture you will be an industry leader. Culture is the secret sauce for organizational success.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My organization was inspired by the Givers Gain philosophy. What’s truly amazing is that someone can go to any BNI group in the world and ask them what the philosophy of the organization is, and you will always hear a resounding — GIVERS GAIN! It is humbling to see how this core value has been fully incorporated into the DNA of the company and its worldwide chapters.
It’s important to recognize that Givers Gain is a standard that you must apply to yourself and not a stick to hit others with. In other words, if you can create a community of like-minded people, working together, who all want to help one another, incredible things can happen.
If all the people in an organization row in the same direction, that organization can dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time. BNI dominated this industry in every market, against all the competition for decades now. That’s been possible because of a shared vision and a shared implementation of that vision.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Many people talk about the “lockdown” and the “quarantine.” I like to call this time the “Great Pause.” Our lives have been put on pause in many ways. My time during the Great Pause has been spent working to move people from a feeling of fear to a feeling of hope. They can accomplish this by creating a plan and taking action. Part of that plan is about activating their networking. This is an ideal time to pour into your contacts and allow them to pour into you. I have seen so many people frozen in fear. That does not prepare people for when the Great Pause is over. We should be talking about “physical distancing” not “social distancing.” The truth is that we need to be more social than ever. Today you need your network of friends and associates more than ever.
Hope is more powerful than fear. Hope is hearing that little voice inside you whispering about what “can be” when everyone around you is shouting about what “can’t be.” Hope plus action leaves fear in the dust.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Think about a business that involves 9,500 “in-person” weekly meetings with 270,000 people all around the world. The pandemic could have been the end of my 35 years of helping to build this company. Instead, I believe it will position us to see unprecedented growth by helping our Members in ways we were not able to in the past.
The BNI team globally transitioned all 9,500 groups to bni online within a matter of weeks. I’m incredibly proud of what the organization did in such a short period of time. We knew we had to adapt to help our Members keep their businesses strong. We quickly and nimbly launched bni online, an innovative online networking and referral platform to help BNI Members continue to connect and grow while many others were locked away in fear and despair.
Using bni online, Members continue to easily meet virtually every week to collaborate with others in their community, without leaving the comforts of home. In fact, during the month of April, Members generated nearly $1 billion dollars in referrals the online platform.
To further adapt and grow BNI, we’re inviting business leaders across the globe to attend a weekly online meeting, free of charge, for an inside look at the valuable resources bni online has to offer.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
First and foremost, micro-dose your intake of the pandemic news. Keep up to date but don’t overdo it on what’s in the media. If you do, you will be convinced the sky is falling and the world is in a spiral free fall. Reach out to your existing connections to see how they are holding up, and if there’s anything you can do to help them. This is a time to reconnect, especially with those who’ve been particularly impacted by the outbreak, be it physically, financially or mentally. These considerable efforts can go a long way in forging long-lasting relationships, not to mention the added emotional benefits of connecting with others during this difficult time.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
People are going to have jobs and businesses because of the actions they take today. Many are finding themselves with additional time and with this newfound time, it’s important to invest in yourself and your network. Now is the time to work on the business plan you intend to execute when this is over and to learn as much as you can. It’s also a time to strengthen existing connections and create new relationships through your network.
It may not be easy, but if you pour into yourself and your relationships, you will come out of this stronger than most people. This investment in ourselves, our businesses and others will create new opportunities to help rebuild the economy post-pandemic, such as new ways to operate, new clients to go after and filling in holes in the market.
I have seen this type of thing already happen with BNI. One member owns an “Escape Room” business. It’s one of those rooms that you have to find hidden clues to figure out how you and your teammates can escape. There is no physical distancing. They touch everything. They pick up everything they can to find clues. He was certain he was going to lose his business because of the pandemic. Then, his fellow BNI Members suggested he create a “virtual escape room” where participants can play online. They said they’d be his test subjects to help him work out the bugs. The test went over so well, one of the participants bought a package of online escapes to maintain the camaraderie of her team in different parts of the country. Now this business owner has a product that can work globally rather than just locally. It is this kind of support and creativity that continues to amaze me about the people in this organization.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I’m confident that a lot of business and social events will be taken online to become virtual gatherings. People are becoming accustomed to staying home and realizing that a lot of tasks can be completed without going out. This newfound convenience breaks down barriers and allows for more creativity and flexibility. It’s even possible BNI meetings may become a hybrid of in-person and online after the Great Pause.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
This past January, we celebrated BNI’s 35th anniversary. We are a forward-thinking company, and we’ve already started to lay the groundwork for future success by quickly transitioning Members to bni online, helping business leaders connect in a virtual world.
Recently, the BNI brand has been completely refreshed, with a look that is inspiring, professional, and friendly. The summarization of BNI’s benefits can be found in its new campaign tagline, “Growing Forward Together.” Those words were chosen after quite a bit of dialogue and research with BNI Leaders and Members. Through that work, it became quite clear that if there was one word that captured the essence of BNI, it is “growth.” The other thing that stood out were the Members’ personal stories of how BNI changed their lives for the better both professionally and personally, allowing them to move forward. Lastly, Members talked about how being part of a network of like-minded, caring people helped them achieve things together they could never have done alone. There are no better words to represent BNI and its refreshed look than “Growing Forward Together.”
I recently had a BNI Chapter President tell me about one of her Baby Boomer Members who was incredibly resistant to transitioning his networking online. “Frankly,” she said, “he just doesn’t want to do it!” She asked me what she should do?
I told her to tell him that I said this:
“I’m a Baby Boomer too and I hate change. Seriously, I do not like change. The only thing I hate more than change is failure. I really hate failure! He can change or, he can fail. The choice is his. I can’t make him change — he has to take that plunge himself. The BNI Leadership Team will be there to help him make that change if he is willing.”
I’m pleased to say he took that advice and embraced the online platform (with some hand holding and coaching) and his business is surviving during this Great Pause.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Businesses need to network effectively to generate revenue. As typical in-person networking is not feasible right now in our current climate, activate your virtual network. Your contacts need to clearly understand your business, the problems you solve and your target consumer, so they can help connect you with the right people and referrals. While sustaining relationships and creating new connections virtually, seek out others’ perspectives on the issues and circumstances we’re all currently facing. By doing this, you can find out how others in the industry are adapting, while creating deeper connections.
Think of virtual networking as a new skill to master that will help you continue to grow professionally and personally. Leveraging an online platform like bni online can take some of the guesswork out of where to begin, instantly connecting you to other likeminded business leaders in your community who have common interests and goals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was 13 years old, my mother gave me a paper weight that said, “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” She said, “honey, I love you, but you are a bull in a china shop. You roll over people. You need to learn how to work with people.” She went on to say that “this quote is about collaboration, not manipulation. If you use it to collaborate with others, you can achieve great success.” I believe this approach made a huge and lasting impact on my life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I regularly contribute to BNI’s blog in my “From the Founder” column: https://www.bni.com/category/from-the-founder
I have been blogging at www.IvanMisner.com for almost 14 years.
I can also be reached on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter: