Build your expertise and nurture your network

According to a LinkedIn survey, up to 85% percent of all job opportunities are discovered through networking. For those who think networking is time-consuming, downright awkward and utterly draining, perhaps it is time to change the mindset and start building networks. While expertise is the key to excel at your work and gain respect from others, network is the external factor that gives you a competitive edge at every stage of your career and helps drive you success.

The story is true for Nguyen Vu Khanh An. After 8 years of working in multiple environments, ranging from a consulting agency, a corporate to a startup, she is currently the Country Manager at Coda Payments. Talking about her career, she gladly shared with us the lessons she learned in the Netherlands as an expat, how she built a network in a foreign country and how it helped her in both work and personal life. From the HR perspective, An has valuable insights about cultural differences, interpersonal relationships and occupational development. 

Can you briefly introduce yourself to the audience?

My name is An and I’m 31 years old. I lived in Vietnam and then later in the Netherlands for a master’s degree in business consulting in 2012. I chose the major because of my passion for consultancy, problem solving and project management; while I chose Europe to discover different cultures and languages. I got a scholarship in the Netherlands and Norway, but my heart told me that the Netherlands would be the place for me. After my study, I came back to Vietnam, working as a HR consultant for 5 years before starting at Amanotes. Currently, I am the country manager for a Fintech company, called Coda Payments. My career went from consulting, corporate to startup.

Within 1 year in the Netherlands, which felt like many years, I did 2 Master’s degrees, 1 in Business Administration and another one in Business Research, travelled 15 countries and had a part-time job as an assistant for a consultant.

Did you experience any culture shock going from Vietnam to the Netherlands or vice versa?

The funny “culture shock” that I first encountered in the Netherlands was how tall the Dutch are. Another story is that I was the only Vietnamese student in my class and I went to my first lecture early to find a good seat as other Vietnamese may do. However, other Dutch students were sitting really far at the back. After that, I went to class later the day after and chose a seat next to a Dutch friend, who appeared to be open-minded. Later on, I asked a friend why he did not want to sit with me from the beginning. He responded that it was only because my appearance is different from the rest of the Western, which subconsciously refrained him from approaching me at first. Hence, the lesson that I learned from that very first culture experience is to be open-minded and proactive in getting to know others, even though they are from different cultures. If you do not try to step out of your comfort zone, you may lose the chance to meet a good friend or just do not know how people think of you.

What are the most important lessons you learnt whilst living in the Netherlands?

Being candid at work. Before going to the Netherlands, I worked in an American company in Vietnam. However, the culture was still Vietnamese-centric: people would rather sweep the problems under the rug than confronting conflicts. The internship in the Netherlands unfolded another side of me. My consultant said that I was the best intern that he had, because I was transparent and honest about the working hours, and that I was open to talk about something that did not work out. I also learned this lesson at school, when I once asked the professor the reason why our group got a low grade. It was because our group answers could have been better reflected and articulated. Then I realized that it was not the score that matters but the feedback for improvement is so much more valuable. 

And, I also learned to embrace the differences. Before coming to the Netherlands, I was very competitive and opinionated. During my study in the Netherlands, I once forcefully accepted a roommate’s invitation to a festival I did not like. But thanks to the festival, I met a Spanish friend who later became my food mate. The experience taught me to grow empathy and to embrace different perspectives. 

Why did you move to Vietnam and how did you get a job there?

I was leaving the Netherlands for personal reasons. My father was falling sick and I wanted to spend time with him. However, if I still had the opportunity to come back to the Netherlands, I would love too.

When I came back to Vietnam, I felt uncomfortable when people asked me what I would do next. After some weeks of contemplating myself, I went out there and reconnected with my network from AIESEC, an organization that I used to join and had a solid professional network. From the alumni, I had two job offers. That is the moment I realized the power of networking.

What are relevant experiences from the Netherlands that helped you to develop your career in Vietnam?

The knowledge from the MBA makes more sense when I got into the organization as a manager and team leader. For example, the organizational structure design and integration with an acquired company are two of the things that I did use the theory to apply at work. The more I work, the more I reflect on my experience in the Netherlands. Besides the knowledge, the values that I built during my study in the Netherlands confirmed my identity of being candid. In the Netherlands, I realized that my values are appreciated. I also brought these traits when I had to sharpen the culture for a startup in Vietnam and I am very proud of it. For example, if your boss makes a mistake, it is your responsibility to tell him.

When do you know that the mindset has to change and how do you boost that transition period?

Thanks to my experience with human resources, I was able to notice a dramatic shift in the labor landscape. Jobs such as Tik Tok account manager that exists now did not exist 5 years ago. That is why being open minded is very essential to embrace the growth mindset; and learning a new skill set not only helps the current workplace but also prepares for the future one. The most important skill is to learn new things and to solve problems. I remembered reading somewhere that every person is a smart phone. And each skill is an application. Each job requires you to open a suitable application. Therefore, I start to look beyond the title and more about the core values, the skills that I can accelerate in my career. 

Under the peer pressure from the activation of social media, the next lesson is stop comparing yourself with others. When I feel the peer pressure, I reach out to the people that “create” that pressure, talk to them to understand their journey and what they went through to reach that result. Then most of the time I feel that I’m not going to sacrifice that much to get the result, I’ll be more empathetic and not feeling that peer pressure anymore

How do you build relationships with your colleagues?

At work, my advice for my team members is that they need to build skills and expertise for which your colleagues have to come and ask. Otherwise, you will be stuck in the admin role and stay invisible in the organization. Or even if you are at the lowest level of the company, you can always offer help to people, because no one is good at everything. Find something you like to do, try to do  it seriously and if possible, build it as your expertise so that people come to ask you. That’s what I always do in my career.

Now you are in Vietnam and you still have a network in the Netherlands. How valuable is the network in the Netherlands to your life and work in Vietnam?

That is the benefit you don’t see right away but you will see overtime. For example, I maintained relationships with some friends in the Netherlands and when I came back from my trip, they hosted me. Although we have not seen each other for 6 years, they still treated me like a friend. The benefit is not clear and not for the short term but it will add a lot of flavors along the journey. 

I keep in touch with my network in my social network and share about my life and careers so we stay connected. Regardless of different contexts and environments, it is about authenticity: truly care about others even though just about congratulating them on their birthday or new jobs via texts and social media. These small things add up and let the person know that they are still a part of your life and that they are appreciated and were not taken advantage of because you reach out only when you need them.

Do you have any final advice you want to give our readers based on your experiences?

One of the mentees told me that she no longer found her job meaningful and she had questions about the next step in her career path. Having such questions is not a crisis but an opportunity to think and start something new. For me, designing a career path is not about deciding what title I want to acquire in the next few years, but more about the skills I want to acquire and possess in the next roles. Shaping that growth mindset will be essential in deciding your future career.

Don’t be stressed out to find a passion. Passion is something overrated perhaps. Passion is not something you look for but to build up. Passion can be sharpened from small things, can be found in a corporate work or, freelancing, housework or even spending time helping your family. I used to take a 4-month gap at work and it helped me to build a sense of life. If you are too stressed about the things you cannot control, it won’t help out!  It is better to focus energy on the things that you can influence and perhaps take some break and keep exploring!

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