This afternoon, I was reading an article on four suggestions for rules to follow when networking internationally. The tips are good ones (and we’ll go into more on them in a moment), but it occurred to me as I was reading that they’re actually quite good tips for all types of networking – whether you’re meeting people from other cultures, or just two blocks away.
The author of the article, Pierre Brais, puts these in a certain order, but I’m going to prioritize them a bit differently. For me, everything starts with "Do your homework."
Do Your Homework
Whether you’re meeting someone in your own city, or from a city halfway around the world, it pays to do your homework: on the individual, on their business, and on the culture. With so much information available online these days, there’s no excuse for not being adequately prepared. Before meeting someone, take some time to search for their name online – look through their LinkedIn profile, and find out what outside interests they might have, the types of responsibilities that fall under their purview at their current position, and what other organizations they may have worked for and with.
This can also tell you who you may share in terms of connections. Perhaps you have a mutual friend or acquaintance, and you could call this person to get a bit more insight into the person you’ll be meeting with. Take a look at other social media profiles they might have as well – this can give you further insight into their personality and interests. And don’t forget to review their company bio, to see how they present themselves professionally.
Also do some research on their company. Take a look at the corporate website and read about the history of the organization and its goals. Look at the types of clients they service, if available, and what their latest news items may be. LinkedIn can be helpful here again as well – take a look to see if there is a company page that offers additional insight.
If you are meeting someone from a different culture, it’s also essential to do your homework on their cultural norms. Yes, we live in a very global world, and often anyone you do business with these days will be familiar with a westernized way of doing business, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take some time to learn more and show respect for other cultures.
Respect is the key here – in my years of working internationally, I’ve seen many Americans run roughshod over those from other cultures, acting as though they have all the answers and that their way is the only way to do business. Taking a step back, learning about how someone else does business, and making an effort to include different kinds of etiquette shows that you put a premium on valuing the other person and their culture.
Is it likely that you’ll make a mistake at some point? Yes, but that’s where the global marketplace comes in handy – your international business partners will understand what you’re trying to do, and will appreciate the effort. The effort is what speaks to your level of respect for them.
Build Trust Through Personal Connections
This is something we talk a lot about here on Zen, and it’s the author’s primary suggestion – for me, it’s just good business sense. People do business with those they know, like, and trust, and those relationships are developed through personal connections.
This is another time when cultural knowledge will come in handy – for example, most Asian cultures will not do business with someone that they’ve never met face to face. One of our Chinese lawyers told me that he will not refer work to someone that he’s never met. Because of that, he works incredibly hard to meet as many people as possible, and travels substantially, always including a visit to our local firm.
Many Americans would assume that just being vetted by our group would be sufficient for anyone to refer work to them – we’ve done the due diligence of making sure they are of high quality, and will service one another’s clients impeccably. But without that personal connection, there will be many cases where they will never see that work, no matter how excellent their firm is. And that’s why attending our conferences and networking with each other are so important, particularly during the social functions.
Having an understanding of how and why another culture does business will help make sure that business can happen. There aren’t many cultures that don’t place a premium on personal connections (exactly how these occur, and in what form differs from culture to culture).
Importantly too, the American culture tells us that if we’re not focused on business and discussing business, then we’re not working – but building personal relationships, without ever talking about your area of practice, or the types of cases you handle IS work. To be effective networkers internationally, we need to refine our definitions of "work" – and I’d further wager that this will also help us to become better at domestic networking as well.
Make a Relationship, Not a Sale
This tip is directly related to the last one, in my book. Sure, being focused on the "close" can result in a sale, but it’s not going to result in a long-term client relationship. Instead, we need to focus on what’s best for the relationship in the long run. The author reminds us that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And interestingly,
Trying to push a sale or business transaction too early in the relationship can smother any social capital you may have gained. Furthermore, most cultures interpret speed as an indication of instability and underhandedness."
If I’m honest, even I agree with that. Have you ever gotten one of those sales phone calls, where the person won’t let you get a word in edgewise, because they’re trying to convince you that their product is the best? And then end by acting as if they’ve already convinced you and sold you the product? Every time that happens, I get that queasy feeling, and have NO interest in either making a purchase, or hearing any more of what they have to say.
Here again is where having that cultural knowledge comes in handy, but I’ll go a step further and say that it’s equally as important to have the ability to read social cues. When you meet someone who could be a potential client, listening should always be your first goal – you can do that by asking probing questions (which you can form based on the research you’ve done into them and their company) and then concentrating on their responses rather than trying to think of what you’ll say next.
This will help to guide the conversation – you’ll get a sense of whether they want to talk about business right away, whether a comment or question you’ve asked makes them uncomfortable, and more. Body language is equally important here, and again, you’ll want to have an understanding of what different kinds of body language means in different cultures. Something that may be quite common to you and have one meaning could mean something completely different in another country – for example, you may think you’re giving a backwards peace sign with your index and middle fingers, but in many European countries, it’s the equivalent of offering them your middle finger.
My general rule of thumb here is to be prepared and be sensitive. Do your homework, and then watch and listen to the person you’re with for their physical and verbal cues. That will help you to build a relationship, rather than just push through a sale.
Be Clear and Consise
Here, the author talks about avoiding slang, which is a good rule to abide by – I’ve often found myself trying to figure out how to explain a phrase I’ve used to a non-native English speaker, and realizing how silly a phrase it is.
But I also think it’s more than that. If you’re speaking with a non-native English speaker, and they have trouble understanding you, do not speak in a louder voice. They may have a more limited vocabulary, or have misunderstood your accent, and speaking the same words in a louder tone is equally unhelpful and offensive.
I’m also careful to try to avoid complicated words – the people I’m speaking with are very smart (after all, they speak at LEAST two languages, whereas I speak mostly one), but again, they may not have the same vocabulary as a native English speaker would. More than once, my attorneys have also asked me to speak more slowly. They can understand me, but when I speak at my usual pace (which is northeastern caffeinated), even Americans can find it hard to follow along.
So again, this is a good rule of networking in general – when you’re speaking with someone, speak clearly and concisely, and treat them with respect.
I’m going to add in a fifth rule here, and that’s this one: Don’t Assume. When I was in high school, a friend’s mom informed me that assuming makes an "a** out of you and me" (a** + u +me = assume). I am not an expert by any means at international networking, but almost a decade of watching people interact abroad has given me a lot of experience in what works and what doesn’t work.
And the number one rule that I’ve learned is that you can never assume you know everything (or even anything really). No one culture is "the best" or has the "right" answers, and if we come blazing into a room with that mindset, we’re going to leave wondering why no one wants to work with us.
Traveling and working abroad is an adventure, and a luxury, one that we can learn and benefit from immensely (both personally and professionally). Staying open minded about not only what others do socially, but also in business, will make us better professionals and people in the long run.
I’ve seen dozens of people (of all cultures) say that they love to travel abroad, and then when traveling to other countries, expect that things will be done as they do them at home. And then they return from those trips lamenting that the other cultures don’t do things correctly. Instead, let’s be open minded about what we’re experiencing, roll with the punches (sorry for the metaphor!), and it will enrich our lives immensely.