I distinctly remember the first time I travelled to Manchester, London and Bristol with a view to doing business in the UK. It was utterly overwhelming. Their populations are numbered in millions, and still it’s only too easy to feel alone and isolated in the middle of the crowd.
A similar experience of overwhelming novelty is when you move abroad to study or to work, or sometimes to accompany a spouse on a contract, or to help a long-distance relationship blossom. These are all wonderful opportunities, but it can also be quite daunting and you may not know where to start.
To build your network… meet new people
It might sound very obvious, but a network is made of people, so your first action item should be to go to events, both professional and leisure. Think about what you might have in common with other people. In my case, I’m in business, I’m Irish, I’m a woman, I’m a CFA charterholder, I’m in the cross section of the education and financial sectors, I export, I’m an author, I have an active blog.
All these, as well as a myriad other characteristics, immediately make a plethora of events relevant to me and give me a shared ground with other attendees. You can look at web sites like EventBrite, MeetUp, CraicIt, IIBN and several others for ideas. There are countless gatherings, seminars, breakfasts, drinks, presentations on a daily
basis, where you can meet people who have the same interests, geography, sector or some other common characteristic. This gives you a natural base from which to start a conversation.
To build your network…
share your experiences
Secondly, I suggest that you blog about your experience. Opening up about your personal take on a topic is a wonderful way of reaching out to people who might be going through a similar process or are investigating it before making a decision. Blogging will also help you record and process what you are living and it can pay off in unexpected ways, in the form of future commercial or employment opportunities. For example, I’ve written about getting started in Malta, my experience with IIBN in London, spending a networking week-end in Chicago, going to conferences internationally and engaging with media wherever you go. All these have led to encounters and conversations with new people.
To build your network… take it online
Next, use LinkedIn to connect and then stay in touch with everybody you meet along the way. Participate in LinkedIn Groups that are focused on that particular area (geographic area or area of interest) to complement your efforts offline. Accelerate your progress by meeting organisations whose raison d’être is to help people like you in your situation. It may be Enterprise Ireland, Enterprise Europe Network, the local embassy or recruitment agencies, you never know what you might come across that could be relevant, for you or someone you know. Establish the contacts and get information about all available opportunities, agencies and funding.
To build your network… keep a positive attitude
Put some thought into how you can make a positive out of difficult or negative experiences. Doing business and working in new places offers a whole host of challenges, from feeling lonely and getting to know people, to overcoming cultural barriers and misunderstandings, to negotiating a completely unknown environment. (I’ve notched up lots at this stage!) Even as you’re going through them, learn from these experiences.
See what you can do to turn the tables in your favour and convert unpleasant experiences into CV-worthy specific episodes that will demonstrate your problem-solving skills, self-awareness and initiative. Whilst it’s tempting to retreat to your cultural comfort zone, don’t cross an ocean or a continent only to do what you do at home, tempting as it might be.
A case in point is my first interaction with IIBN. They were having their Summer Drinks in a bustling bar in Kings Cross, London. I walked in and of course I didn’t know anybody. However, to make it even worse, I couldn’t tell who was part of IIBN and who was just out for a drink on a Thursday night. I walked outside, rang my husband and told him that I was going back to the safety of my hotel room. This was just too hard and there would always be other times, wouldn’t there? He talked me around and said “You don’t know what opportunity you’re walking away from. You’re already in London, at the venue and you’re ready to go. Why turn back now? It’s just a drink and you’ve done much harder things in the past.”
It took every ounce of my courage to swallow my nerves and go back in, walk up to a group of strangers and ask to join the conversation. However, Ardle was totally right. That night I was asked to speak at the IIBN Global Conference in London and this opened so many doors in the UK. I was ready to walk away as I didn’t want to experience a few awfully uncomfortable seconds. The discomfort, although very real, was all the creation of my imagination: those uncomfortable seconds were the ones I spent hovering next to the group before diving in. I was immediately made to feel welcome. Now imagine if I had simply walked back to my hotel – what wasted opportunities!
To build your network… express genuine interest
Be culturally aware: what is making headlines locally? What are people talking about? What shows, festivals or other experiences can you attend or take part in? Really be interested in where you’re going and notice the simple, subtle things of everyday life. This will make you a better, well-rounded conversationalist and give you endless topics to break the ice! I became engrossed in the Maltese culture when I lived there for a month when establishing contacts there during May 2011. This served me not only to understand the people, their conversations and their national psyche better; it was also much easier to build rapport with local businesses and organisations.
To build your network… prepare to live in the
Finally, remember that time flies. It’s only too easy to think that you’re here for several months and have all the time in the world to do all you want to do… But suddenly it’s one week before you leave and you haven’t done half the things you were planning.
Very often people ask me “Aren’t you sick of travelling and spending time in airports?” Not in the slightest! I’m a global citizen now and don’t see the world as just a collection of countries. It’s so much more than that: a multi-faceted place of cultural discovery, business opportunities and deep experiences. I’m exceptionally curious to find out so much more than I do now. Our company was recently five years old and it’s been a time of investment in groundwork. Now, the next chapter in the business’ life is building upon that foundation and I’m far, far, far more excited about this than I even was on the day we started.
You know what they say about the journey of a thousand miles… It begins with a single step.
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