The Art of Authentic Networking with Gillian Kerr

Header image of Gillian Kerr giving advice on Networking strategies.

“One random message on LinkedIn where I said yes to meeting someone I had never met, led to the last 12 great years of business, collaborations, and friendships.” 

This week on Networking Success, Gillian Kerr reveals the extraordinary impact of welcoming unexpected encounters.

A global business strategist, founder and mentor, Gillian traces her journey spanning continents and cultures, having lived and worked in Japan, China, Thailand, Eastern Europe, France, The Netherlands, and Italy. From the boardrooms of multinational corporations to the dynamic world of startups we go way beyond the basics as Gillian offers advanced strategies for building trust with clients, adapting to new markets and building a strong brand identity. 

In a world where business success is often attributed to grand plans and calculated moves, this weeks interview with Gillian reminds us that sometimes, the most transformative moments arise from the unexpected – a chance meeting, a leap of faith, an open mind. Her journey encourages us to rethink our views on networking and embrace the unexpected turns that can redefine our paths in surprising ways.

Headshot of Gillian Kerr

Gillian Kerr is a seasoned business strategist and mentor with a diverse background spanning multinational corporations, SMEs, and startups worldwide. Currently, she serves as the Country Manager UK at Dynamo Global, focusing on helping companies achieve success through intelligent ERP solutions. Gillian also dedicates her time to mentoring entrepreneurs at the British Design Fund, guiding them in accelerating growth through effective brand creation strategies. Gillian advises Koalaa soft prosthetics, aiding in the provision of adaptable prosthetics for those with limb loss, and serves as Marketing Director at Hidealoo. She is founder of The Value Equation Limited, which focuses on enhancing business strategies and brand equity. Additionally, Gillian contributes to the fintech ecosystem as a Mentor at Rise, created by Barclays, helping nurture the next generation of financial technology innovators.
Follow GIllian on Linkedin here.

Thank you, Gillian, for generously sharing so inspiring journey with us.

Can you share a story of how a conversation with someone in your network provided valuable insights or guidance during a pivotal moment in your professional journey?

I returned to the UK after working overseas for 12 years, mainly in Asia, and whilst there was a role for me with my existing company, I felt I needed to better understand the current landscape: it seemed very different to the one I had left. I invited an ex-boss to lunch for a catch-up. He’d also returned to the UK after an extended period overseas and I’d noted he’d reinvented himself from being a big brand advertising agency man, to working with big data and customer loyalty – a shift which I found very intriguing.

He was very blunt and told me I’d probably not do well in the communications industry here, or even get a job, as the UK had become obsessed with data, CRM, and digital media which was redefining the agency and communications world. I would be ‘obsolete’ without an understanding and expertise in these areas. His bluntness shocked me, but I left that lunch determined to go and learn about the new landscape and threw myself into getting up to speed.

I signed up to every social media platform to learn how to use these ‘new’ channels; I read voraciously about new tech and big data; and reconnected with every businessperson I knew to learn more about this new business reality. Fortunately, as a marketeer I had plenty of experience in data and different types of communication channels so was able to adapt my skills to the new situation.

This one catch-up had jolted me into action and fundamentally helped me progress my career: it turned out to be especially fortuitous as the promised role with my agency was suddenly relocated to the US. However, armed with all the new terminology, skills and understanding of the market, and the reconnection with my old network, I was able to launch myself with success quickly into a new position.

With your extensive experience working across diverse cultural landscapes from Japan to Europe, how do you adapt your networking approach to fit different cultural contexts?

Networking is fundamentally about people and developing good relationships with them; it’s something I genuinely enjoy. Obviously it can benefit both parties from a business and personal perspective.

I enjoy networking as I’m truly interested in meeting people and learning what they do, not just because networking will assist me with my goals. I think this distinction is important as people do sense this and are always more open and willing to help and do business with people that are genuine and who listen, as well as being culturally sensitive and situation appropriate.

I don’t really ‘adapt’ how I network but rather adjust and tune in to people and situations. I’m just very aware of the individual and their context and interact appropriately – whether I’m talking to a politician at Westminster, someone unemployed in a different part of the UK, or a Japanese businessperson in Japan. Obviously when in a new market, you probably need to ask the one local person you know to introduce you to new relevant people, but you do that in your home market too really.

If you show respect and interest in people, listen and are genuine and pleasant yourself, that’s key. Finding common ground is also important, as is asking advice and learning from others. Follow this basic code of human interaction and typically people will assist you, take your calls and meet again, as well as be open to doing business with you.

Your LinkedIn article on brand translation offers valuable insights for businesses entering new markets. Have you got any top tips for businesses looking to expand their operations globally?

Global business network show with a digital representation of the globe and nodes being connected

Yes: try to understand the market and culture and do employ local people to help you, especially with sales and marketing, and to help navigate the legal and regulatory system. Local people will know best how their market works. Don’t expect to read a short book and expect that you will know it all. Culture works on many different levels. Take the time to observe and listen and follow what is done locally.

