Change as opportunity: the power of networking in the public sector

By Sharon Ardley

Monday September 5, 2016

The impact of one-term governments and machinery of government changes can be far-reaching, both for organisations and individuals. Organisational restructures, changing roles and department reshuffles in government have brought with them a large shift when it comes to traditional career plans and trajectories for many public sector workers.

Now, more than ever, is the time to for public sector staff to invest and manage their own careers. And as we have seen from our private sector peers, mentoring and networking are some of the key steps in this process. Drawing on my 30 years in organisational development and human resources within both Australian public and private sectors and international organisations, here are my tips when it comes to networking within the public sector.

What makes a ‘good networker’?

Networking – whether you love it or run from it – is a way of life across public and private sectors.  Some network well and it seems a natural and innate talent, while for some others it’s cringe worthy and their worst nightmare.

What makes a ‘good networker’ and why should anyone, regardless of position title, bother to network?

These are questions I often hear clients and colleagues ask.  There are numerous tips and strategies on how to network and what makes a great networker.  However, what is often lost is how networking is a personal approach and how to effectively network within the public sector.

We’ve all received the random requests to connect on LinkedIn, or the overly friendly email wanting to connect for a coffee.  Does this really work?  Is this really networking? Many would say no.  It’s an approach to networking, but is it really effective? It’s worth considering effective behaviours when it comes to networking.

When considering effective networking behaviours, one key element often neglected, overlooked and missed out is ‘what can I share?’ and ‘how can I add value?’

All too often networking can be seen as needing to make a connection in order to benefit in some way.  There’s an opportunity to consider networking as not only building relationships and gathering information, but as a key opportunity to contribute.  With tips and strategies available, perhaps a 3 x 3 rule will help, that is, three strategies for networking and three networking considerations.

Below are three of the best effective strategies for networking at any level:

  • Do the research. Know who you are going to meet and talk to. LinkedIn is a great tool for leveraging any common connections and understanding the person’s professional experiences.  Do you have any common connections? This breaks the ice, it shows you value their experiences and it’s an instant rapport builder.  Even for the most introverted among us, it’s a statement or question to get the conversation rolling.
  • Be mindful. Show consideration for their time. People are busy and meeting during hectic and chaotic days where many people have back-to-back meetings is not going to work.  Some of the best networking times could be breakfast, an early coffee or meeting up at an event or conference.  Either way, being creative and innovative on how, when and where to meet can yield a good outcome.
  • Research great events to network. Organisations like LGPro and the Institute of Public Administration Australia host a number of informative events, networking forums and conferences. They are great opportunities to meet people across the service, sector and local government.  Part of great networking is to ensure you are up-to-date with contemporary trends and information.

Alongside effective networking, you also need to ensure you are putting your best foot forward.  Your personal brand is important and here are three considerations:

  1. Give more than you receive. Consider what you can offer and share when networking. Networking is about building relationships and connections.  Being able to offer connections, share information for example, adds value to the conversation and sets the relationship off on an even footing.
  2. Know who you are. One of the stumbling blocks in great networking is being able to be specific on why you want to meet, especially if it’s someone you don’t know. Start with the end in mind – be clear on why you want to meet, the outcome you’re looking for and how you can add value to the meeting.  Taking 10 minutes to prepare your thoughts, do your research and plan your call or conversation will ensure you look professional and organised.
  3. Listen, ask and listen. Don’t underestimate active listening and asking questions. Be prepared.  Learn about the person you are meeting and uncover their experiences with targeted questions.

Remember networking is not reserved for the highly extroverted who work the room and gather business cards from everyone.

It’s a targeted approach to broadening your reach, your avenues of information and gathering valuable insights.  Networking can increase career opportunities, widen your experiences and knowledge and inform your thinking.  Think of networking as building relationships.

We’re all used to complex changes across the public service and networking is one clear valuable tool everyone can develop.  As change creates opportunities across the public sector, networking is the perfect skill and behaviour to learn about changes, engage your stakeholders and share information across your networks.

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