16. Dezember 2019

Sunny Bates: “Generosity is the bedrock of every network”

For Sunny Bates, networking is more than an essential part of today’s world of work; it’s right at the core of her mission to bring people together in order to create something big. As the head of Sunny Bates Associates since 1988, she advises companies over management issues, helps to recruit the right people to the right positions, and provides companies with access to her vast network of experts in a broad range of areas from business and culture to technology and natural sciences.

Bates knows everyone and everyone knows Bates – or at least it’s easy to gain that impression from reading the almost endless list of initiatives and companies in which she is involved. The mother of two daughters graduated in energy economics and Middle East studies from Cornell University in upstate New York and started off her professional life as a headhunter. Bates regards talking to people, being curious about them and giving them time and attention as a recipe for professional success, particularly in this era of social media and virtual networking platforms; at the same time, she  gains deep personal satisfaction from these activities. She shares this realization as a frequent speaker at events and is also a consultant and member of advisory boards for companies including TED Conferences, MIT Media Lab, Kickstarter, and Creative Capital Foundation (the latter collects investments for up-and-coming artists). Despite a life spent permanently traveling, flying, and rushing from one appointment or conference stage to the next, Bates practices what she preaches and remains open and accessible, not only talking but also – and primarily – listening. This is another of the skills of Sunny Bates the professional speaker, although in our interview she admits with disarming candor and self-deprecation that her mind is always whirling with thoughts. It’s immediately obvious that Bates is able to combine seemingly boundless energy with strength of will and optimism, plus empathy and warmth for people and their needs. Her extrovert style is beautifully reflected in her glowing Laurèl outfit for the photo shoot – a suit in swimming-pool blue teamed with a sequined top.

You’re normally always “switched on,” holding speeches and at the center of attention. So how did it feel for you to stand in the “White Cube,” completely alone and completely quiet?

It was pretty crazy. The Cube opens onto Times Square, with all the lights and screens there flashing and blinking away. I think I had to close my eyes to stem the information overload to my senses. In fact, recently I’ve noticed myself closing my eyes more often.

Really? Why is that?

Well, I’m a very visual person. Too much movement in my field of vision, too many impressions only distract me. Now, for example, I’m looking at your coat or your scarf…

Your career requires you to respond to people, to spend a lot of time talking. Where do you go to find calmness?

I meditate daily – or rather, I try to. Actually, I seem to spend most of my meditation time mentally working through my to-do list (laughs), like “OK, what do I still have to do, what still needs to be finished?” There’s always some list or other to take care of, isn’t there? At least I sleep really well. But seriously, my source of calm is the company of people I love. I grow calm when I’m learning something new and fascinating. I’m a searcher by nature. I’ll do anything to explore new experiences, which is actually not always such a great idea (laughs). Meeting new people and listening to them gives me energy and recharges my batteries.

Does that mean you’re always on the lookout for new challenges and enjoy facing up to things that make you afraid?

There isn’t anything that gets me really afraid. OK, there might be situations that make me feel uncomfortable. Four years ago I was cycling through Berlin and wanted to get back to my hotel. Now, I have a terrible sense of direction and got completely lost; I was still cycling around after two hours and it was two in the morning. But I looked around and thought, “There’s nothing here I need to be afraid of.” OK, I was in an area I didn’t know, but in the worst case I could just lock up my bike somewhere and take a taxi. I know that in situations like that there’s a safety net to catch me. But I’m also well aware that this feeling is a privilege.

Where does that self-assurance come from? Have you always been like that?

No, of course not; how could I? It’s an ongoing learning process, always pushing the boundaries a little further. That’s why it’s so important for me to be around people where I can experience new things. When you try our something new, over time your inhibitions will diminish and your tolerance level will grow. It’s like a muscle you have to keep training. And once that happens, it’s fine to say, “No, I don’t like that, I don’t want to do that any more.”

Today, if we want to meet someone new or search for professional contacts we start with Google. It’s so easy to find names, social media profiles and email addresses on the Internet. But what was it like for you when you were building your network?

I started working on the principle of “one person after another” and just focused on one person at a time. The whole world seems to be obsessed by the size of people’s networks. True, my network is huge; but I’m much more interested in the quality and depth of the relationships it encompasses. I pay absolute attention to what people say. I might not always remember every name, but I remember personal details about everyone. You can often tell how people feel about an issue by their voice or their phrasing. That’s what I remember, and then I can ask people directly, “Hey, I noticed when you talk about that subject today you sound different from the last time we spoke. Want to talk about that?” Almost everyone is happy to talk about it. Today I like to dive straight in to deep subjects in conversations because I feel we don’t have the time not to.

And today time is pretty much the most valuable thing we can share, isn’t it? When you share your time and your contacts, it’s all about generosity. Would you say generosity is at the core of your work?

I’ve spent my whole life building networks, and generosity is the bedrock of every network, the only thing that allows it to grow. A few years ago I was talking to some impressive women, and someone said to me, “You give too much; you can’t do that.” But you know what? I don’t regret a single moment of when I gave too much. Even those moments helped me to understand where my personal limits are. Actually what I regret far more are situations in which I closed myself off, when I allowed my competitive mindset to take over and when I didn’t share. Or one time when I was walking down the street and saw a homeless person and thought I would help him more by not giving him anything. He could be an alcoholic or a drug addict. But maybe that isn’t what matters? Maybe he’s just a guy that needs some help? You have to be very careful not to allow hardness to take over. We feel good when we’re soft and open; we give, and we get something in return.

The “White Cube Project” has the hashtag  #herstory because we aim to create a platform for impressive women and their stories that can serve as role models for others. Did you have role models when you started your career? What were your main motivations?

I’ve met a whole lot of different people throughout my career, men and women, who opened my eyes in some respect. Some also showed me how not to lead, the kind of manager I didn’t want to become – also very important lessons. Today I mainly draw my inspiration from young people, like my two daughters. I learn from them every day.

How do they inspire you?

One daughter is an artist and teacher, and I really admire her ability to reflect on things with clarity. My other daughter is pregnant at the moment; I’m living with her right now and as I see what she’s going through, I remember the time when I was pregnant with her. It’s beautiful to see how all the loose threads in your life eventually weave themselves into a fabric. And it’s the irregularities that make it so beautiful. Life is beautiful precisely because not everything is perfect, because there are still things there that we find frustrating. And yet we still constantly question and undermine ourselves. We torment ourselves particularly as women – and we torment each other, too, with the idea “We like that about her, but not that.” We’re not menus, for heaven’s sake!

We chose the form of a cube in order to turn the spotlight on the “rough edges” of our featured women’s personalities. What are your personal “rough edges”?

I think I always want to do too much at once. When I was a student I worried about how to find the time to finish my work and do my laundry – and my solution was to shower in my clothes! I wrung them out and hung them up, but they never really dried properly and everything smelt of damp. Because I have three older sisters, I was always trying so hard to belong and never wanted to be left behind. I was always the little kid whining, “Can I come?” (laughs). I think this feeling has driven me as motivation throughout my whole life.

What makes your heart beat faster?

My partner, my sweetheart, constantly makes my heart beat faster (laughs). We’ve just come back from traveling in Spain and I visited his home city of Salamanca for the first time. There’s a cathedral in the city, and an organ recital was going on while we were there. The way the music unfolded in that space brought the tears to my eyes. We thought about the dedication and devotion that people poured into building the cathedral, the hopes and dreams they had had, all incorporated into the fabric of a building that would last for centuries. Simply breathtaking.