Be a better know all ... and network to the top
When it comes to getting ahead in the workplace, networking is the name of the game - and increasingly it is taking place on the internet. Kim Bielenberg reports on the world of canapés and contacts
Have you ever wondered why the boss of your company is allowed to take a four-hour lunch break while you languish at your desk with a convenience store sandwich?
The simple answer is networking. He (for it is still usually a he) is there to win friends and influence people for his company. And when he is fed up with his company, he will find another job in the corner of some over-priced restaurant - again through relentless networking.
While the networking lunch may simply be the best excuse ever for heavy drinking and gluttony, for most networkers these meetings are crucial, requiring meticulous attention to detail.
Bill Clinton is said to have kept an information card for everyone he has met since university. It is a strategy that has served him well.
Cynthia Carroll, a middle-aged American executive, came down for breakfast at the World Economic Forum in Davos at 7am recently. There was only one other person in the restaurant: a white-haired stranger in his sixties. She sat down next to him. They chatted.
Within a year the stranger, who turned out to be Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, had appointed her chief executive of Anglo-American, South Africa's biggest company.
If we are to believe the statistics, such encounters make the business world go round. You can have all the qualifications and talent required, but if you don't hob-nob to beat the band, you may fall by the wayside.
According to Dublin Human Resources consultant Rowan Manahan, 55-60% of middle to higher management appointments in business are made through personal contacts.
"There is a simple reason why people get jobs through networking," says Rowan Manahan. "Human beings do not like strangers. They don't want to have to deal with a thousand clowns applying for a job. If they can find somebody they know, it is usually preferable."
It may sicken the humble wage slave to know that he or she can only get to the top by rubbing shoulders and scoffing canapés with other networkers at countless dreary bunfights. But that is the modern workplace reality.
The old school tie and the golf club dinner may still have their uses, but increasingly the movers and shakers are making contacts online. The boom in online social networking (MySpace, Facebook) is being shadowed by an explosion in online business networking on sites such as LinkedIn.
LinkedIn, which has 15 million users, operates as a sort of Bebo or MySpace for the grown-up business suits. Once you have joined, you form a network with previous acquaintances from a workplace or from a college, and then gradually expand it. It has been described as a "way to shake hands electronically with new contacts".
When I joined up, I was immediately contacted by a friend from college, who wanted me added as a contact. I came across about 10 people whom I already knew. Most claimed blushingly that they had been asked to join the site by someone else.
(These websites, it should be noted, are not flawless. Earlier this year it was reported that there were several people on LinkedIn claiming to be Tony Blair. One of them billed himself implausibly as 'Prime Minister of Great Britain Ltd and Owner, Great Britain Ltd'.)
Rowan Manahan says his membership of LinkedIn has helped him in business.
"I have access to 84 direct contacts and I also have access to 4,600 indirect contacts. I would say that has opened up new business."
Online networking is not, of course, killing the more traditional business networks where ambitious types forge their careers. Professional bodies, trade groups, PR receptions and conferences are still thronged with young tiger cubs desperately trying to climb the greasy pole.
Some business people find social network sites such as Facebook much too personal for work connections.
Asked whether she would use Facebook for business, one executive replied: "Are you crazy? I wouldn't want contacts seeing pictures of me in my bikini." "You can make good contacts on the internet, but you would still prefer to meet people face-to-face if you are going to hire them or recommend them to someone else," says Rowan Manahan.
For every confident networker there are probably thousands who feel allergic to the idea. It brings to mind gruesome images of people cutting you dead because they see someone more important over your shoulder.
Since the 1937 publication of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, still a global bestseller, there has been an endless stream of books on the subject.
There are tips available on everything from what not to talk about at social events (politics, health problems, religion), how long to spend talking to people (no more than eight minutes with the same person in the first hour), how to open a conversation (" So what's keeping you busy?", "How are you?"), how much to say about yourself (limit your "elevator pitch" to between 10 seconds and a minute), and how to end a conversation going nowhere (" I'll let you get on", "I think we're expected to circulate").
There is even advice on where in the room you should stand ("Don't block the bar. The more auspicious location is the end of the food table, where people are grazing.") and how to hold your drink ("In your left hand so you don't give a clammy handshake.").
Another piece of advice proffered by a US networking expert was to keep "a networking diary" of encounters. "Do it while your insights are fresh." It has often been suggested that one of the reasons women hit a glass ceiling at work is that they are more reluctant than men to network.
A survey of redundant executives found that men are seven times more likely than women to get a job by using personal contacts.
Women network differently: they spend longer talking to people, whereas men happily wind up a chat after a minute or two and move on.
There are those who believe it is necessary only to focus on a few key people who might be useful. Others think that you should talk to everyone you can - operating a " one-metre rule", where they make a point of chatting to anyone who comes within one metre, any time, anywhere.
Networking is probably just an exaggerated version of what most people do when meeting strangers: establishing points of common interest and building rapport.
The question is: how far do you want to go, and do you mind being bored to tears along the way?