Networking: The Global Difference

Victor Lee ’83 has built a career on being attuned to nuances of cross-border communication. Here, he shares his top tips.

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[Ed. note: I knew I’d met a consummate networker when I first saw Victor Lee ‘83 in action. He had invited me to an event on China, held by the World Economic Forum, and there was a long line at the security desk to check in. Victor worked that line like a pro, shaking hands and stopping to chat with people he knew (there were many!).

He has put his networking acumen to good use with his latest venture: TradePostUSA, a publishing company that promotes bilateral business, trade, and investments to and from the United States. I recently caught up with Lee to get his tips on networking with a global twist.]

Even introverts can do it.

When Bill Clinton was bored or tired he would look for people to talk to. That’s an extravert for you: they get energy from people. I’m definitely an introvert, and we give energy when we interact with people. Being an introvert is different from being shy. When I meet new people I’m perfectly content to let them talk. I also find that networking is more effective that way — if they talk, I learn about them. If I talk, I don’t learn anything new.

Get to the “why.”

It helps to network with a purpose. I try to understand what my point of connection with the other person is: ‘Oh, we both went to Columbia together.’ I then look for some organized activity that will come out of the interaction: an introduction to someone else, a source of knowledge and information, or a business activity, archived for future use.

When networking globally, change your approach.

You’re treading a line when you are networking with someone from another country. You don’t want to be patronizing, but you need to get through cultural/societal/national differences to understand them. It’s a narrower path. These practices have served me well:

  • Keep your language straightforward; avoid idioms or geographic references. For example, someone from another country might not understand the phrase “this project is going south” or “let’s put a pin in that.” Instead, I might say “this project isn’t going well” or “let’s remember to do that.”

  • Try to be cleaner in your pronunciation.

  • Find common cultural references — from your trip to their country to demonstrate familiarity with their background, or shared entertainment references from TV and movies.

  • Don’t assume that a high degree of facility in English implies commonality of culture and depth of communication. For example, the word “brilliant” is often used informally by British people to mean “extremely good” or “extremely enjoyable.” But in the United States it refers to an idea or a person who’s a genius.

  • It’s easy to devolve into sounding patronizing. I’ve heard people say things like “Gee your English is really good” or “What do Americans really think of the French?” Instead, I try to discover what someone is like on a personal level and where our points of connection might be, and not treat them as a representative of their country.

…but don’t overthink it.

You don’t want to walk around on eggshells. Networking is a process, not an activity. It shouldn’t be overly “sales-y.” The objective should be to understand the other person and how his or her situation relates to yours.

Keep track of who you meet.

I use LinkedIn to reach out to people right after I’ve met them. I then use an app to upload their business cards into my contact list and a CRM to track my contacts with them.

I also subscribe to the theory of the “Dunbar number,” put forth by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, as the primary way to think about my universe of contacts. Dr. Dunbar says you can have meaningful relationships [involving trust and obligation — there's some personal history, not just names and faces] with only 150 people at a time. I keep a spreadsheet of several hundred key connections, with the 150 contacts who are currently the most meaningful at the top of list with notes as to our most recent interactions.

People move up and down on my spreadsheet as contact fades and new people replace them, especially for the all-important Dunbar group. I’ll refer to my spreadsheet several times a day to organize my outreach efforts and to trigger new ideas, especially for people with whom I have not recently been in touch. I find it helpful to be able to see lots of names at once and it helps me make connections and introductions among people on my list.

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