Networking (love it or hate it)- is it the key skill for the 21st Century?

(for details of my latest workshop Power up your Networking, recipe 22 JAN 2013 scroll to the end and sign up now!)


The thought of having to network makes some people shudder, more about they would rather pull out their toe nails than enter a room full of strangers and promote themselves. Yet we are told how important it is to network, healing that it is critical to career success.  But is it that important and particularly in the public sector, is it critical to success? If it is how do you do it and how, if you are shy and retiring do you embrace it?

In 2000 in her influential research paper ‘The Future of Careers’, Linda Holbeche predicted that  the key skills for a successful career in the 21st century were: expertise, self reliance, emotional resilience and networking. This has been confirmed in more recent research cited by Stuart and Gael Lindfield  who say ‘ the foundations for business and career success depends more than ever on having a  strong network of internal and external connections’ (2012).  Research into how people find new jobs, new business or new opportunities of any sort suggest that networking is critical. 70% of new appointees found the opportunity through their networks, 80% of professional’s claim they get business from the people they know. Hugh Kaseras says ‘Naïve is the person who thinks that career and job opportunities are solely a function of merit. Merit counts for nothing unless the right people know about you’ (2006). So is the broad advice from business and career mentors  if you want to get ahead – get networking.

But what do they mean by ‘networking’? It is not a cosy chat, it is not the start of a sales process, it is not about meeting new people and working a room; networking is the process of building mutually beneficial relations –it is about developing strong relationships in which work and opportunities come via not from. It takes time, effort, commitment and is about doing for others as well as asking for help. 80% of networking success comes from maintaining contact with your existing contacts rather than making new contacts.

But why is networking so powerful?  In this era of easily available information and a global marketplace surely people can find whoever they want or whatever they want at the click of a mouse? But in this world where there is so much choice and so much information the power of recommendation has never been so strong. Recommendations reduce the risk of any purchase or commitment.  The truth is that ‘people buy people’, so no matter how much information you broadcast in the end people will take the ‘leap of faith,’ only if they trust you can deliver.


English: High Speed Business Networking Event ...

English: High Speed Business Networking Event by JCI Français : Événement de rencontres d’Affaires à très haute vitesse organisé par la JCI et l’association EGEE (Entente des Générations pour l’Emploi et l’Entreprise) en partenariat dans les locaux de France Télécom (Paris, Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles en 2006). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Through networking you can expand your contacts and your ability to find information. When you need help, answers or referrals you will have a network of people to go to for that advice. And in return you can become one of those people who is able to guide and advise. That can build your profile as an expert in your field. Just by being helpful. Connecting with people and building trust will mean that you can create a stronger community around you and out of those relationships will grow support, advice and opportunities. In the 1960s Mark Granovetter described the ‘strength of lose ties’; his research suggested that your greatest strength came from weaker relationships.  No man (or woman) is an island.


In the public sector with strict rules of open and transparent recruitment and procurement, networking may seem to be less relevant than in businesses that can award jobs and contracts to friends and relations at will. Knowledge is much more freely shared and co-operation between organisations more natural than competition. However public servants can and should benefit enormously from opportunities: to learn more about each other, to promote their own activity, to share expertise and raise their profiles. The advice is that you need to start to build your network a long time before you actually need it. Don’t wait until you need help, do it now. People whose expertise is admired and respected, who have a profile among their peers have a career advantage over those who have kept their light hidden. If you work in a large organisation you should be creating strong internal networks. Headhunters still ask high profile and well connected people who they would recommend for a role, and candidates who have credibility with their peers can be recommended strongly to the client.  I often ask clients who they know that understands the organisation they want to work with or work for, who do they know that can give them the under the radar information about the culture, issues and buzz words of that organisation. It really helps if you want to speak the language, understand the culture and have the inside track of the organisation you are trying to join.

So networking   is important, whichever sector you are in and developing those contacts is well worth the effort.

Networking has in some circles acquired a bad name, partly because of the number of profit making organisations that exist purely for people to network. Rotary, Masons etc acquired a reputation of ‘jobs for the boys’. Attend a meeting on BNI, or 4N, or Athena (women only) and you will find that you are the only person in your occupational niche and you may be asked to give a 60 second opportunity to say what you are looking for from the meeting and what you offer. Entering a room full of strangers and pitching in that way could be, for some people, one of Dante’s circles of hell. The reality for those that attend is that they find it immensely useful.   They do make connections and they do get opportunities, business and jobs. But not all networking is like this at all.  It does not mean that you need to follow the mantra of Keith Ferrazzi to ‘Never Eat Alone’. It does not mean that you have to learn to play golf/squash/bridge but you do need to learn to connect and build those relationships of trust.

If the definition of networking is to create meaningful relationships of mutual benefit and trust, then you can do it anywhere. Everyone can you know or meet is a contact and you can network with them. You may have met them at the golf club, the school gate, the gym or through a professional organisation. So you are networking even if you don’t plan to!  You don’t have to be an extrovert to be a good networker, breadth of contacts can really help but the depth of your relationships is critical if you are going to leverage success. So introverts can really develop their own strong bonds in their own way, remember there much success from developing existing relationships rather than rushing around creating new ones.

