By Ajita Kadirgamar
Long before the advent of the internet, social media and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, Sri Lankans were masters of the networking game. Networking, whether social or professional is basically, ‘the exchange of information and ideas among individuals or groups that share a common interest’. It has evolved into an art, a delicate mix of give and take; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It’s also a sense of ‘alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’.
Perhaps Sri Lankans are good at networking because we are a small island where everyone knows someone who’s someone. And let’s face it, our people excel at making everybody’s business their business.
My father Lakshman Kadirgamar was possibly one of the most prolific networkers, dare I say in Sri Lankan history. From nursery school at Ladies College to Trinity College, Kandy, to the University of Peradeniya, Baliol College, the Oxford Union, the UN (ILO, WIPO) and during his years in politics, he tapped into his prolific network. At a personal level, he used his network to help young people with their education and jobs, support charitable projects and of course he was ever willing to rally the troops to support his beloved alma mater Trinity.
The man had access to a massive global network of professionals, academics and politicians and wherever in the world he travelled, he was bound to know someone ‘from way back’. He fastidiously nurtured his friendships and relationships over the decades and was a great note and letter writer, always handwritten, something we rarely do today. He had the old-world habit of writing thank you notes for the smallest good deed or gift that came his way. Such demonstrations of grace and courtesy mattered deeply and were treasured by the receiver.
Apart from written communication, he could effortlessly pick up the phone and connect directly to the movers and shakers of the world. In fact, he could have been the pre-internet poster boy for what LinkedIn has become to the world of professional networking.
The abundant networking my father consciously undertook during his lifetime, with merely a collection of business cards or telephone numbers, is what we do today 24/7 at lightning speed through the internet.
Networking for the unemployed
While unemployed in the US at the height of the 2008 economic crisis, I found out first-hand the importance of having a diverse network. Blindly applying for jobs online and never hearing back soon became a futile task. I rapidly grew my LinkedIn account, attended networking meetings for the unemployed, went to (free) seminars and social events, did a pro bono project and joined interest groups. Not only did all this activity keep me busy (and stave off job-loss depression) but every person I met was a possible link to a future job.
In fact, once when invited to address a group of unemployed networkers, I told them that if I as a ‘foreigner’ in the country could have done all of the above, there was no excuse for them as citizens on their home turf to sit around moping about the lack of traction in their job search. I pointed out that anyone in their immediate sphere – neighbour, postman, mechanic, friend of a friend – could end up providing a crucial link to their next job. They were receptive and grateful for my outsider perspective.
When job hunting, knowing someone in the targeted company is what will get you a foot in the door and the possibility of an interview. Companies always prefer hiring through personal recommendations. If this sounds like a typical Sri Lankan practice which is effective because this is such a small country, and everyone knows everyone, be assured it’s how it works even in the US.
The Sri Lankan old boys’ and old girls’ school networks, classic ‘buddy systems’ are priceless both at home and abroad. In Australia for instance, with its massive Sri Lankan community of around 250,000, every leading school has an alumni group or association. In Sydney alone, I’ve attended events by Old Trinitians, Peradeniya University Alumni, and a very well fraternized Good Shepherd dinner dance where I even met a distant relative for the first time.
Such events not only keep the Sri Lankan community connected while far from the motherland, many also raise funds for charitable projects back home. Alumni networks are priceless because members are bound together by a common love, pride and the desire to share their good fortune and give back.
Wherever in the world you find a significant Sri Lankan community you can be sure there will be some sort of association where people gather regularly for the obligatory Lankan food, arrack, baila music and juicy gossip.
While social media is the ultimate form of virtual networking, Sri Lankans have created their special recipe of get togethers under the banner @TweetupSL. What started off as a casual meetup between three Twitter contacts in 2010 has morphed into a network of over 70,000 Tweeps, an annual event including awards for the most popular Tweeps in various categories, as well as smaller regular interest/event-based meetings in Colombo and Kandy. Interestingly, members range from school kids to senior citizens. One Facebook forum with 28,000 members is planning its first ‘social’ later in the month and it will be interesting to see how many members turn up in the flesh. For Sri Lankans there’s nothing quite like meeting face to face and figuring out real life connections and commonalities.
Networking today is an intuitive activity. Whether we realize it or not, every interaction, every business card handed out is a potential resource that can be of use somewhere down the line. The cardinal rule of networking however, is to cultivate and grow your network in good times, not wait till desperate times to reach out for help, advice or a job recommendation.