A few nights ago, I had nothing better to do and so I started surfing the net and lo and behold I ran into the website of one of the original citizens of Caucasia. Like all good citizens of Caucasia, this one went through great pains to point out that she was an exceedingly well connected person and to prove her point left the url of her linkedin page. The only thing a good friend from the UK could point out to me was ...."She's obviously blonde."
Well, she's blonde and she has a body that one could consider useable if one did not have the funds or the inclination to make a trip to Geylang. However to be fair to her, she's not the only person who talks about her connections. These days, it's not enough to be rich...you have to be connected. In Asia, the ability to drop names is especially important. You cannot escape reading about Japanese Kiratsu and Chinese Guanxi - the essential ingredients in doing business in this part of the world - so, guess what? If you are a citizen of Caucasia, it's essential to tell the world that you have connections as well as money - or in the words of one of the more prominent citizens of Caucasia - "I'm a brand amongst Asia's Billionaires."
Well, connections are important. Who you know in life does count. I got my internship at Citibank because I asked my Dad to talk to one of his golfing buddies. I was told not to be embarrased about it because....everyone else in the company also got their jobs through contacts. Let's put it this way, these days, everyone has a fabulous education and years of valuable working experience on their CV and so the only way the HR recruiters will ever look at your CV is when you have someone who tells them to look at it.
Contacts count and its not just about Chinese Guanxi. The British have an "Old School Tie" system. Contacts are very important, even in America, the land where penniless migrants becmoe gazillionaires on an idea - the last President got his job in part because of his last name and while the press is oggling over the current President's shade, let's not forget that he went to a university that is the brand of brands in the world of higher education.
But like everything else, people who talk too much about their connections are highly suspect. I for one am highly connected. When I am in Singapore, I know Lee Kuan Yew and when I go to Hong Kong, I know Li Ka Shing. If I wanted to goto the USA, I'd definately call on Barak but not before I stop by Redmond Washington to say hello to Bill.
You can't accuse me of telling lies. I really do know Li Ka Shing, Hong Kong's richest man and I really do know Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding Prime Minister. I am dead certain that if I continued at length, I'd have enough fawning followers to fill a decent sized ball room.
The more discerning amongst you, might actually ask the most important question. Do any of these people know me? This question makes sense. Everyone knows Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Li Ka Shing in Hong Kong. Who does not know Barak Obama or Bill Gates? On the other hand, how many people are known by any of the above?
This is the age of the internet. It's easy to know the whole world. Thanks to social networking sites like Friendster and Facebook or their grown up counterparts like Linkedin and Xing - knowing people is easy. As of writing this entry, I have 211 friends on Facebook and over 80 people on Tagged. I am, indeed, a man filled with friends. Valentines Day was especially hard work - I had to send out over 100 greetings (no I don't get laid as often as I need...oopps would like to)
There is however, a difference between knowing people and knowing people. It's easy to collect name cards. It's exceptionally easy to get people to join your friends list on a social networking site. All it takes is a click. I'm such an attention junky, I click yes on Tagged's"meet me list (most are hot chicks) and I have this wierd fettish of trying to reconnect with old school friends in the UK. If you looked at my Tagged and Facebook profiles, you'd draw the conclusion that I know allot of peolpe and allot of people know me.
Having a relationship is a different matter entirely. Relationships require an investment of time and honesty. Business relationships are particularly hard work in as much as you have to be able to understand the nature of your relationship. Business, as Hans Hofer, founder of Appa Guides once said, " Is about organising your relationships." If you can organise your relationships effectively, you can do almost anything.
It sounds simlpe enough. Doing it is another matter. For example, most of us assume that business is about taking care of yourself. It's vital that you get paid in business. What most overlook is the fact that its also vital that you take care of the people you have a relationship with, whether you're talking about your customers, suppliers and employees. Nobody will follow a leader who does not take care of them - unless you're an American General working for George Bush II.
What does taking care of relationship involve? I guess, firstly it involves making sure that the other party gets what he or she wants - ie with employees and suppliers they get paid and with customers, they get what they pay for. This, in itself is not an easy task, even when you have the most advanced systems in the world. My father remains exceptionally good at taking care of his customers. They pay him exceptional ammounts of money and even put up with his eccentricities but they do so because he is exceptionally good at what he does - even to the point where he ensures they get more than what they thought they wanted.
My father is an exceptional case in as much as he's working in an indutry that requires artistry. My father is "The Product." For most of us, we are not 'the product' and therefore, we need to work at it a bit more. One good example is my former father-in-law, Yong Koon, the egg seller. How difficult can it be to sell eggs and what makes one egg different from another? Branding? Perhaps there is some R&D involved but by and large most eggs are the same. Can the Middle Man control the quality of the eggs he sells ? Well he can change wholesaler if all the eggs he's bought turns out to be rotten - but by then, it would be too late for him. As for price ....it makes more sense for you to be cut out.
So, how the hell did this uneducated man in a business where he has very little control over the product get around to thriving? He did it by developing a knack for developing a genius for developing relationships and value.
On the superficial level, Yong Koon was never stingy with the Ang Pao's and had a record for attending events. A client's daughter get's married and you show up and present them with a generous Ang Pao. The supplier's wife falls sick - he sent a hamper.
How much can an egg make? Can it justify doing all of this? Well, yes, if you want people to keep buying from you. Yong Koon, the uneducated egg seller knows that people buy from people and people only like to deal with people who care about them. Caring about people means being somewhat honest with them and it means being interested in them even when you have nothing obvious to gain from them.
Everyone wants to know you when you have something for them. For the guys amongst us, my point can be proven by a trip down to Geylang or any other red light district. It's good for the male ego....even if you make Homer Simpson look like George Cloony, you'll have women throwing themselves at you. Then, when you reveal that you're not about to open your wallet...they're attraction to you fades.
Everyone can be a stud in a red light district - but how women will stick around when you're not opening your wallet? It's the case with relationships. How many of us are willing to stick around when the other party is not opening its wallet? Remembering a wedding anniversary or birthday is not going to win you a contract on its own and there is a line between charity and business. But the saying what goes around comes around is true - the guy who's kid's birthday you rememer is more likely to want to help you out when you may need it most. A former CEO you remembered is likely to pull a string or two for you because you remained a friend even though he was no longer a CEO.
It's not easy to do these things. Relationships involve egos and egos don't always act in ways that are sensible. Managing that is an art form but if you can master the art, life becomes easier. Yong Koon, for all his lack of schooling, is a genius at it. He ensures that peolpe win from dealing with him. The man would take out groups to restaurants that bought eggs from him and the chef would come out and greet him personally. These were all 30-year old customers. He got them to do things for them because he did things for them.
How well connected am I really? The honest answer is, I don't know but if people need my help, I try and render it where possible. My rollodex has a few names on it but don't expect me to make miracles with it.
Seriously, the next time someone tells you that they're super well connected and produce a fat list of name cards...check if they're of the opposite sex and bedable...that's about the best you can do with them.