Be open-minded and respectful of traditions and local ways – don’t impose your western perspective on the way things are done elsewhere. Don’t think something is ‘wrong’ in the new territory; it’s just their ‘norm’ and the way to get things done.

Don’t ever assume that if it works well elsewhere it will be the same in a new country. It absolutely won’t.

Never ‘assume’ in general. When I was working in China I heard about how a very senior representative of a major western company had gone to their first government meeting in China to get a license to establish and manufacture there. He sat in front of a panel of senior statesmen and was kept waiting for some time for the most senior person to arrive. A little old lady in a faded blue, Mao type uniform brought in a tea trolley, made, and then served him tea. At this point he lost his temper; he didn’t want tea but to not be kept waiting and why was the person so very late: it was extremely rude.

He thought he was being treated with disrespect. The ‘little old lady’ was actually the senior official and had personally made and served him the tea as a huge mark of respect. He’d made assumptions based on his cultural biases which were wrong on so many levels. He obviously didn’t get the licence and the company had to wait another year to reapply.

How should founders approach building trust and credibility with clients?

CLimbers relying on trust by holding on to each other whilst scaling a cliff face.

Think always how you can REALLY help clients and talk in terms of their business. This requires learning about their business and their issues; how you might help them improve their effectiveness, or how to be more efficient; or realise an opportunity. Too often I hear Founders talk about how wonderful their product service or business is – ad infinitum! This never works.

Winning trust is typically gained by showing a genuine interest in a Client’s business and listening and learning – it’s not all about you.

Additionally, note small facts that demonstrate you’re interested in them as a person. Find common ground – things of interest that you can talk both about as you would in normal situations when you meet people. Sometimes people lose their ability to act and converse in a friendly, natural, and normal way when it’s a CLIENT. Don’t treat Clients differently. They are just people who you may be able to help.

If you’re new and relatively unproven, offer business terms that reflect this reality. A reduced price, free if in pilot; guarantee of money back, extra benefits…

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation, testimonial, or for information or advice from a Client. They may say no, but maybe not. Clients usually know their business and sector really well. Don’t be afraid to ask them about it and learn from them. People usually respect those that are willing to learn from their expertise and it helps earn trust.

Brand creation is a key focus of your mentorship at the British Design Fund. What are the most common challenges you see founders facing when it comes to building a strong brand identity, and how do you guide them through these obstacles?

Brown paper bag with post=it notes stuck including the word Brand.

Founders are often brilliant inventors, tech experts, or businesspeople. They don’t typically know how to ‘create’ a brand. But that’s fine. There are people that can help.

The most common challenges I’ve faced are that Founders don’t always appreciate the value of developing a brand and therefore won’t, or don’t, invest enough in this. Or they have a strong idea of what the brand should be at a superficial level which doesn’t always suit the market or product/service offer, and they won’t take advice about changing things. Lastly, a common issue with companies that are internationalising, is that they don’t spend enough time and money to understand how to adapt their brand to suit the new market.

With BDF I’d have to say that I’ve not faced such challenges as the Founder of BDF (Damon Bonser) really understands branding himself and knows the value of building brand equity for supporting sales. As such, the BDF investees typically approach branding as important when building their business.

Could you tell us about a time when an unexpected encounter turned into an opportunity or collaboration?

I’d just left a start-up I was involved with and was considering my next move when out of the blue someone I didn’t know reached out on LinkedIn and asked whether I could meet and share my perspective and expertise on a business he was setting up. We met, had a series of conversations and meetings about developing and launching his business. We got on so well we became partners and launched that business together, later bringing in a 3rd partner – who also went onto launch BDF.

One random message on LinkedIn where I said yes to meeting someone I had never met, led to the last 12 great years of business, collaborations, and friendships.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a mentor, and what have you learned from the entrepreneurs you’ve advised?

Making a positive difference. Seeing someone grow and thrive as a Founder and seeing their business similarly flourish gives me a real buzz. When that business is making a positive impact in the world, it’s even more rewarding.

These days I work mainly with Founders and businesses that are purposeful – addressing environmental or societal issues – as well as supporting companies that are expanding to new geographies. Every day I learn something new from them. About a sector, technology, a market or societal issue, a different way of looking at the world, new tools that help manage teams, people and companies, new ideas, different cultures – it’s all absolutely fascinating and I love it! Founders and entrepreneurs are typically very intelligent and creative people with a high degree of energy, and I learn something from them every day.

Do you have any advice for founders on building relationships that can significantly advance their business objectives?

Be nice and interested to everyone and give your best – junior people can become heads of mighty businesses; or may be the son or daughter of an investor; or that person on reception who one day might put your call through to the CEO of a prospect you’ve been chasing. Also, most people will move companies and if their experience with you has been positive, they will likely call you to help them out in their new role.

All of these things have happened to me. Be nice, be helpful; make friends and advocates – pay it forward. It usually does come around.

Looking back on your career journey, what’s one thing you wish you had known when you were first starting out?

Gosh – this is a difficult question as I think if I had known how naive I was, or the mistakes I was making, I wouldn’t have taken the chances I did or learned valuable lessons. All of those things led me to here to where I am now, doing what I love, with an incredible career journey behind me.

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