Throughout the early stages of your career, you will doubtless have been told many times about the importance of networking. Instructive slogans are constantly thrown around: make contacts; follow up; share ideas. The impact of networking upon the business world is also clear. Many local business communities are now often structured around weekly or monthly meetings, and it’s likely you are already involved in such a network yourself. The power of networking is reflected in business education and discourse: large sections of MBA curricula are now dedicated to teaching networking skills. The topic practically saturates business magazines and discussions, and it might feel like there isn’t much more to learn.
However, once you understand where it is networking draws its potency from, you can take your networking skills to the next level.
We can see the power of networking originates in the social makeup of humanity itself. The 19thcentury evolutionary scientist Peter Kropotkin argues that the ‘mutual-aid’ principle of co-operation has long been integral to industrial development and the success of human societies – a conclusion that was supported by Darwin.
“As to the sudden industrial progress which has been achieved during our own century, and which is usually ascribed to the triumph of individualism and competition, it certainly has a much deeper origin than that. …For industrial progress, as for each other conquest over nature, mutual aid and close intercourse certainly are, as they have been, much more advantageous than mutual struggle.” – Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Although it might seem convenient to portray all business crudely as ‘dog-eat-dog’, a successful businessperson is someone who does not dismiss the importance of ‘mutual aid’. It’s true, of course, that business is usually on a competitive level. But that competition usually takes place between groups of people, rather than individuals. Therefore cooperation is required in order to realise our greater individual end-goals. It is precisely this principle from which networking draws its potency, with voluntary, cooperative collaboration between individuals being the foundation of success. A business network can then be understood as a more formal realisation of the fundamental social groups humans naturally gravitate towards.
Practically speaking, it is useful to trace the genealogy of contact building in order to understand further how to develop networking. Many argue that the professional networking process starts on MBA courses and other forms of business education, which would make networking a near-constant facet of successful career development. Indeed, MBA courses are often sold as strong networking opportunities. Many people do build strong contacts while in education, and these can often lead to positive outcomes in the future.
Such a view is productive to an extent – yes, you will make good contacts on your MBA course but it would be wrong to view an MBA largely as a networking opportunity. MBAs are great for networking because they teach you networking skills rather than merely bringing you into contact with other businesspeople. They should, then, be valued on that basis and, more importantly, they teach us to focus on universal, transferable skills ahead of sporadic, singular opportunities. It’s therefore important to remember the power of networking skills – they will carry you much further through long-term career development than a one-off chance meeting, and bring you the opportunities you are looking for.
Looking at statistical evidence, we can understand the importance, place and power of networking even further. A Right Management survey analysed data from 59,133 clients they had advised over the previous three years – in 2010, 41% said they landed a job through networking, compared to the next most successful result – using an internet job board (25%). Face-to-face networking was therefore nearly twice as effective in furthering careers than the newer means of career advancement many see as having overtaken traditional networking.
Furthermore, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, found that 70-80% of job postings were not published. By looking at the number of hires in the previous 30 days and comparing those with the number of actively recruited open positions and the number of open positions filled by someone employers knew through networking, the researchers found that new hires exceeded the number of positions advertised. This means that many of the people who were hired filled positions never advertised to the public.
What we can take from these statistics is not just the fact that face-to-face networking is still the most powerful business tool in your career’s toolkit, but that it is also utterly necessary to furthering your career and your business. We can now start to think about structuring our networking approach in a specific way. If you place face-to-face, mutual-aid type networking at the core of your contact-building approach, you can then utilise other methods (such as online communities like LinkedIn or other social networks) to hone your efficiency and maximise your professional reach. If, as the statistics show, many employers do not even advertise the majority of job positions, it’s clearly vital to triangulate your networking methods rather than relying on one at the expense of another.
Networking is ultimately so powerful because it plays on a natural human tendency towards co-operation. Far beyond being merely a business tool, networking is an important social strategy and interaction. Organising yourself based on your strengths and social skills may well get you further than any traditional business textbook could and propel you even faster to success.