Neil Munz-Jones in The Reluctant Networker says there are 8 key principles for networking success:

  • Change your mindset – you network – make connections all the time, so stop feeling afraid of networking and get on with it. Recognise that depth is good, it’s about creating trust.
  • Develop a style that works for you – if you are an introvert then stick to situations where you can speak in depth to one or two people not huge speed dating type events. Always carry business cards and make sure people know who you are.
  • Remember that networking is building long term relationships based on trust, do what you say are going to do, honour confidences and only ask for what people are able to give.
  • Know your strengths and work to them, do what you enjoy,  maybe you hate eating with others but love country walks, make them part of your style.
  • Tap into your network’s networks, get introduced in order to spread  your network. Asking contacts who they can introduce you to is a classic networker’s tool.
  • It’s a two way thing, always be ready to give, give when you see no prospect of re-payment. This is long term strategy not today’s tactics. Joining up your contacts fro their mutual advantage is a great way to give value.
  • Keep high standards, focus on where you want to network, don’t just be a tart. Make sure you think about who or what you need and where you will find it. And follow the etiquette. Follow up on the contacts you make.
  • Get your network going when you don’t need anything. Phoning people from 20 years ago (it is never too late to pick up a contact) works better when you are not saying ‘giz us a job!’ And on that note, ask for help, ideas and information.. never ask directly for a job. Join a couple of groups, get some opportunities to meet people you can help.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned virtual networking, isn’t that the  new panacea? Shy people can network without ever leaving the house!  The answer is yes and no. Joining a great virtual network such as Linked In will enable you to connect with those that you have not seen much of recently. It will enable you to share information and demonstrate your expertise. It will enable you to be helpful. It can make it easy for people to help you. However it can not get you into a one on one relationship of trust. You need the virtual network as your start point not your end point. Munz-Jones says ‘spend more time in coffee shops’. In other words get face to face with your contact in an informal surrounding.  Virtual networks give you quantity.. but trust does not come from having a very large address book.

Love it or loath it, networking is powerful way of learning, giving and relating to others.  However sometimes people feel they just don’t know where to start. So here are ten top ideas on ways that you can power up your networking skills:

  1. Know who you know – professionals would call this a database but that sounds very formal. Just know who it is that you know. Divide them into those you know well and would recommend you and those you know less well – how can you move one or two of those a month into the the first list?
  2. Join a virtual network and spend a couple of hours a month playing. See who you know and see who they know. Build some virtual connections. Find a group that is a proper forum and join the debate. Not every day in everyway, see who you can help.
  3. Find a reason to get in touch, doing charity events and needing sponsorship are great ways of enabling you to connect without talking about work at all!
  4. Join a professional association. Play an active role. Not only will you build a profile, extend the number of people you know but you will learn and develop yourself at the same time.
  5. Hang onto the fact that this is about relationships of trust not selling.
  6. Know who you want to network with, know what you need to know about them and how you can help them. Be focused and targeted BUT never forget, it is who your network know that might be the critical link for you. So don’t be too focussed!
  7. When you go to an event – a conference or an association meeting, try to create at least one relationship/re-kindle an old one. You don’t have to have ambitions to meet everyone or leave a business card on every plate. But take you business cards and give them away.  Get there early, that might sound like a nightmare, but you won’t have to walk into a room full of people and the others that are there early may also be looking for someone to talk to.
  8. If you are talking to someone and you feel you have had enough, turn your body about fifty degrees away from them, that opens up the pair and makes it possible for someone else to join you. Or if you want to leave make sure that they feel valued, offer to call them for a longer discussion or meet them before the next meeting.
  9. Be clear about who you are. Sounds like a no-brainer. But you need to be able to sum up who you are and what you do. It may work if you have a really clear job title or a very high profile organisation but if you want to stick in someone’s mind, you may need to say more than ‘I’m an AD’. How much more impactful to be ‘the guy who makes sure you can drive your car through Watford at 8.30am on a Monday morning’ (traffic engineer)  or I’m the woman who makes sure that Members don’t go to gaol for setting illegal budgets.’ (accountant).
  10. You may need polite persistence. After you have met someone and got their number, if you need to go and see them, need them to give you information or recommend you… you may need to expect a few delays, cancellations or postponements.  Don’t take it personally. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how high would you make it as a priority. But on the other hand don’t assume they will never help you. Most people like to help others. You need to persist.

Power Up Your Networking Skills Workshop‘   Tuesday 22nd January, Central London. 2pm to 5pm  Develop your own unique approach to extending your network,  plan your strategy on how to extend your contact list, practice your elevator pitch and learn how to change your mindset. A special half day workshop for networking innocents or the reluctant networker. Only £99 if you book before Christmas.

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