What’s Guanxi, and Why it will Change Your Life

Guanxi. The ancient, or not so ancient Chinese secret to staying in business forever. Ask any entrepreneur, and they will tell you that building a network is the key to longevity in business. This is especially important for Solopreneurs. In speaking with recruiters, the expected annual working capacity for a self-employed professional who takes on contracts is about 10 months out of the year. That is, as a contractor, you would expect to be engaged on

In speaking with recruiters, the expected annual working capacity for a self-employed professional who takes on contracts is about 10 months out of the year. That is, as a contractor, you would expect to be engaged on contract about 10 out of 12 months in a year. My 16-year average is better. It’s 12 out of 12 months, meaning, I’ve never been on the bench being self-employed (excluding maternity leave).

As an employee working for a consulting company, on the other hand, there have been times in which I have been on the bench. Why? Because my services were dependent on my employer to be engaged. If the employer had no contract, I was idle. Conceptually, of course, it would be still the same, being self-employed. The difference is that I fully control the engagement points. I don’t rely on the two or three salespeople in the company to secure work for the entire consulting team.


How does one stay in Business Forever?

Two words: guanxi (pronounced ‘gwon-shee’). It’s Chinese for relationship. Heed my words, my friends. If you want to remain employed…if you want to continuously be engaged on contracts forever, never to be idle in between (or at least at minimum)… if you want to have a constant stream of clients lining up at your door, waiting to engage your services, work on your guanxi.

Of course, the prerequisites still apply. You still need to be amazing at what you do. If you suck or are at best mediocre, you still won’t make the cut. You still need to have a work ethic second to none. That’s about 75%. The remaining 25%? That’s the dogfight. That’s where the guanxi prevails.

Seems obvious? You would think. Yet unless you’re actively versed in this, no one pays attention to it… until they need people. Their contract comes up, or they suddenly got laid off, or their business slows down. Only then do they reach out… when it serves them to do so. Most contractors couldn’t be bothered to send so much as an email asking how you are, to keep in touch until they find themselves within 2 weeks to the end of their contract. Then… You suddenly hear from them. “Hi!! How are you? Do you have work for me?” Tell me that doesn’t put a bad taste in your mouth. It gives a new meaning to ‘user-friendly.’



Here’s one that I recently got:

“Hi, you know my skill and what I can do. Keep me posted if you see anything that I can suit my needs.”


Wow. Of all the pompous, rude, arrogant messages, this one tops them all. Actually, it’s so arrogant, it’s downright comical. I was truly surprised to get an email from this guy. I was surprised because it was pretty obvious he knew I didn’t enjoy working with him. In fact, it was brutally hellish. Why would I even entertain another opportunity to invite him back into my life? Never mind the fact that he didn’t even bother addressing me by my first name. I felt gross just reading it. What a clown.


Slight look of shock

The Best Ways to Keep the Guan-Xi

Now that you know what not to do, what are the right ways to do it? No, what are the best ways? How do you keep up the guanxi? It’s easier than you think. In most cases, it costs you nothing.


1. Know Their Spouses / Kids Names

Seems irrelevant? You’ll be thanking me when you see how impressed people are when they see that you remember their spouse’s and kids’ names. These are the people that they hold in the highest regard. Why wouldn’t you go the extra few inches to learn their names? If you’re good, you’ll just remember them. If you’re not, there’s no shame in keeping an inventory.


How to Remember Names?

I generally remember because I’m good with names. And I just make an effort to do so. If you’re like the rest of 90% of the population who are convinced they’re terrible  names, it’s time to get good. I wrote about a fail-proof technique that enables you to remember every single name you meet for the rest for your life.


Related Post: How to Get Your Way like Toddlers and Dogs


Alternatively, you can also do what I do sometimes and keep it in your address book. There is a notes section where you can record the names of their spouses and children. The people who are most important to them. These people are the reason they slug it out at work with you. People will remember you when they see that you place importance on the same things that they find important.




On that note, why limit it to the names of spouses and kids? I actually further record the top three things that are important to them in general:

  • Their favourite hobby
  • Their favourite food
  • Their dislikes




There’s no max to the list. It’s like a mini-CRM system. CRM: Customer Relations Management. Now you know it’s not only applicable to large corporations. It works wonders in your personal life and career as well. Best of all? It costs you absolutely nothing.


