The Fresh-Off-the-Boat Approach to Networking
What I’ve learned from starting fresh and not knowing anybody on 3 different continents
‘Networking’ has become one of those gag words. There’s a dirty stigma associated with the concept: a stigma that implies networking is only for MLM ghouls or people who have nothing to give and everything to ask.
Sometimes, however, networking is borne out of necessity.
In the last 5 years, I’ve lived on 3 different continents. Each time I’ve moved — first to Gothenburg, Sweden and then to Melbourne, Australia — I’ve not known a single person when I arrived. Making friends and integrating with the community was number one on my priority list with each move. Not having a commercial/business network was worrying, but not as worrying as not having any friends.
What I’ve learned with these two moves has surprised me. The things I’ve done in my personal capacity — to make friends in new places — ended up bringing me more commercial success than the textbook networking routine ever did for me in my home country, South Africa. What’s more, after only a year in Melbourne I feel settled. I have a great group of friends and it doesn’t feel like my career skipped a beat.
This has led to me rethinking my approach to networking based on the process I’ve followed each time I’ve moved to a new country. I like to call it the Fresh-Off-the-Boat (or FOB) approach to networking. What’s epic is that it works for both business and personal networking reasons.
The FOB Golden Rules
There are two caveats to my action plan. These two things are perspectives we need to keep in mind when landing in a new place, or embarking on new networking efforts:
Golden rule 1: Don’t expect it all to happen in a day
One of the mistakes I made in Sweden that I changed when I arrived in Australia, was to remove the urgency from my networking attempts. I found that when I was in a rush, I came across as insincere and the relationships that I formed with people were superficial.
When I moved to Melbourne, I put no time pressure on it at all and I went into it knowing it’s perfectly okay if not everyone you meet becomes a true friend. I was happy to meet people and enjoy the time with them for what it was. If we clicked, great. If not, that’s okay, I met somebody new! No rush.
The irony is that, by doing this, I made true friends much quicker than I did in Sweden by trying to turn everyone into friends as fast as possible.
Golden rule 2: Be curious
“To be interesting, be interested. — Dale Carnegie
Sweden and Australia have cultures that are extremely different in a lot of subtle (and some not so subtle) ways. There’s so much to learn about people, their backgrounds, their passions, and their ways of working. I’ve found that whenever I have been truly interested in finding out about somebody’s life, the relationship has been significantly stronger.
If we go into our networking efforts with true curiosity and interest, it becomes very difficult to put a foot wrong.
The Fresh-off-the-Boat Blueprint
Now that we’ve got the two golden rules out the way, the rest is going to be easy! These are the (very logical) actions that I take when moving to a new place to quickly integrate into the community and build my network:
1. Become a “yes” (wo)man
Funnily enough, people love to help the new guy! I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to move with a globally recognized firm with offices full of people of similar age. I found that I was often invited to lunches, coffees, dinners, bowling nights, and the like. Accept as many invites as you can.
It’d be easy to give in to social anxiety and decline the invites. I’ve done that before, too. I’ve found that things almost always turn out better than you expect them to! If they don’t, that’s okay, you can always excuse yourself early. You won’t know if you don’t try.
2. Never go into a conversation with an agenda
The second you enter a conversation with a “what can I get out of this” mentality, you’re doomed. Relationships bear fruit over time because you’re likable (and curious, remember) and not because you’re trying to extract every ounce of value that person could possibly provide in the space of one conversation.
Have an open mind, listen and converse without an end game, and prepare to be shocked at how well this works over time.
3. Never Eat Alone
I must confess: I’ve never read Keith Ferrazzi’s bestseller. Nevertheless, I love the title; so much value can be gleaned from that alone.
Whenever I grab a coffee or pop out for lunch, I try to take someone with me. Quick 5–10 minute chats do wonders over time for your social standing.
I also love breakfast, so I try to schedule one or two breakfast catchups with someone I don’t know well each week. What a great start to the day!
4. Play sport, start hobbies
I’m fortunate in that I am a sports fanatic and living in a sports-mad place. Australians love their sports. Wherever you can play a sport or would love to learn a sport, look to join a club or a team! I play golf, squash, and tennis, which are all fantastic sports for meeting new people. I’m also happy to try my hand at pretty much anything.
Sport has been the single biggest driver of new friends and connections for me outside of people I meet through the office.
Don’t play sport? That’s okay. There’s like to be a community centered around the things you love to do wherever you go. Whether it’s art, board games, volunteering, or hiking, you’re bound to find new friends. All you need to do is find them and attend.
5. LinkedIn can work wonders if you do it right
I’ve had both extreme frustration and awesome success with LinkedIn. It tends to be filled with spammers and sanctimonious sellers; the amount of eye-rolling I do when scrolling through the news feed can’t be healthy. Fortunately, you don’t need the news feed at all to meet new people via LinkedIn!
For networking purposes, my use of LinkedIn is super simple but highly effective:
- Find people in my city that interest me based on their career paths and professional accomplishments;
- connect with them;
- ask about them. Don’t talk about yourself. When you think it’s time to talk about yourself, carry on asking about them; and
- if the conversation goes well, suggest a coffee catchup and refer to points 1–3 above.
That’s it. This method is the reason for the biggest sales contracts my startup ever got.
It’s the only way I’ve ever formed meaningful connections out of LinkedIn, and the only way I intend to carry on using it for networking.
Start Right Now
Many of us are natural procrastinators. Meeting new people requires energy and often induces anxiety in even the most confident individuals. Having said that, the best thing you can do for yourself is to start immediately.
Every person you meet makes a difference. While we’re certainly not in a rush, I find these efforts reap rewards akin to compound interest. The more people I meet and friends I make, the more introductions I get to other people. The more introductions I get, the more I can be a “yes” man!
Enjoy the process and treat your networking efforts like you’re just trying to make some new friends in a new place. All being well, you’ll actually end up with new friends too!
FOB Networking in a Nutshell:
- Golden rule: be patient. Don’t expect it all to happen in a day and don’t think that every person you meet will be a good friend.
- Golden rule: be curious. You have to be interested to be interesting.
- Become a “Yes” man. Accept as many invites as you can. Often things turn out much better than you expect!
- Don’t go into a conversation with an agenda. Relationships bear fruit over time because you’re likable and don’t go into everything with a “what can I get out of this” mentality.
- Have coffees with as many people as possible. Never eat alone.
- Play sports or find groups of people doing the things you love. Join them.
- Reach out to people on LinkedIn. Ask about them, don’t talk about yourself! When you think it’s time to talk about yourself, carry on asking about them.
- Start now. Every person makes a difference. The effect is compounded over time.
New to leadership? Read my article on overcoming imposter syndrome and winning your team support: How to Not Suck as a Leader