Officially, a network can be defined as ‘an arrangement or pattern of intersecting lines’. In reality, a network is the people you know. Your network is all of the people you have met or dealt with, either in a professional or personal context. It is one of the most important assets that you can have, as it is something that is entirely yours, writes Careers Editor Coco May.

When I was thinking about my own network, I realised that it started to develop in my early childhood, when my father’s clients used to visit our house. These people have in turn become mentors, clients and invaluable sources of market information over the years, as have their offspring or colleagues. My first job at a global firm expanded my network exponentially, and then travels overseas gave it an international flavour. I am, and always will be, keen to add to my network, as I believe that it is a constant way to learn.

Networking is a very broad term, and means different things to different people. I asked a number of high profile individuals how they valued their network.

Sally Cheadle, a Sydney HR consultant described her network as a safety net. “It gives me a sense of freedom. I know there are people out in the market that are aware of my capabilities and are prepared to offer me a role that they know will challenge me, based on past performance.” Sally also says: “I have been lucky in that since my first role, I have always been approached with interesting employment opportunities by people that knew of me.”

When Finance manager Jennifer Sloane was looking to make a career move, she sat and made a list of all the people that she knew to have interesting roles, and then called them all and either had coffee/lunch/drinks with them, each time asking for assistance with career planning. “Having a wide network of contacts gives me an incredible sense of freedom. And with freedom, comes the best opportunity and then the best salaries.” Jennifer now has a new role in a high profile, listed-Australian company, which one of her contacts just happened to know about, and was able to refer her to.

From a career perspective, your network of contacts is exceptionally important. It is estimated that only 10% of employment opportunities are ever advertised – so how do you learn of the other 90%? Through people that you know! Think about it. Most companies have a policy whereby all opportunities must be advertised internally, prior to being advertised externally. Therefore, get the jump on the general public, and apply as soon as you learn of the opportunity, and trust me, if the perfect candidate for the role approaches the company, they will not bother to stage an extensive external search.

In addition, if you know people who are passionate about their own organisation, you may learn about interesting roles that you may never have know existed, and would never have thought yourself appropriate for. With them making the introduction, and a bit of lateral thinking, you may find yourself on a new career path.

I was recently talking to PR consultant Tracy Andrews (a lawyer in a previous life) who changed career direction as the result of a chance meeting. At a dinner party one of her fellow diners commented on the lack of understanding of the law in both environmental and corporate PR. Frustrated with her current role as a senior lawyer in a large law firm, this comment started Tracy thinking. Three years later, she now runs a very successful PR business – specialising in (you guessed it!) environmental and corporate PR. Tracy adds: “If it wasn’t for that dinner party, and my colleague’s husband, I would never have had the courage to start my own business.”

When I lived in London, I remember commenting to my then-boyfriend that I was extraordinarily lucky with the friends I had made in London. He looked at me and stated with absolute certainty: “It has nothing to do with luck: you just made the best of the opportunities that were handed to you.” In reality, I utilised both my social and professional network to put me in touch with like-minded individuals in the same city. (I might add that the boyfriend is long gone – but the other friends remain to this day.)

So, how do you get a network? Chances are, you already have one. People that you met at school/college/university or through the jobs that you may have held to date. Friends, friends-of-friends even, random encounters and dinner parties all add to the mix. On a formal note, alumni organisations, networking groups for women (Women in Business, the Businesswoman’s Network, etc), industry seminars and conferences, workshops, even internet chat rooms – will help you increase your network. Go to it – it is the most valuable asset you have!