2. Use their Name Correctly

It’s one thing to remember names. It’s quite another thing to pronounce it correctly. The English ones are easy: Robert, James, Doug. But then you’ll get more ethnic names like Zhong, Weircuiizki, or Gbajabiamila.

Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila are the commentators on this season’s American Ninja Warrior. Lawrence and I are always so impressed when Matt pronounces Gbajabiamila (pronounced “BAH-zhuh-bee-uh-MILL-uh”) impeccably. It just rolls off his tongue. I guess he had better practice it. To screw up the name of your co-commentator on national TV is career suicide. Soon after, you’d probably be crucified on social media as a racist bigot, with your very own meme, and autotune song that went viral. I digress.

Photo Credit: http://www.nbc.com/american-ninja-warrior

Photo Credit: http://www.nbc.com/american-ninja-warrior

On the same wavelength, it’s equally as important to spell the name correctly. It might seem like a small thing to you. But to the person reading his own name incorrectly, it’s just a disappointment. It’s official. They know you don’t care. You didn’t even bother to take that extra 30 milliseconds to check if his name was spelled with a C or a K.

However, nothing, but nothing is ruder than when you take one look at the name, and announce to the world that you’re not even going to make an effort to pronounce it. No, wait. I lied. The absolute cardinal name sin is to give the guy a shorter nickname because you’re too lazy to learn his real one. Oh, but Cat, I don’t want to ‘bastardize’ it. Guess what? You just did, doofus. Congrats. Why don’t you just ask them how to pronounce it? That’s all it takes. Then practice like he’s going to be your next co-commentator on national TV.

3. Keep in Touch with People BEFORE you Need Them

Don’t be user-friendly. Nothing puts a bad taste in your mouth like hearing from a person who thought you were essentially dead to them until they need a job from you. Here are my favorite ways:

  • Connect to them on social media: Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, whatever social media network applies to you.
  • Endorse them on Linkedin. By the way, Linkedin notifies you of people’s work anniversaries. It gives you the option to send them a quick congrats at the click of the button. Do this if you want to be average. If you want to kick it up a notch, replace the placeholder “Congrats on your new job!” with a note you actually crafted. You can use the same note and copy and paste through all of the subsequent congratulatory notes. They will remember you for it. It’s small, free, and so effective.
  • Like and Comment on their Posts on Facebook. Facebook creates a more personal relationship, if you use Facebook like I do. I post mostly events from my personal life. (in addition to my blog posts) Then whenever you see them pop up in your newsfeed, go and like their photo. Include a short comment. Likes go a little way. Comments go a tremendously long way. I personally love getting comments on my photos.likes
  • Email them occasionally whenever you think of them. Just drop a note asking them how they’re doing. How’s their spouse? Have they taken their vacation yet? You’ll know what to write because you’ll have already kept note of this. Then give them some news about you. This part separates the studs from the duds. Sure it’s great to show that you’re interested in them. Keeping in touch means you also share little tidbits with them about your life. By no means should it be all about you, but just a little update on your life means that you deem them important enough to keep them informed of your news.

4. The Art of Giftology

A while back, I had listened to Lewis Howes’ podcast where he interviewed one John Ruhlin. He holds the historic sales record at Cutco Knives, which he hit in the first four years of his joining the company. He was earning 6 figures by the time he was 22. Years later, he went onto to write a book called Giftology. When it comes to gifting, he is the guru of guru’s. He’s taken the age-old concept of gifting and transformed it into one of the most important competitive edges in business today.

Photo Credit: http://giftologybook.com/

Photo Credit: http://giftologybook.com/

Every other business deems gifting as one of their discretionary expenses, and hence is the first to be cut in a bad economy. John Ruhlin’s philosophy is exactly the opposite: Gifting is part of the life-blood of the business. A company’s entire financial stability could depend on it. “Gifts are the symbol that you place on the relationship, ” he advises. “When you act generously, people take notice. They’ll begin to feel appreciated, and in turn, they’ll want to pay it forward. It’s a natural inclination for us to want givers to succeed because we can appreciate the generosity that was shown to us.”



