Networking as a career management strategy is important as the burden of responsibility for one’s career has shifted from the organisation to the individual, with the notion of employability becoming one’s career goal. Moreover, more and more corporate, government and other organisations see building social capital as an organisational priority.

Social capital is ‘the structure of individuals’ contact networks – the pattern of interconnection among the various people with whom each person is tied. It constitutes a valuable resource. Relationships possessed by an individual can provide one with access to new information, resources and opportunities. This information, resources, and opportunities, both within and outside one’s current firm, can result in direct enhancements of one’s career and the firm’s competitiveness.

Well-connected employees contribute more to the bottom line because they know how to get on board quickly, get the job done, get the business, get behind organisational initiatives, get the most from conferences and meetings and get ahead. One of the topics that often arises in the corporate world is why the networks of men in the workplace are more “close” than the networks of women.

Networking is simply building relationships says Smith. Another expert, Boston University Professor, Kathy E Kram, defines networking as a proactive behaviour that helps develop one’s relationship constellation. Research conducted by Forret and Dougherty in 2001 [Forret, M. L. & Dougherty, T.W. (2001). Correlates of networking behaviour for managerial and professional employees. Group and Organisation Management, 26, 28, 283-311.] suggests that some individuals are more likely to engage in networking behaviour than others. Utilising factor analysis, they identified five types of networking behaviour: maintaining contacts, socialising, engaging in professional activities, participating in community, and increasing internal visibility.

So, is there a difference between men and women in networking? In a business magazine, Professor Herminia Ibarra at INSEAD – a women herself – says that men have more in common because they do more activities together. Many men have an overlap between their professional and personal network. Forret and Dougherty seem to concur with this sentiment. They suggest that the only gender difference in the five dimensions of networking behaviour found was that men engaged in more socialising behaviour than women. Other research found that women build two separate networks: one for their job and one for activities outside their job. What are the consequences?

Men also know their professional contacts more personally. This leads to a natural bond and trust which women often do not have with their professional contacts. “When a company has to take risks, then it is pretty normal that a man gives a tough task to another man. Because he knows him better, he trusts him more,” says Smith.

Ibarra offers the following tips for women: when there are not enough women in your own company try to enlarge your network with female professionals from other companies. By having contacts with those “peers” you get a bigger overlap between your personal and professional network. Women can also strengthen their relationships with men through having lunch with them or finding other activities they can do together.

Smith says that the practice that above all others opens the door to networking with others is to look for common ground. That rule applies whether you’re searching for a job, resolving conflict with your spouse, teaching a child, negotiating a deal, selling a product, writing a book, leading a meeting, or communicating to an audience. People who connect are always searching for common ground. That probably seems obvious, because all positive relationships are built on common interests and values. They build upon agreement, not disagreement. But if that’s true, why do so many people neglect to search for common ground and build upon it?

Karl Smith is a South African Business Networking and Referral Coach.