Two AlixPartners senior vice presidents discuss overcoming the awkwardness of networking, the importance of being a great listener, and the impact of the pandemic on their social health.
To kick off 2021, AlixPartners’ NextGen employee resource group is exploring various forms of health and well-being and their influence on our personal and professional lives.
Fatih Bayazit, a Senior Vice President in our Digital team based in Munich, and Zach Li, a Senior Vice President in our Financial Advisory Services group based in Hong Kong, discuss overcoming the awkwardness of networking, the importance of being a great listener, and the impact of the pandemic on their social health.
Fatih: Zach, there is a perception that Millennials and Generation Z are less adept with in person communication and networking than our predecessors, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. People change, so we might only have different communication styles. What do you think?
Zach: I agree with that. Obviously, there will be generation gaps. If I am at an event with people who are much older than me, I might contribute less because I feel like I don’t have the same experiences. It might be a little more difficult than if I was interacting with someone in my similar age range, but it’s all about finding a common language and finding where your experience overlaps.
Fatih: Finding common ground is absolutely essential. If you’re networking at a business event, you can at least talk about the work you share. Although for me, it starts to feel awkward to only talk about work. In order to build the relationship, I find that you have to show genuine interest in the person. I think many people confuse having a dialogue with talking. Listening is much more important than talking when you’re building relationships.
Zach: You're absolutely right. If I’m at a networking event, work is always the first thing I talk about with someone I’m meeting for the first time. Since my expertise is in damages calculation in international arbitrations, my usual conversation starter is how many cases do you have going on now, or do you have a big hearing soon? You need to be attentive to pick up on certain “cues” to transition the conversation to a more get to know you, get to know me kind of place. So, if someone talks about how expected urgent work came up and ruined their vacation plans, you can start talking about travel and the flow of the conversation naturally becomes more personal. Not many people want to talk about work for two hours with someone that they just met for the first time.
Fatih: And then the next time you see the person you can pick up where you left of, you know. You can ask them if they were ever able to get that vacation in. This might be kind of telling, but people are really surprised when you remember what you talked about before.
Zach: Yea, you can usually see it in someone’s facial expression, like “wow, you we’re actually listening to me,” and then they feel more comfortable sharing more because they knew that you put care into building the relationship.
Honestly, I don’t think networking comes easy for anybody, but it’s a skill you can develop just like anything else. I attended five different schools in the six years before I started university, and so every year, I was the new kid who didn’t know anybody. I feel like I’ve been networking since I was 12! Still with all that experience, it’s still a little intimidating to be at a conference where I don’t know anyone, and it feels like everyone else there is already friends.
But what I’ve come to realize is there’s always another “awkward” person there like me. So, I just find the other “awkward” person just standing in a corner, holding their coffee, and start a conversation with them! I think a lot of people think successful networking is being the social butterfly who knows everyone in the room, but there is truly no right or wrong approach in networking. I just prefer to have a 45-minute conversation and build a deep connection with one person than to talk to everyone in the room for five minutes each.
Fatih: Related to that and what we were discussing before about the need to show genuine interest is to start with the network you already have. This is an advice a mentor of mine gave me: We have counterparts on our projects where there is already a common link, and I focus on building these relationships, rather than cold calling on LinkedIn, which can be awkward.
I also received great advice from my performance partner about maintaining the network you already have, which is to schedule some time when I am travelling and waiting in the airport or on a train and call or email two or three of my contacts to stay in touch.
Zach: I think the ability to build and maintain your network is even more important than the ability to meet people for the first time. It is also something I’m more thoughtful about now that I am getting older and have other obligations. You only have so much time, right, and so one thing that’s been helpful for me is to integrate my clients into my friend circle.
Fatih: I agree. I’ve treated building my business relationships the same way that I build my friendships. In our Business, friendships turn into business relationships and vice versa.
Zach: And I think the pandemic has reinforced this connection for me. It’s obviously been challenging to build new networks, but I have more time to connect with friends, or clients back in New York or Toronto, where I used to live. Now it’s common to hop on a call at 11 at night with my buddy in Europe just to catch up. When before everyone would be like why are you calling me, just message me, right?
Fatih: Not having as much face-to-face time overall has made me much closer with my family and my close relationships and made my bonds with them much stronger. Before, things were more fast paced, and so it was easy for me to forget my foundation. I’ve come back to that during the past year, which has been really great.
Zach: I think that’s absolutely right. It’s been like a resetting, and an opportunity for me to focus more on my deep relationships. Also, since there have been less opportunities to network externally, I’ve had more time to focus on building my network internally, which is so important at a global firm like ours.
Fatih: Before you’d be on a project and you’d be in the same room with your team or you’d run into your client in the hall. Now you have to be a little more deliberate in scheduling catch ups and virtual coffee sessions. But I think that little extra work we have to put in to keep in touch with people is helping us appreciate and care about the interactions we do have a little bit more. The firm is supporting us with all tools available to reduce this hurdle to an absolute minimum. Your next conversation is only one click away.
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