Professional networking should be something all of us do as a matter of routine. It is not just a great way to keep valuable relationships current, it is also your ticket to inside information about upcoming opportunities which you might want to position yourself for as a candidate.

I am not talking about being and posting on LinkedIn here, this is about the old fashioned, face-to-face version of networking. Not to get sales, but to cultivate relationships that may come in handy one day. Again, this is not about going to conferences or networking events, this is about having coffee or lunch with people you would like to stay in touch with and who should know about your current work and your future plans in terms of your next career move.

From what we can ascertain only a small minority of professionals regularly engage in this type of networking. The ones who do tend to mostly network with people inside their own organisation. That is certainly valuable, but usually not enough given that jobs for life in one organisation no longer exist. We have seen the benefits for people who take this networking seriously, they get jobs faster and usually know much more about the organisation and the role, so have a better chance of picking the right offers.

So what is the secret to successful networking? Apart from making the time to do it, it basically comes down to respect and reciprocity. Respect for the other person’s time, position and need for confidentiality are vital to build trusting networking relationships. These relationships are unusual in that they are based on very infrequent meetings yet what is discussed can include quite confidential information. So trust is paramount, as in some cases plausible deniability (that the meeting never took place because there is no electronic record such as an email).

In addition networking relies on reciprocity – the exchange of information and favours of roughly equal value. This is the same currency that powers organisational politics, which means internal networking is intertwined with politics by default. If you are not willing to offer information and favours of equal value in the exchange, the relationship will quickly sour. Buying lunch or coffee does not do the trick more than once; in the end people maintain these relationships because they give them access to inside information and to other people who might be able to do them a favour one day.

The questions we hear most often from our coaching clients in relation to professional networking are:

  1. What can I offer?
  2. How do I do the initial approach?
  3. Where do I find the time to maintain the relationship?

Obviously the last one is the easiest to answer – you drop something else of your to do list. Most professionals have sufficient autonomy to prioritise what they spend their time on and when they are out of the office. So it comes down to your priorities, what you value. If you are planning to change employer or career in the next 6-12 months (every year one third of Australians say they do) or even if you just want to hedge your bets about the future, you should prioritise professional networking. We recommend a minimum of 2 hours per week and double that when you are in active job search.

What you can offer is exactly what I discussed earlier – information and favours. Initially you probably don’t know what sort of information or favours your counterpart is after, so you will have to find out in the first meeting and then find a way to get that information (within legal bounds, of course). They are probably also after information that may be valuable for their next career move – understanding the culture of your organisation, if there are any upcoming changes that may lead to job openings, if your organisation is growing or shrinking, etc.

The way to do the initial approach is rather simple, you might ring them up and say you are considering a future career change and you would like to learn about the area the person you are targeting works in. Or you can engineer a ‘chance encounter’ at a conference, or you could find a mutual connection on LinkedIn to introduce you. There are plenty of options. Most people are quite open to an initial approach, especially if they understand the power of networking.