Along that same line, he thinks that “a token of appreciation” is ridiculous. It means that you only value their relationship as the size of a tiny token. Nothing can be more insulting. Well.. I can think of one thing more insulting: giving nothing. I suppose a tiny token would be better than giving nothing. But if you want to foster an amazing relationship, wow them.

Sometimes the price tag isn’t as big as you think. I sometimes gift people a personal development book when they leave for a new job. I like personal development books because they’re practical. They’re often cost-effective if you know where to get them (Costco is a great resource; Amazon is the obvious one.) There have been other instances where I would donate to a cause for which one of my co-workers fundraises. When you do this, not only do you benefit a charity, and get points with your co-worker. You create good karma. You make little deposits in your bank account with the universe overall. The good might not come back right away, but the good will come to you when you most need it, with interest.


A few months ago, I got free tickets to the Eskimo’s football game. Not a fan of football myself, I offered it to my teammate, whom I thought might be interested. He was. We ended up going down to one of the rec centers to pick them up. He brought his kids. They had a great time, and my co-worker was in good spirits for the next few days. Free for me. He got the benefit. I got the emotional credit.

This in Chinese (Cantonese) is called ‘sun sui yun ching,” translates loosely to “a gift that flows as the water flows” It refers to a gift that doesn’t require any extra effort to give. Sheer eloquence. Why wouldn’t you do this?


5. Treats for Fun

I wrote about this in How to Harness the Secret Goodwill of Food. Whenever a DBA did a task for me, I would buy him a cappuccino. With a tiny investment of just $4, I got lightning quick service with a smile for the rest of the project.


That’s pretty good ROI, if you ask me. The same can be applied to random acts of kindness. It doesn’t require a huge, costly effort. Often it can even be free.

Case in point: There are frequently training events en-masse at my client, which are almost always catered. After the training, the leftovers, of which there are usually always dessert, are shared with everyone else on the floor. Being the person that I am, I am inherently attracted to food. Ever read the five love languages? Food is my love language. So whenever there is leftover dessert from training, I always fill up an entire plate, and bring it back upstairs to the rest of my team. I love seeing their faces light up, after staring at their screen all day. If ever I have a plate of anything shareable, I always offer it to my team.

Goodwill of Food

Nothing expected in return.Just an act of kindness and camaraderie. The benefit of this small investment almost floors me. Questions are answered, more quickly, tasks are done. Laughs are shared. Just good old fashioned camaraderie. It just makes for a more fun work environment, don’t you think? Segueway perfectly into my last point…

6. Be Kind

A couple years ago, there was a little movement going around Facebook, where mothers would ask their children “What does mommy always say to you?” and post it up. I tried this on my then two-year-old, thinking the response would likely be gibberish. His response? Be kind. My heart soared, as it overflowed with sunshine.


Truer words have never been spoken. In the business world, it translates to sticking up for people when they are under attack in a meeting. It means helping them out with a task even if it’s not your job. It means slugging it out with them together to meet a deadline even if it means you have to stay late. It means giving them a way out when they’re put on the spot. It means not making them wrong in order to make you right. No one needs to be shamed or embarrassed, ever, and especially not so that you can be right, or look good. People won’t remember what you say to them. They will, however,  forever remember how you made them feel.


None of these actions actually cost money. In some cases, you might even make slightly more because of it. But the goodwill, the relationship – the guanxi that you create out of it is invaluable.

The Catch

Here’s the rub. In the wise words of Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”



The same can be applied to guanxi. It takes all this care to build up and keep the relationship.  One bad interchange can undo all your efforts. You can obviously build it up again, but all the previous events have then been cancelled. You essentially start over.

The Take Home

Sure you may be good at what you do. But if you don’t pay attention to guanxi, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. I’ve been in consulting for 16+ years. 80% of my contracts I secured because of my guanxi. Whether you give them a like on Facebook, or send them a gift, I urge you to take advantage of every little opportunity to build guanxi with those around you. You never know when your paths will cross again.

As promised, here is the full podcast where Lewis Howes interviews John Ruhlin.

Stay awesome. Rock on.

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