Skip to main content
leadership lab

Dan Richards is a serial founder and former public company chief executive officer, and an award-winning member of the marketing faculty at the Rotman School of Management, where he oversees the credit course associated with MBA student internships.

“To get ahead at work, should I take up golf?”

That was a question asked by one smart student from India who’s graduating with his MBA in April and going to work for a Big Five bank. A few decades ago I would almost certainly have said yes. Today the answer is less clear.

The benefit of shared interests

If you’re early in your career and ambitious, in most companies a few things will put you on the fast track for promotion. The people you work with have to view you as capable and trust you to do a good job. You need to be seen as a strong team player who listens well. Related to that, people around you have to enjoy dealing with you.

Robert Cialdini is a psychologist at Arizona State who has identified six laws of influence. One of those is likeability – people who like you are more likely to buy into your arguments. Mr. Cialdini has found that among the qualities that make you likeable, one that stands out is similarity in background and interests. So if you and your manager both play golf, that common bond increases the chances that you’ll have things in common to talk about, they will want to spend time with you, and will like you more as a result.

Fifty years ago, when large companies hired young men into their management training programs (and at that time it almost without exception was men), many expected that new hires would build relationships with clients on a golf course. And golf did something else – it created the chance for those young men to interact informally with senior managers.

A lot has changed since then. It’s no longer just men who get hired. But what hasn’t changed are the benefits of interacting informally with senior managers through shared interests and of how those shared interests can create common bonds.

The appeal of cycling

There’s more than one way to get in front of senior executives in your company. One Rotman grad volunteered to help organize the United Way campaign in his department, leading to exposure to top management. Another offered to assist in on-campus recruiting, increasing her visibility.

That said, often sports are still the most common way to expand your informal network. What’s changed is that in many companies golf is no longer the go-to activity for networking. Quite simply, for many people golf is too expensive, too big a time commitment and too tough to get to a skill level where you won’t embarrass yourself.

Which is where cycling comes in. In many communities cycling clubs have sprung up to allow riders to cycle in groups of anywhere from four to 40. Why the boom in cycling?

  • The required skill level for cycling is much lower. In most cities you can normally find rides at a range of distances and paces. Note though that the required fitness level can ramp up quickly if you cycle longer distances with more competitive groups.
  • Cost and time are less of an issue. You can buy a decent used entry-level road bike for about $1,200. And for those with families, early morning rides let you get out when the sun comes up and get home for breakfast.
  • Unlike a sport like squash, cycling clubs let you broaden your network, as they often have riders from their 20s to 60s. Cycling attracts senior business people and professionals looking for an outlet for their drive. On any given day, you may find yourself riding with a CEO or senior partner at a law firm. And while you won’t have as much time for chit chat as golf, informal conversations before rides start, during breaks and over postride coffees help build bonds.
  • Finally, like golf, cycling lets you enjoy the good weather outside. Unlike golf, however, you can shift to cycling indoors when it gets cold.

How cycling builds bonds

Rose Cammareri was executive vice-president for retail distribution at asset manager AGF. Here’s her experience: “Cycling has been an incredible asset for me. I have developed deep friendships and connections with people I met cycling that have opened windows into different industries. The training sends a message to other cyclists about your discipline. Cycling is energizing, lets you surround yourself with goal-oriented, interesting people. It definitely helped my career – as a woman, it let me connect with guys, giving me something to talk about beyond work, whether it be our gear or the routes we were riding.

Some of the charity rides are a lot of fun, help you raise money for a good cause and can deepen bonds with other riders on your team. The groups I ride with are supportive for riders just getting into the sport, encouraging them up the tougher climbs. And cycling kept me in shape, which can be a challenge when on the road travelling. Today all my holidays have cycling elements, where we’ve gone as a group to Spain, Croatia, Montenegro and Myanmar.”

Another take comes from Jeff Richardson, an American who was recruited to be senior vice-president of nuclear refurbishment at Ontario Power Generation before joining U.S.-based Energy Solutions as chief operating officer. “My career has been fuelled by opportunities for growth and learning that often arose from personal relationships. While some of those relationships came from interacting on the job, many were driven by shared activities outside the workplace. Those activities let me broaden my network outside of my immediate circle and led to faster pathways to build profile and relationships. In one senior role, the CEO and I were both training for our first triathlons. Comparing notes on our regimens helped create a bond that would not have been there otherwise.”

To come back to my advice to the student embarking on a career in banking. While you can advance just through performance on the job, the reality is that it often helps to have broader connections beyond work. There are many paths to those connections – volunteer work, golf, cycling, squash, tennis, pickup hockey, yoga or soccer can all work. The key is to find one activity where you share a passion with other people in your company and commit to it. Make that commitment and chances are that broader connections will naturally follow.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.