Serial entrepreneur and progressive venture investor Anthony Tjan believes that good people and good values are the most critical competitive advantage that exists. His bestselling books Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck and Good People underscore that philosophy.
Tjan has helped transform businesses by using the power of people and culture that challenge industry conventions. As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on LinkedIn, he shared how we can cultivate the kind of rich, mutually beneficial relationships that help us thrive.
The following Q&A features excerpts from the live conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Although you recognize the utility of the word “networking,” it’s a term you usually avoid. Why is that?
My biggest issue with the term networking is that it connotes something transactional, and by extension something that is more short-term in nature. My fundamental belief is that this world is filled with so many long-term opportunities and long-term issues, but we are rooted in short-term thinking and short-term actions. Networking amplifies our cognitive bias towards short-termism and instant gratification. It’s as if anything can be solved quickly: “I have a short- term need, so let me try to network my way to solve it.” However, the important things for which we’re trying to solve are the people who really matter—simply taking the time and deserving the time. So, for me, trying to think of cultivating relationships that are durable—that will last, that will compound over time—is the way to go.
How can someone cultivate meaningful relationships, particularly with a potential mentor?
Start with yourself—meaning, who it is that you are and what it is you're trying to accomplish? Everyone has to have kind of their own Aboriginal internal walkabout to uncover and reveal what hill you're trying to climb. Self-awareness is a great starting place for most things.
Second, when you are engaging with someone with whom you’re hoping to learn from, be super clear on your objective. Finally, to state the “captain obvious” point, if you ask for advice, listen. Listening falls into the bucket of common sense, but it’s not commonly done (at least not done well). It takes practice. For example, if you think the person’s answer feels pedestrian or off the cuff, a little heuristic crutch for introverts is just to say, “Tell me more.”
If you listen carefully and are sincere in your approach, you can foster better and more authentic engagement. For many people, it becomes very easy to rehearse versus reveal. Someone successful, for example, may inspire you in the moment by an articulate construct or one-liner (e.g. “I think you are developing a feature not a product”), but they haven’t advanced your cause. I think part of the engagement is pushing back. It's really, really important not just to have a clarity of your sense of purpose, not just what you're going to do after—but a point of view around how you're going to achieve it. Speaking to smart people can help you develop that point of view, but you need to know how to be clear, ask the right questions, listen and have the courage to push back or ask to “double-click” to go deeper where appropriate.
You talk about the importance of building relationships with competitors. How does that work?
I think we often over index on the word competition--towards thinking that we're all a Fortune 500 company. Most of us, certainly me, are involved in businesses where there's plenty of room for two rowboats in the ocean. I think competitors can as often help each other than take from each other. I actually encourage many of our portfolio companies to go and have a conversation with their competitors once a quarter, once every six months, and get to know each other. You're part of an industry.
During this time of COVID, a beautiful silver lining is seeing how people, who by business definition are competitors, help each other. We are seeing that what really defines us is our humanity and values. This has been especially true for on-premise Main Street businesses who have been trying to help each other, ranging from buying gift cards from one another to helping contribute to employee relief funds to—on a higher level—saying things such as, “Here's the strategy that worked for me to get better marketing results for my product...” or “Here's how I got people to come in my store…” “Hey, do you want to cross our email lists?” or “Should we share some employee resources?”
For most of us, I would say competition is more helpful because it pushes the players in an industry to be better. Focus more thinking on what you do best than overthinking competition.
If you ask for advice, listen. And if you think the person’s answer feels pedestrian or off the cuff, say, ‘Tell me more.’
Do you have any advice for someone seeking connections at professional or industry events (whether in-person or virtual)?
Most people think of me as extroverted. But in big gatherings, I often feel more disconnected and less engaged. Over time, I have learned how to build greater comfort at larger events, and it started when I was at a well-known conference about 20 years ago. Before the event’s grand ballroom dinner, I decided just to go to the person to my left and right and say, “You know, I know we got tickets to this big dinner. Would you care to just get a couple of people together to grab a drink in the lobby to more quietly talk and debrief about the day today?” They did and that turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of the conference for me.
It also has led me to hosting now 18 consecutive years of a convening (this small dinner idea) within that large conference setting. Ironically, the small dinner has become a bit of a tradition and an event in and of itself, but it has helped to foster some truly wonderful relationships. I ended up meeting one of my closest friends, who also happens to be the co-leader of the Tiananmen Square movement, and also some of my most valued investment partners through that dinner.
So, it just goes back to being authentically engaged. That’s at least 50 percent of the problem we have in this country--in the world. We have an inability to have real conversation. I think real conversations are the heart of starting any type of authentic relationship eco-system or cultivation of a set of mentors for you.