Job Hunting at 50 – Part Two: Trading on Your Network

Job Hunting at 50 – Part Two: Trading on Your Network

Apart from a pile of cash, the most tradable commodity in the Japanese business world is a strong personal network. You see successful networkers in this country all the time, creating relationships based on both friendship and interpersonal IOUs – “giri”. Look this word up on the internet; it is usually defined as obligation and it’s a useful concept to understand, permeating as it does, the Japanese business world.

Successful networking is all about trust and action and can create individual fortunes and stellar careers. In my own realm of experience I have a 40-something entrepreneur friend who personally runs his JPY5bn business on the phone, trading inventory and introductions with people he races Ferraris with. Another is a late-50’s CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, who climbed the corporate ladder because he cemented his relationship with the former Chairman during a time when everyone else wanted to pitch the Chairman out due to poor business performance.

As I mentioned last week, your personal network is the one thing that gets better with age – providing you look after it, of course. The idea that it can mature is a simple but important point. As time goes by, within your circle some trusted friends will inevitably be promoted and become useful in a business context. While you can’t turn relationships on and off like a tap, and there are some who mistakenly run around trading name cards with everyone they meet, I do think you need to consciously develop the process of networking.

First pick the core group that you want to associate with. Way back when, I decided to network with entrepreneurs, as we had similar challenges and aspirations. I was a founder member of the Japan chapter of the Young Entrepreneur’s Organization (YEO), now called simply EO. Next, “husband” your relationships, spending 80% of your time with those people whose careers are growing and 20% with those you just like hanging out with. This way you get a good mix of business development and simple stress relief.

I guess that this approach to cultivating your network may seem cold and calculating to some, and I don’t mean to say that you can pretend to be a friend in order to get financial gain. The fact is that Japanese friendships really do require a lot of time and energy – with numerous golf days, ski trips, and all-night drinking binges to be invested in! However, I do think that it is basic human nature that we develop relationships with those that we think can benefit us. After all, kids are closer to their mothers because she is the visible caregiver. And employees will try harder to please a demanding boss if they know that person has the power to influence their salaries.

It’s important to stay positive about the task of networking, otherwise it can really become a burden. Remember that a strong personal network is a point of empowerment and has age-fighting properties. Keep telling yourself this when you feel like simply going home and curling up with a good book. There are not many employers (well, those who understand Japan anyway) around, who can resist trying out a candidate who personally went to school with the CEO or board member of some major target customer. Or who knows whom to call in order to get inside information on where the market is headed. Or who can get a friendly reporter to carry company announcements in a national business newspaper week after week.

In “buying in” a personal network, the real question in the employer’s mind is not whether to try the older candidate out, but whether the person should be a full-time employee or work in some less permanent category.

I’ll concede that often hiring a more experienced and sometimes opinionated individual can cause feelings of conflict and confusion among younger managers. This can be very disruptive to the business and needs to be dealt with quickly and decisively. For my own companies, I usually solve the conflict issue by bringing the older person on as an advisor, not regular employee, while at the same time giving both them and their managers some clear performance targets.

An advisor role is a well-understood position and provides the older person some space and time flexibility. It lets them rationalize getting a lower salary because they can engage in several advisor positions at the same time and thus diversify their income sources. From the viewpoint of internal managers, someone who is an advisor has enough differentiation and sufficiently modest cost that they feel comfortable with the arrangement.