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High fliers need friends

Keep in touch with old colleagues - when you need a leg up, they can help, says Roger Trapp. In an insecure world, everyone should network
Networking is one of those terms that has suffered from an image problem. Describing somebody as a good networker is often meant less as a compliment than as a sneer.

But today's high-fliers cannot expect to succeed if they adopt such attitudes. Though networking was once seen as something peculiar to such industries as advertising and public relations, it now pervades just about all walks of life. As organisations contract and the idea of a job for life becomes even less of a reality than it ever was, individuals will need to make the most of their connections if they want to get on.

Of course, there is - to some extent - nothing new about this. Anybody seeking evidence of how contacts have opened doors in the past need only look at how the Old Boys' Club fills all those non-executive directorship vacancies. What is different about now is that people are not just using who, rather than what, they know to obtain new positions. They are increasingly exploiting connections in the course of carrying out their current tasks.

They are having to do this because - at the same time as they are contracting - organisations are moving towards operating through projects run by cross- functional teams and towards forging links with suppliers and other external groups. Clearly, anybody wishing to prosper in such an atmosphere needs to be able to create different sorts of relationships. In short, the ability to fly high will have a lot to do with networking skills.

So, what are these skills, and how do you go about acquiring them? In a new book, Systematic Networking, Roger Hayes, an experienced PR man, gives a few pointers.

"It requires energy and graft and discipline to get it right," he says. "Networking is about making the connections, forging the links in the spider's web, all of which requires a cross-flow of information, research and databasing."

He is to a large extent talking about companies, but he also reminds readers that management writers are increasingly pointing out that young managers need to seize ownership of their careers early on if they want to reach the top. He quotes one as writing, "Whereas in the past it was possible to plot a career course across a medium-weather sea, now it's more like shooting white-water rapids in a rubber dinghy."

And he draws a distinction between the natural networking that most of us do all day - at the coffee machine, at lunch and in the pub after work and a more pro-active approach which involves attending events with a clear idea of who you want to meet and why.

That is the thinking behind the several women's networks that have sprung up, to divided receptions, in recent years. The founders felt that women in professional roles needed to meet others in similar roles so that they would feel less isolated and unusual and be able to share experiences and tips.

But men, too, need, in Mr Hayes' phrase, to "network big". The concept is "a way to the art of discovering patterns in the world, making sense of otherwise unrelated facts, making useful connections", he adds. "It's about weaving new options into our safety nets. With job insecurity remaining the number one concern in the West and the 'feel ghastly' factor at work showing no sign of lifting, this becomes even more imperative."

Indeed, individual professionals, just like their corporate counterparts, need to use networking to enable them to concentrate on what they do best, while contracting out to allies. Networking fosters innovation and access to global opportunities.

Mr Hayes argues that the more firms can train their managers to think long term, deal with such soft issues as vision, equity and relationships and look outwards, the more they are empowered. Such people may not be tied formally to the organisation for ever, but - through a dedication to networking - they will be forming the relationships that should ensure their success and that of their companies