Negotiating the first steps to networking on the international stage

Dr Stephen Onakuse is  a lecturer  at Cork University Business School. Photograph: Tomas Tyner, UCC

Dr Stephen Onakuse is a lecturer at Cork University Business School. Photograph: Tomas Tyner, UCC


For many middle managers, there comes a point in your career when you start developing an international network. As you begin to take on more responsibilities, this process may occur organically or out of necessity. Either way, stepping outside of a network that you have spent years curating can seem daunting.

Unlike networking on a national or local level, where opportunities may present themselves on a more regular basis, international networking requires patience and endurance.

You have to be prepared to play the long game, to conduct in-depth research and identify the right opportunities to promote yourself.

Ironically, this process can often begin within your own organisation. As an early career manager, you are only one step away from people who have already established complex international networks.


You should look to more experienced people for advice and identify one senior manager as a self-appointed mentor. Nothing formal, just someone you can approach for advice when necessary. Asking “do you have a minute” can be the catalyst for a fruitful relationship and the first step in befriending the right people.

Identifying who to speak to is crucial because your time will be limited. You don’t want to waste it on people or events that don’t contribute to your objectives. Effective networking should foster collaboration and allow for positive learning outcomes.

That’s why you need to be tactical when evaluating the potential of each networking opportunity. This involves a great deal of planning and research. Before even entering a room, you need to have identified who you want to speak to and what you want to discuss – being there isn’t enough.

Doing something as simple as asking event organisers for a briefing note listing event attendees will help you identify potential networking opportunities. Platforms such as LinkedIn can help distil your short list further and identify people with whom you share common business interests.

However, putting yourself in a position to network with the right people is only the start.

In order to make the most of the opportunity, you need to be able to make a meaningful contribution. That means doing your homework and educating yourself on the latest developments to identify when to start participating in discussions with appropriate comments to attract attention for the right reasons.

This requires a great deal of emotional intelligence because first impressions can last forever. Sometimes, for example, it might be beneficial to be simply a listener in order to make sense of the environment and to identify the key personalities within groups.

Once you understand the dynamics of a group and the expertise of the individuals involved, it is then an opportunity to contribute will suggest itself. However, you have to make the effort – don’t miss that opportunity to speak to the experts in your field.

The timing and delivery of your initial contribution is important because somebody is always watching and that’s where your research pays dividends. You want people to be able to recall the conversation in the days following the event when you begin to initiate an email exchange.

Your personality

Understanding your own personality is central to these early interactions. Remember to take it easy. Even if it seems that you’re talking too much, as long as you are making sense, people will see some value in that.

You will also need to strike a balance between saying no to people, and not coming across as pushy or fussy. Demonstrating your morals and ethics will lead to far more rewarding relationships in the longer term.

This is particularly pertinent when volunteering for tasks, as failure can lead to reputational damage. That isn’t to say you should volunteer only in areas where you can contribute. Volunteering can bring fantastic networking opportunities through collaboration. Asking a senior peer to assist you can open doors and create excellent learning opportunities.

Ultimately, however, you will need to prove yourself and gain the trust of others by demonstrating your skillset. The fruits of your success might not become immediately apparent, and you shouldn’t expect anything to happen. Nevertheless, you need to take credit for each and every success.

Remember, you are playing the long game when building an international network. It isn’t just about developing your business acumen, you will need to enhance your soft skills and come to rely on your intellect in order to appraise quickly the potential of each and every opportunity.

Dr Stephen Onakuse is a lecturer in the Department of Food Business & Development at Cork University Business School and member of the board of directors / director of communication with Agrinatura – a grouping of 31 universities and research organisations across Europe.

Previously published in The Irish Times.


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