Secrets of the networkers

In modern business, everyone networks, and the ability to make and use connections has become a necessary attribute in the climb to the top. But how do you go from bit part to power player? Rhymer Rigby offers advice.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Brilliant academics, top surgeons, bestselling authors, composers, superstar athletes... if you fit into any of these categories, sheer technical excellence is enough to ensure success and you probably don't need to network. For the rest of us, though, the ability to make and use business connections has become a career-defining attribute - right up there with the ability to manage people, work hard, delegate and so on.

How many times have you looked enviously at someone who, apparently undeservedly, has just landed a top position? Do you think to yourself: 'They got that job because of who they know, not because of their abilities'? You may well be right.

Now look at it in a different way. Have they made all these contacts through their own efforts, rather than, say, having a well-placed daddy?

If this is the case, who is to say that their ability to network isn't more important than your ability to project manage? Presumably not the person who gave them the job.

It wasn't always like this. Back in the good old days, you started as a graduate trainee, percolated up into middle management and then either went for the board or marked time until your gold watch appeared. Of course, networking did go on back then, but it was a shadowy, masonic affair - and those who claimed to have been discriminated against because they weren't part of a network may have had a legitimate gripe.

By contrast, in modern business everyone networks, and although there are some historical hangovers (this is the country that invented the old boy network, after all), by and large your network is what you make of it. From debs to plebs, from the shop-floor to the boardroom, everyone's at it, manically filling up their Rolodexes and PDAs. Are you? And if not, why not? But how do you go from bit part to a power player? How do you become someone others want in their networks?

'It all starts with the attitude one has,' says Cobra Beer's Karan Bilimoria.

'Anyone can say they're too busy or they're stuck behind a desk; that's just lazy. The main thing is to be interested, to be outward-looking, to get out and engage with other people.' For instance, Bilimoria chairs the London chapter of the Young Presidents' Organisation.

'It's great fun,' he says. 'The whole idea is to meet, exchange ideas and enrich each other.'

However, he cautions, one should not come at such opportunities from too naked a 'me' perspective. Enlightened self-interest is the watchword: 'Networking shouldn't be a methodical pre-planned process.' Rather, you should approach it reasonably selflessly and be prepared to give more than you take.

Sir Paul Judge, chairman of the RSA and newly appointed president at the CMI, concurs, suggesting an opening gambit along the lines of 'I'd like to tell you a bit about my favourite charity'. Here the personal payback is far from obvious, but don't worry: networking is vaguely karmic in that sense. One day your good deeds will be rewarded, probably by someone completely different.

All very well, you might think, but here I am sitting behind a desk on Floor 17 of Employment Unit 12b on the outskirts of Milton Keynes; how do I get out and enrich myself? Well, you do have to make an effort, but there are big opportunities out there for anyone who is prepared to look. There are dozens of industry associations, as well as local chambers of commerce, sector events, conferences, awards and so on. Networking is something that can permeate every aspect of your life, although, for obvious reasons, you should avoid treating your friends at dinner parties like work colleagues and vice versa.

However, although you should put yourself about, you shouldn't (as they say of EastEnders stars) 'go to the opening of a fag packet'. Be choosy - go to events where you genuinely want to see the speaker, for instance.

'You don't want to show up at everything,' says Bupa's chief executive Val Gooding. 'That looks like self-promotion and like you don't have anything better to do. It also helps in meeting people if you have something in common. That's why you're better off rooted in some sort of context.'

If none of that works, adds Carole Stone, uber-networker and author of The Ultimate Guide to Successful Networking, you can always start your own events. 'If you suggest to a group of colleagues that you meet in a pub between 6 and 7:30, then start inviting people who are like-minded, you're setting up a network. Later, you can start getting in speakers if it's appropriate, or asking people to what has become a regular gathering.' Remember, even the biggest networks start small.

OK, so let's say your Rolodex is filling up. What should your network look like? People tend to think of networks as existing outside their companies, but if you work for a business that employs 50,000 people, you must network within. In fact, says Gooding, do too much networking outside and 'you risk giving the impression that you don't care about your own company'. Conversely, she adds, you don't want to be fantastically well connected within the company only to leave and find you have no external contacts. A balance must be struck.

