Date posted: 4/05/2017 3 min read

The secrets to successful networking

Tips to help young professionals get the most out of networking opportunities.

In brief

  • Networking has rarely been as important as it is now.
  • Humans have two networks, a core network of like-minded people and a more remote, weaker fringe group.
  • When you’re networking, push out of your comfort zone and connect with the fringe of your network.

For too long the notion of networking has evoked images of boozy lunches, cocktail parties, and endless rounds of coffees and conferences.  

The thought of networking can also evoke terror. How on earth does one penetrate a circle of complete strangers in a large room? When is the right time to hand over your business card? What if you’re rejected?  

To the reserved and shy, networking is a ghastly, stressful game with questionable results.  

In recent times the focus has shifted to online networking – cultivating relationships and contacts through the likes of LinkedIn and Google+. But the ability to connect and build trust with another human in a face-to-face setting is a competitive edge that digital platforms and robots cannot disrupt.  

Networking has rarely been so important. It remains key to the transfer of information, opportunities and jobs. According to the Financial Times, Adzuna found the hidden job market accounts for nearly 80% of total vacancies.  

One of the biggest problems with networking is the number of options available. Where should you spend your time to maximise opportunities? Fortunately, science has the answer. But just how you should go about becoming a more effective networker might surprise you.  

The most powerful networking concept

There has been much advice written about networking and how to effectively work a room, infiltrate that circle at a conference, and so on. Most of it is simply tips from self-proclaimed “gurus”.  

But one of the most powerful concepts that can transform your networking effectiveness comes from “network science” – t he study of how humans interact in social networks.  

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Basically, humans have two networks, a core network of like-minded people and a more remote, weaker fringe group of people we have irregular contact with and who are often different from us.  

You spend most of your time with your core network, such as family, friends and colleagues. If you’re in marketing, you’ll tend to network and spend time with other marketers. That’s understandable as it’s where you’re most comfortable and have the highest chance of building prestige and status.  

Where the really opportunities are

But as venture capitalist and writer Richard Koch has written, research has found that the best opportunities are actually in the fringe network.  

English philosopher John Stuart Mill long ago said there was value in meeting, “persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar”.  

That notion, Koch outlines, gained support from sociologist Mark Granovetter. Granovetter found that more than a quarter of people got their first big career breaks through “really weak” contacts, such as an old college friend or former workmate or employer with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Koch refers to this as the principle of “weak” links.  

Other research backs this up. In a Forbes article, Michael Simmons outlined an interview with network scientist Ron Burt. Burt said that the best predictor of career success was an “open network” rather than a “closed” network. Indeed, one study Simmons cites found that, “half of the predicted difference in career success (promotion, compensation, industry recognition) is due to this one variable” [an open network].  

Exposure to fresh ideas

Why are weak links, or the fringe of our networks, powerful?   As Koch says, “our close friends have access to the same information and patterns of thought as we do, and not much more”.  

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In Simmons/Granovetter’s terms a closed network means you hear the same ideas, so nothing new is sparked. An open network exposes you to new, fresh ideas and opportunities.  

But it also makes sense from a simple economic point of view. Our existing, close networks are usually full of people like us providing similar value to us. It’s crowded and competitive. Lobbyists, for example, make big fees from companies outside the political circle who are intimidated and lost in a new, complex world and seek guidance.  

Pushing out of your comfort zone

The power of fringe networks has validity. Indeed, if you reflect on your big career breaks, you’ll probably find they came from someone you were friendly with and have kept in irregular contact with over years. It wasn’t your immediate circle, who are all chasing the same thing as you.  

But there is a caveat: you still must deliver something of value. Networking by itself isn’t enough, you still must focus on having something to offer.  

What does that mean for networking? It means when you’re networking, push out of your comfort zone and connect with the fringe of your network. But more importantly, look at providing something of value – even if it’s only a small piece of information – to those you normally wouldn’t provide it to. That’s where the big ideas and new, potentially life-changing connections will happen.  

This article is part of an ongoing Careers column offering tips and advice for provisional members of CA ANZ and younger full members. For more information on the Chartered Accountants program, as well as inspiring stories of young chartered accountants, visit visit youunlimitedanz.com now.