Networker Web by James Ferguson
© James Ferguson

Some things are supposed to need no explanation. It is generally accepted, for example, that in order to get a good job when you leave business school you ought to exploit your networks. Indeed, one of the virtues of attending a good business school is supposed to be the networking opportunities that the school offers. However, like many other supposedly straightforward things, very little attention is paid in business schools or elsewhere on exactly how to network effectively.

Julia Hobsbawm, who says she is the world’s first professor of networking, believes networking is something that can and should be taught. She is honorary visiting professor of networking at Cass Business School and author of a white paper on the topic: Fully Connected: a look ahead to working and networking in 2020. The paper, which was published by EY, the consultancy, alongside research it commissioned on attitudes to networking, makes a case for the importance of networking and also how it ought to be done.

“We have a literacy about our physical fitness,” says Prof Hobsbawm, explaining that these days most people seem to accept the need for healthy food and exercise. Now she wants people to overcome shyness and adopt the same pragmatic approach to their social fitness.

“The challenge is that networking has been seen as the preserve of bosses,” she says, adding that instead it needs to be seen as something that everyone needs to do to raise their visibility and improve their effectiveness.

It is normal, however, to feel uncomfortable doing it. Prof Hobsbawm says she teaches networking on executive programmes at Cass. “They all report experiencing various degrees of discomfort with the conference and the cocktail party,” she says of her students.

The research

Alongside Prof Hobsbawm’s paper, EY also commissioned Populus, a market research company, to interview a nationally representative sample of 4,183 British adults. The responses of 750 adults who held jobs at above a clerical level were selected to give insight into how business professionals feel about networking. The research was conducted in March.

“We were keen to explore what some of the assumptions are about networking,” says Liz Bingham, managing partner with EY. One of those assumptions, she confesses, is that younger people would place a greater value on social media platforms. However, the survey found that those at the earliest stages of their professional development had the strongest attachment to in-person networking. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents who described themselves as being at executive level networked in person, compared to 53 per cent of directors. In contrast the respondents made equal use of social media for networking with roughly a third of those at director, manager and executive level reporting use of online social networks.

The other finding that surprised Ms Bingham was the attitude of women to networking with their own sex.

“I was really surprised that only 24 per cent of women felt there was a need for women-only networks in the modern workplace, particularly when my personal experience has been so positive,” says Ms Bingham. “I think there is sometimes a view that these groups are about ‘prosecco and cupcakes’ but the reality is that they can be a powerful force for change.”

What is bad networking?

Bad networking includes going to an event and collecting business cards from people and then never contacting anyone, says Ms Bingham.

Also, it is no good trying to appear better than you are. “If you are trying to be something that you are not, people will spot that a mile off,” says Ms Bingham.

Focusing too hard on your own goals is also a no-no. “People know if you’re just taking from an encounter and it’s not good,” says Prof Hobsbawm.

What is good networking?

“The ones that I think are going to succeed most are the ones that do not put undue pressure on themselves,” says Prof Hobsbawm. “Something unpredictable and unplanned can lead to success,” she says.

“You have to prove that you’re likeable. Likeability is an underestimated quality,” says Ms Bingham,. “And you have to be bold.” Knowing when to ask for help to gain funding or move up the career ladder is tricky, but it is a crucial part of effective networking, according to Ms Bingham. “The thing I struggled with most was moving the conversation from: ‘I really like you’ to something more serious.”

If that sounds a bit too hard nosed, you might have an ally in Prof Hobsbawm. “Above all,” she insists in her paper, “be interested in ideas and others, not just yourself.”

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