If breadth is important, then so is depth. Many people make the error of assuming that they should be networking only with CEOs and other bigwigs.

But it's a fool who dismisses a PA as unimportant: who knows who he or she might be PA to? 'A lot of PAs and researchers open doors,' says Stone.

Equally, bear in mind that a lot of people who are unimportant now are not going to stay that way.

Shaping and making your network are not your only concern. Your network is a living thing: fail to nurture it and it will wither and die. This is probably quite easy if you live in London or another major conurbation.

But what if you live in a small town or in the country miles from anywhere?

Griselda Mussett, a former broadcaster, found this problem when she left London to work from home in Faversham, Kent. So she started arranging lunches for local people who were also homeworkers. Eventually, she discovered that so much networking and business was being done from her lunches that she might as well turn them into a business.

Now, for £75 a year, Millipod members get a weekly newsletter, invites to events, cheaper services, training days and so on. Of course, Millipod wouldn't exist if it wasn't for e-mail. And e-mail is probably the greatest networking tool since the public school. According to Ivan Massow, chairman of the Massow Group and co-founder of gay online business and social community Jake: 'E-mail allows you to flirt from a business perspective.'

Making that first phone call requires real confidence - and it puts the recipient in a position where their first thought may be: how do I get this idiot off the line. The joy of e-mail, explains Massow, is that it reduces the pressure on both sides, and makes a successful connection more likely. Moreover, e-mail has allowed an exponential growth in networks, both in terms of size and geographical reach. Anyone with a computer can now have a network spanning seven continents and numbering hundreds of people. And anyone can send a message to the CEOs of companies or MPs; they may not respond, but networking is undeniably easier and more democratic.

But, where, you might ask, does all this lead? Well, presumably to you enjoying yourself and becoming more successful and powerful. Then a rather curious thing starts to happen. The more important you become, the less you need to actively network - rather, the network starts to come to you.

When was the last time you saw a CEO or Cabinet minister buttonholing someone? Perhaps, then, that should be the goal of every networker - to get to the point where they become a notworker.

HOW TO WORK A ROOM

BEFORE THE EVENT

Read the guest list and identify who you want to talk to. Don't be over-ambitious - you're not Clinton (or, if you are, hi Bill/Hillary, I'm a big fan), but equally, you shouldn't spend the whole evening talking to people you already know; that's just lazy. Try to choose, say, four people whom you really want to meet.

Be smart. Powerful people are used to having starry-eyed sycophants sucking up to them. Why not pick someone on the way up instead? They're far more likely to give you time, and they'll be flattered that you spoke to them.

And when they are powerful themselves, they'll remember you.

Do your homework. Read up on the person and/or companies that you are targeting - but go further than just skimming their company website. With the amount of information available online these days, you have no excuse...

AT THE EVENT

To get an introduction, find a mutual friend or contact, or ask the host to do the honours. Failing that, politely introduce yourself.

Three or four minutes is usually enough to see if you're likely to get on with someone or be useful to them. Remember, you are in Britain, not the US, where 'Hi, I'd love to work for your company' is considered elliptical.

Here you must have the conversational equivalent of a couple of dates before you start even light petting.

It is poor form to leave people alone, though not such poor form that you should allow them to hang on to you all evening. Watch a couple of real players and see how effortlessly they introduce someone to the person they've finished chatting with and then seamlessly slip off.

Have your business cards with you, but don't scatter them about like confetti. Make sure that you get cards in return. Unless you're at a techie event, no-one will want to beam electronic cards to your PDA, although in extremis, texting can work.

AFTER THE EVENT

Follow up: if you said you would e-mail or call, do. If you failed to speak to one of your targets, e-mail them and say you were hoping to meet and are sorry to have missed them. (Hint: in this case, make sure they were actually there.)

If things go well, consider arranging further one-on-one meetings - lunch or after work for a drink are good; breakfast is OK if you're really keen; dinner is a bit weird. In a funny way, the same rules as dating apply, but with business rather than bedroom success the final goal.

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