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The strategic networker

<b>Networking is more than attending social events, Stefan Stern discovers. You have to know what you want to achieve, how to 'work a room' and establish a rapport with new people</b>

The Christmas before last (2001) Carole Stone, doyenne of London's networking scene, held a modest little drinks party - for 1,300 of her closest friends - in the intimate setting of a packed and steamy QE2 conference centre, Westminster. Those lucky enough to attend were treated to a couple of glasses of wine, an elbow or two in the ribs or face (depending on your height), and a quick smile and wave from the hostess.

Stone's network is truly formidable. She has been working on it since the early 1980s, and possesses just about every business card you could possibly wish to own. But, impressive though her parties are, the grand affairs do not exactly represent what you might call effective networking opportunities. You can hardly hear yourself or your interlocutor speak.

For many HR professionals networking still feels like a tantalisingly elusive skill. So how do you develop really effective networking skills that can gain you access to useful people and, perhaps more importantly, will help you become a more convincing and persuasive advocate within your organisation?

Heather White, who runs her own Magic of Networking consultancy, says that some HR managers are too vague about networking and don't think through what they are trying to achieve. She argues that a more rigorous, 'strategic networking' approach is called for.

'Networking is a means to an end, not an end in itself,' she says. 'You should be networking around a task. There should be a purpose to it. The challenge is to make the change from simply networking vaguely to being a networker -someone who is focused, engaged on a two-way process, learning from people but also giving something back in return. I call that the 'givers gain' principle.'

White has identified two key components to a strategic networking approach. First you need to focus on the practical outcome your networking is designed to achieve. Second, you need to learn the etiquette of networking, how to communicate with people and 'work a room'. This requires soft skills, such as developing the right body language to help you establish a rapport with new people.

'You need to understand the complexity of the organisation or people you are dealing with,' she says. 'In a sense networking means just that - meeting the complexity of another human being.' This may mean mastering the language of other business disciplines, like marketing or finance, to be able to communicate better with colleagues.

Pat Woods, a freelance HR consultant, says she has benefited enormously from Whites strategic approach. 'It's very practical, and vital for influencing senior managers,' Woods says. 'Networking is much more than just attending a social event.'

There was no mega bash for Carole Stone this Christmas (2002). They had just become too big, according to the hostess. She didn't really have time to speak to anyone properly. Other networking gurus would have supported her decision to cancel.