Social mobility and the City: how to make networking work for you

Why networking doesn't have to be elitist and how to go about it

Networking: wherever careers are discussed it's always agreed that, especially in today's tough economic climate and very competitive job market, it's a key factor in being able to embark on the career path of your choice and progress successfully once you're there.

In Elitist Britain, a report published earlier this year, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission stated that 60 per cent of managerial and professional roles are recruited through networks and that 65 per cent of British people think "who you know" is more important than "what you know".

And in the City in particular, where people, relationships and information are the main assets of most businesses, networking is particularly important.

Elitist or egalitarian?

But does the significance placed on networking make for fair recruitment and a fair society in general?

Guardian columnist Ian Jack has unfavourably contrasted today's network-focused job market with the one he entered as a graduate in the 1960s: "I grew up at a time in Britain," he wrote in the Guardian in 2012, "when knowing people mattered less as a way of getting on than in any other era before or since. To get [a professional job], you passed exams and performed at interviews."

It certainly isn't fair that some young people instead might be able to get a job or work experience in the City through a school "old boys' network" or their parents' friends. But some would say that fitting networking into the recruitment and career progression process can actually be a way of opening new doors for everyone rather than promoting social elitism.

Networking is often regarded as a group of similar people, who probably know or know of each other already, gathered together to chat, so often just strengthening pre-existing social and professional ties.

However, you can think of networking as instead getting to know new people outside your usual professional or social circles, exchanging new information, and using these activities for professional enhancement and to build connections across society. It then becomes something much more egalitarian, dynamic and accessible.

In Networking Nation, her recent series on on networking for Radio 4, Julia Hobsbawm, founder of a networking agency and visiting professor of networking at Cass Business School, says that networking is "far less elitist and nepotistic than people think it is".

She goes on to describe London's seventeenth century coffeehouses, many of which were located in the City, as an ideal model for how networking should and can operate here: people from a range of occupations, classes and nationalities meeting, exchanging information, and accessing new opportunities.

And the City, while undeniably socially exclusive in some ways, has throughout its history provided forums, marketplaces and other ways for people from a wide range of backgrounds to meet, make useful connections, do business, and advance by doing so. So networking can and should be a ladder to professional success here that everyone can access.

How to network your way into the City

Very few people find the "room full of people I don't know" kind of networking easy, let alone enjoyable, even experienced professionals. However, these networking events are popular with City graduate employers and can be an excellent opportunity to meet new people and to learn.

"You have to develop a thick skin, go to [events] where you don't know anyone, and start conversations," says Lee Elliott-Major, director at the Sutton Trust, an organisation that works to improve social mobility through, among other projects, advising and supporting students as they embark on professional careers. "You find more often than not," says Lee, "that it will be very helpful and you will make a link."

It's best not to have a set result in mind, like an exchange of business cards or an agreement to meet - instead just focus on having an interesting chat, which takes the pressure off, and means the encounter is more likely to be meaningful and thereby useful in the long run.

Don't forget other forms of networking too, which are often less daunting and more efficient and satisfying. These include building connections through social media, meeting for coffee or chatting on Skype, or putting yourself out there through a blog, an intelligent comment or question at a speaker event, or an offer to give others careers help or advice - everybody has something to offer, however junior!

Always remember that networking is mostly simply engaging with other people, which we all do naturally every day. Josh Oware, Research and Community Affairs Co-ordinator at Rare, a recruitment organisation that works with students from a wide range of backgrounds and many City graduate employers, says that much of their networking advice to students is communication advice rather than advice on "working the room" - "[networking] is more about an interactive culture and interpersonal relations," he says.

And there are now plenty of networking resources out there to help you - from societies to university events to online forums. Chris White, founder of Aspiring Solicitors, an organisation open to all students that aims to increase diversity in the legal profession and runs networking events for its members, says, "there isn't an excuse for not [engaging in networking] now because there are so many opportunities at law schools and at universities."

Why networking is becoming even more important

In her recent white paper on networking, Julia Hobsbawm says: "Those who make up the generation who expect to be in positions of senior leadership by 2020 are going to have to make their own luck managing their networks and sources of knowledge whilst getting the increasingly time pressured day job done."

In Networking Nation, she talks to Gemma Lines, EMEA Head of Resourcing at global bank Citi, who identifies the ability to connect with a wide range of people, inside and outside the organisation you work for, as a skill that will be particularly important for those working in banking in the future.

Meanwhile according to Richard Susskind, legal academic and author of Tomorrow's Lawyers, as the technical side of legal work in the City becomes increasingly automated through advances in technology, there'll be an increased need in City law for "creative, strategic, imaginative, empathetic individuals", who sound very much like ones who'll engage in and enjoy networking.

So if you you think you have or could develop the skills and qualities described above, working in the City in the coming years could suit you very well - and remember that it's these personal characteristics that help you form your own networks that will make you successful here, not the networks you have, or don't have, when you're starting out.

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