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How Guanxi can be the Wind in your Sail

By Catherine Lam, CPA, CMA

Have you heard of Guanxi? Chances are, you might have encountered this term in passing when talking about business. If you grew up in a Chinese household like I did, you’d definitely grew up with it. It’s the Chinese term for relationships. The term guanxi (pronounced ‘gwon-shee’), is usually used in the context of doing business. That is, developing relationships with people with whom you might do business in the future. Here’s the rub. It not only applies to the world of entrepreneurship. If you intend on staying in your industry more than a week, then you need to pay attention to guanxi.

Not to be Confused with Nepotism

Let’s be clear. Guanxi is completely unrelated to nepotism. Nepotism is that distasteful word to describe unqualified people who were appointed into positions simply by virtue of their relationship with the boss by blood or marriage. They have absolutely no business being there. What’s worse is that they seemed to have skipped over the usual due process to land the role in the first place. We also have a term for this in Chinese. It’s called ‘Wong Ma Qua,’ which referred to a special tunic that was usually bestowed on relative to the royal family in imperial China. This tunic was yellow gold in colour, the same colour that represented the power and presence of the Emperor himself. Hence, whoever wore this tunic clearly had the protection of the Emperor. It wielded all the respect and power that came with its royal prestige, regardless the idiocy of the person who donned it.


Guanxi is different. Guanxi refers to the building of networks and relationships in business and in life. You may recall that we as humans are meant to live in social habitats. That is the only way that we can thrive. In fact, humans need to exist in communities in order to survive, let alone prosper.

The Easiest Ways to Build Guanxi

In my post “What’s Guanxi and Why it Will Change Your Life”, I discussed some simple rules to remember when developing guanxi. In short, they were:

  1. Knowing a few personal facts about the person (ie. Their names, their favourite food, how many kids they have, etc.)
  2. Using their name correctly and/or spelling it correctly.
  3. Keep in touch before you need them.
  4. Do things to pay it forward
  5. Be kind always

I’ll leave you to read more about it in that post-http://www.itsolopreneurs.com/guanxi/ )

Here are some more foundational factors to keep in mind:

Treat Everyone like They’re a Boss

How do you treat your waiter in a restaurant? How do you treat the janitorial staff at your office? Do you know their names? Do you talk to them? I can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat their server, or whether they ignore the smile that Alice the cleaning person gives them, as they stride on past her in the hallway. If you want to develop guanxi, get into a habit of treating everyone like they’re the boss. You never know who can help you out in a bind. It’s not say that you’re only nice to people for their potential to help you in the future. We all share this community. Part of being a member of the community is to be civil and cordial to all those around us.

In John Maxwell’s book “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect,” John recounted a short anecdote submitted by a nurse. She mentioned in her second year of nursing school, she was writing an exam.41c2Q0gyuvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

She blasted through the questions. Then she reached the last one. “What is the name of the lady who cleans the building?” She thought it was a joke. She left it blank and handed in her exam. Someone in the class asked her professor whether or not that question counted toward the final grade. To her dismay, her professor replied, “Absolutely. In this world, everybody is significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.” That lesson stayed with her forever and to this day, she remembers that the name of the cleaning person was Dorothy.

Make the first Move

The first rule that I was taught working a networking event is to act as the host acts. That is, always remain standing. Never sit. More importantly, always be the first to initiate conversation. Make the first move. There is a huge difference between people who sit down at a party, and those who remain standing. Sitting down is a very passive stance. Not only are you trapped and need to wait for people to come to you, but your energy level always goes down. Soon, you’re the only one sitting at the table, eating your 5th plate of hors d’oevres, not knowing what to do with yourself. On the other hand, when you stay standing, your energy level is high. You’re in a much better position to travel and mill about. If one conversation is coming to a close, you can scoot off and join in another. Most importantly, you know that the onus is on you make the first move and initiate.




How Can You First Contribute to Others?

In order to build guanxi effectively, you have to get out of your own head. As Zig Ziglar so famously pointed out, “Help enough people get what they want, and you will get what you want.” This is the epitome of building guanxi. The top most important subject in which everyone is interested is themselves, their problems and how they show up in the world. If you understand this, you will know that building a solid relationship with someone – anyone, starts with understanding what he wants. The logical next step is thinking about how you can contribute to helping him get what he wants.

Zig Z


Recruitment Partners understands this concept. The philosophy behind their logo exemplifies this. I remember the first time I got a tour of their office, Joe pointed out how their logo was a triangle.

RP Logos 4C Black Vert


It represents the relationship between recruiter, candidate and client. It’s a cycle that perpetually revolves around from placing candidates into their best-suited positions. Sometimes they will even refer a candidate without getting remunerated for it. They’re willing to pay it forward because they know that the person might eventually move up the corporate ladder. They may eventually get into a position where they need to hire staff. Who are they are going remember? The recruiter who helped them in their time of need, of course, and how they paid it forward. Then one day they return the favour and become a client. It’s a beautiful arrangement, bursting with good karma.

Whether or not you know it, whether or not you actively do it, you’re in a world where you are involved in guanxi. Understanding how it works and pro-actively planting seeds for new relationships is a given. Constantly building and strengthening relationships can be the sail in the vessel that is your career. Ignoring it and focusing only on yourself and how others can help you is a sure-fire way to turn that sail into an anchor. The choice is up to you.


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Catherine (Cat) Lam, CPA-CMA is the founder of ITsolopreneurs.com, a leadership and professional development blog. Energetic, ultra-positive, and having a genuine approach to people are three attributes that are frequently used to describe Cat. She is a seasoned CPA-CMA, systems consultant, fitness instructor, wife, and mother of a spirited pre-schooler. Her passion is to bring together these seemingly independent (yet very related) disciplines and create new ideas and perspectives to super-charge your life, career, business. See what the buzz is all about, and learn more about how you can get success tools to amp up your career and life HERE.

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