Some people dismiss it as lightweight, but those who learn to network successfully will soon be as highly prized in the job market as those with an MBA or more traditional 'hard' skills and qualifications. And the social research is mounting that connections and the exchange of ideas are much more likely to yield better job prospects.
As the academics Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler point out in Connected: The amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives: 'Humans don't just live in groups, we live in networks.' And networks matter because we use them to acquire and transfer knowledge, and to belong. For all the transformative brilliance of technology-assisted social networks, a negative byproduct is isolation. A lonely worker is less productive than a stimulated, connected one. If networking is understood as a tool of productivity and performance enhancement rather than some kind of optional add-on, all you need to do is start.
You should not network by holding out your business card at an event and asking 'and what do you do?'. Our professional and personal lives are becoming so blended that to offer your day job as the definition of who you are is no longer accurate enough. There is a line between sharing and oversharing, especially online, but face-to-face you might start by asking something as straightforward as 'how are you today?' or by mentioning something personal to get a proper connection going. People relax more when they meet an individual and not a job spec.
Gone are the days when 'a job well done' was defined by getting in your silo and staying there. Having lateral knowledge is now essential to keep up to speed with the arguments and issues of the day. If you are not putting your mind into a state of readiness to learn something new each day, you'll remain isolated and out of sync with everyone who has become 'plural' in their thinking and their portfolio career. You can also be nosey, something social media is designed to encourage. When you go on Twitter or join LinkedIn (both of which are far more career-friendly than Facebook), browse around to work up a sense of a subject based on an individual or an issue you are interested in. Ironically, it is best to avoid a 'who you know' approach to social media, which can become pointlessly competitive: better to see how ideas are being shaped, rather than worry about how many online connections you do or don't have.
Get some navigation
With information cascading through our lives continuously, it's tempting to tune out as a survival mechanism. Our workshops start by asking people to admit how much they read or watch the news and current affairs. Cutting-edge employees in FTSEs have admitted that they read Google News and not much else. This is a mistake. You must find organisations and systems that help you navigate through what you need to know and join the kind of networks and clubs that can direct you to the curated information you need.
Finally, you are not weird or unusual if, in a room full of people, you walk to the edge and gulp inwardly, wanting to scram. Shyness is the norm; we just don't talk about it. Cut the small talk, get real quickly and jump in. The best tool is one you possess already: the art of conversation.
- Julia Hobsbawm runs the networking business Editorial Intelligence and is visiting professor in networking at London's Cass Business School.