One of the most effective ways to grow a business and advance your career in Japan is to make an effort at networking. Business relationships here often play an even bigger role in the decision making process than they do elsewhere, and building a strong network can bring real results. This applies whether or not you are actively looking to achieve something specific. After all, the relationships you establish when not “hat in hand” are probably the most useful when it comes to looking for a job, expanding sales, or the like.
Fortunately, particularly for foreigners living in Japan, networking is very easy and can be enjoyable since you will probably get to meet a wider group of people than you would back home. And there are almost endless opportunities. Many international groups regularly hold sessions at bars and restaurants and specific industries will often have their own set of events.
Also, do not overlook the many international chambers of commerce. These range from the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, with some 2,700 members, to smaller countries such as Finland, boasting its own chamber with 62 corporate and 16 individual members. The chambers usually feature a steady stream of speakers, lunches and evening events, and membership is typically not expensive—especially for individuals. One common misconception is that the chambers are open only to nationals of that country. This is not true. Almost all will welcome anyone with a business interest in their country.
Attending a networking event can seem a bit awkward at first, with strangers walking up to each other at random, exchanging business cards and a few words, and then moving on. In addition, it may appear that everyone is just trying to sell something. If there are no “buyers”, then what is the point?
Therefore, a few tips:
Don’t be shy.
Take advantage of the fact that everyone is interested in meeting others and feel free to walk up to someone standing there and introduce yourself. It’s good to have a few simple sentences thought out on who you are and what you do.
Don’t rush from person to person trying to meet as many as possible or only look for someone you consider “important”. There is no prize for the person who gets the most cards. You will naturally have more of an affinity with some over others, so feel free to chat for a bit with people you find interesting. But don’t try to talk for too long—if you want to have extended discussions, you can always e-mail and suggest a lunch. That’s what the event is for.
Keep an open mind.
Initially you may have a specific career or business goal in mind and won’t want to talk to others who cannot advance them. That is not only rude to others, it is also a mistake. Since time began, the idea of mutual benefit and exchanging favors has been at the heart of commerce. Therefore, when you meet someone, listen with interest about what they do. Think whether you know someone who could benefit from their product or service. It might even be you. In this way, you can demonstrate real interest and impress someone who may turn around and be able to help you.
Don’t hide your goals.
If your reason for networking is to look for a new job, you can say so. People have a natural tendency to want to help, and in suggesting an opening, they are actually helping a contact of theirs who is looking for someone to fill a need.
Follow up, and not just with those who can help you.
After the event, drop an e-mail to people with whom you would like to talk more. Some may have too crowded a schedule, but others will write back and suggest getting together. After all, everyone has to eat, so mixing it with a pleasant chat is enjoyable—and potentially productive.
(David Price is a Senior Manager for specialized recruitment firm Robert Half International)
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