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OPINION | I invested in people… and in return, they invested in me

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"Look after people, and they will look after you." — Tang Li, OPINION

I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve had to doll out advice to people on networking. As with everything related to “career,” I was hesitant to offer advice since I never had the chance to build much of a career. However, since I have had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, I thought I would share one or two thoughts.

Interestingly enough, my philosophy on networking is shaped by my dad. Although we’ve never had much “buddy time,” he’s left me with a few nuggets of wisdom that have proved invaluable. Perhaps his greatest nugget came from a discussion about investment. He said he was never good with investing in investments (stocks, bonds, properties etc.), but he “invested in people.” He gave the example of how he nurtured a rookie in an advertising agency, who had then become very senior in a bank and that former rookie returned the favour by getting him appointed as director of photography on a shoot, over possible objections of the ad agency.

This bit of wisdom made me aware that the worst thing one could do was be friendless. A person who has no friends finds it a lot more difficult to survive. Money can always be earned, but you need people to allow you to earn it.

So, what type of friends should one have? Regarding the social ladder, you should ensure that you have friends or at least people who care about you enough to ensure your survival.

The best place to start is usually at the top of the ladder. Boss management is one of the least talked about skills in management schools, yet it is one of the most important. A good boss can open doors and bring you places. He or she can show you how to get your thoughts sorted out to get through certain situations.

How do you make friends with the people on top? I think of my uncle, who was once my boss. His classic line on labour division was, “My job is to look pretty in front of the client, and the rest of you have to make sure I look pretty.” Sensible bosses want people who make them look good to rise with them.

The second area is the ability to bring in money. The justification for bringing in and paying someone “x” dollars is easy when they are bringing in “y” dollars. So, when I’ve been someone else’s employee, I’ve worked on the principle that although it’s the boss’s business, I also need to ensure the boss can pay my salary.

In life, I’ve been fortunate to have bosses or ex-bosses who have looked out for me. PN Balji is one of the names that come to mind. Balji got me writing commentary when he ran Today, and he also got me into “issues management” when we were at Bang PR. Interestingly enough, his greatest contribution to my life as a mentor was not there – most notably when I worked for Saudi Embassy in 2006. We were supposed to go in on the job together, and then he dropped out, leaving me to handle what has been the highlight of my interesting working life.

There were others too. I think of Ed Ng, CEO of SEA of GE Commercial Finance, in 2007. Although I never got the chance to build the relationship with GE that I hopped to, Ed has always been there as someone willing to help. There is also Girija Pande, the Chairman of Apex-Avalon. He pushed for me to work on ISAS’s South Asian Diaspora event. I didn’t get the job, but given that I was a one-man show and ISAS is part of the National University of Singapore (NUS – a government-related institution), it was an achievement for a one-man show to be given the time of the day to present a case.

Just as it’s important to have friends on top, it’s also important to have friends by the side. Your contemporaries are people who have shared experiences with you. Most of us have the bulk of our friendships over here.

Contemporaries are usually the guys we meet in school, university and at work. If you’re from a country with national service, you also meet some of your best friends here. Two of my best friends come from this period in my life. We’re very different in our backgrounds, and we all have gone on to do different things. However, we’re still best of buds, and I believe we have the shared experience of the military to thank.

Corporate life is such that most of us are trained to focus on building upward and sideway connections. Not much thought is given to downward connections. However, downward connections are, in some ways, the most important, and these connections can be divided into two areas.

Firstly, it’s those who are junior to you. Just as it’s important to have seniors to help you, you should also make it a point to have juniors to mentor. The guy, your junior, is likely to be a senior, and one day, he or she may be in a position to help you in your later years. Dad had the example of a former agency rookie who became a managing director at a bank and passed him a job.

It wasn’t just my dad. Mum often jokes that my inheritance from her was her contact base. Her juniors had become editors by the time I entered the workforce. I became the only freelance media relations consultant with no agency or journalism experience who could pick up the phone and get through to the editor.

Juniors who may become seniors are only one group of downline connections. The other group are those you might call the group that will remain in the downline. These guys are often unnoticed but, unbeknown to the rest of us, hold certain powers. PN Balji pointed out that one should always befriend security guards and secretaries. His friendship with a security guard at a client’s premises always ensured there was parking. Secretaries hold access to bosses. Offend a secretary, and chances are he or she will find a way of ensuring that the boss is too busy to talk to you.

The key is to never think of people as “low level” and to always take care of them. One of my greatest examples comes from one of my logistics providers, who has a group of Chinese-speaking guys who help him with his work at the ports. When he sees them, they are well-fed and have beers.

Look after people, and they will look after you.

The guys in the downline can find solutions to a myriad of problems. In the US army, it’s said that the best way for an officer to get things done is to just give clear instructions to the NCOs and the men, who will then put their ingenuity to work.

As is often said, you can never have too many friends, and your friends are the key to how far you get in life. People around you have an uncanny way of being able to make life difficult, but they also have a way of making it much easier if you know how to manage them.

A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com


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