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Leadership starts with paying it forward
I’ve been self-employed essentially my whole life, and this year marks the 20th anniversary since I started my first company in 1999. Being an entrepreneur naturally comes with the requirement to constantly evolve, a lifestyle that forces you to push your boundaries and tear down self-accepted limits. This is why I wrote this article.
I am an introvert.
Yes, I used to perform classical piano in public, but that’s about all of the [public] exposure I was after when I was growing up and mainly because it happened to be a great opportunity to “grow” and realize my private practice in public, on stage.
At school, I often avoided overnight class excursions as I simply didn’t like the “hormone-driven” behaviors from some of my classmates. Later, at college — especially as I didn’t enjoy drinking alcohol — the best way for me to “hide” was, ironically enough, behind the bar mixing drinks for other people. And when I started doing business for one of my companies in China — a non-drinker, non-smoker, non-gambler, and a vegetarian! — I thought I was clearly the most boring guy in the room.
I founded my first company in 1999 and for the next decade-plus, I profoundly underrated networking and the opportunities associated with it. I’d rather sit on the beach, manage my business online, and watch the world go by.
At the time it just never occurred to me how important it is to build a personal network that can be leveraged professionally, and have a professional network that I could identify with personally to accomplish not just my goals but the increasingly complex projects that life brought my way.
One of my piano teachers was a great master, a real grand dame. She toured the world more than three times – at a time when a flight from Europe to New Zealand took 67 hours and had to touch down in the middle of the desert to refuel. She told me the most amazing stories. How she dined with four different US presidents, and how she and her husband used to socialize with the world’s high society of the day.
To me — as magical as it sounded at the time — it wasn’t something to aspire to. That was before I realized the importance of having a strong and reliable network, backed by authentic relationships.
Time changes things and mind changes time
My mind changed in 2011. I didn’t have a big network, but I was passively following certain leaders who inspired me. I was incorporating their thoughts and opinions into my life, but as an introvert, I wasn’t actively interacting with them. Not because I thought I didn’t have something valuable to contribute, but simply because I didn’t think they’d respond anyway.
This changed when I replied to Brad Feld‘s cry for help via Twitter when he was in Paris searching for mobile internet access. But even my short reply to his tweet made me nervous. Replying to one of the leaders I looked up to publicly was new for me. But Brad was super nice. He thanked me in a blog post and even invited me and my wife to join him and his wife for lunch in Paris a day later.
Meeting Brad and Amy in Paris made me realize the breadth and depth of their network. This sparked my interest in discovering how leaders authentically grow their tribe. Brad had instant access to relationships that I couldn’t even imagine having. For example, Twitter had just launched its first private message (DM) API and I shared with him that me and my team had failed to get access to it. He said, “I can introduce you to the person (thanks Jason!) who manages this.”
Quite innocently, I asked him, “What do you want for this?” He said, “Nothing. But I have one request. Pay it forward.“
Now imagine me sitting there, a non native English speaker, not even knowing at the time what “pay it forward” meant. I literally had to look it up when I returned from lunch and found out that there is even an annual event for it. It became a real eye opener for me and a theme, that whatever blessings I received from then onwards, I always tried to pay it forward. Indeed, every time I’ve made an introduction since for others, every time I could help someone or something, I thought back to this lunch in Paris nearly eight years ago!
Give without expectations
The first two years after starting to pay it forward, nothing much happened. Why? I made the most common mistake. I misunderstood the concept. I felt that because I’m helping someone else, it would be okay to expect to receive back the fruits of my good deeds. But I didn’t see the positive Karma come back my way for quite some time.
A few years later, I realized that when paying something forward, it’s important to do it immediately, without hesitation, and without having any expectation of receiving anything in return.
And that’s when the good stuff started to happen.
Opportunities started to appear and I could see a pattern. I could see my network unfolding in front of me. Interestingly, a different one than what I had been looking for, but one that was forming beyond my immediate needs and comprehension. And most importantly, a network that was sustainable, tangible, resilient, and above all, authentic.
I had finally started my journey towards leadership and I wasn’t afraid of “wasting my time with networking” anymore.
Beyond networking, say YES!
While I overall value being an introvert, there were certain characteristics of it which still bothered me. Just as I was almost too scared to reply to Brad’s tweet, I also didn’t say “yes” to many of the opportunities that started to come my way. While paying it forward had naturally opened many new doors for me, the ability to say “yes” and walk through those doors had to come from within.
For instance, I had to work hard on myself to overcome self-inflicted limitations. When I got invited as a speaker for technology and leadership-driven events, I didn’t initially believe I had enough knowledge about the subject to be on a panel or even lead it as a moderator, but one thing I have learned is that you only realize what you can truly do when you’re put in the position of managing, moderating, and mentoring others, and of course, speaking about it in public.
This newfound confidence has led me to many interesting encounters – meeting heads of state, CEOs of major global companies, heads of decades-old family dynasties, and as importantly, other aspiring leaders who are on their journey, just as I am on mine.
I wrote this post for those of you who have plans to do extraordinary things. Don’t make the same mistake as I did and wait to build your trusted circle. Pay something forward, every day and get out there building your personal and professional network!
My career advice to you is to:
Be authentic, be you;
Pay it forward, without expecting anything in return; and
Say “yes,” be open to the opportunities that come your way.
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