“If you were on a cruise ship that was about to sink, who in the crew would you like to have a great relationship with?”

This quote came to my attention recently. I have no idea of its origins. But it makes a very powerful point about the purpose of some of our relationships in the workplace. Often, we know a lot of people and shake a lot of hands. But do we know the right people when we need to?

When we look back at our careers, it is likely that the breaks we have had are down to the contacts we had. At some point someone acted on our behalf and pointed us towards a brighter future. They informed us of a possibility and opened a door for us. And why? It is likely that they felt they owed you something because at some point in the past you had been good for them.

As with the example on the sinking cruise ship, good contacts come from knowing people in the right position with the right information. But knowing the right person isn’t enough alone, it is having a relationship with them whereby they genuinely want to help you. And generally, people help people they like, and generally people like people who have been supportive and helpful to them in the past.

It’s cold out there when you go it alone. Just as the Emperor Penguin needs his network for survival, the key to professional success is having a willing & able network to help & support you along the way.

So, a great way to build a great network is not to actively seek people who can help you, but rather focus on how you can offer help. If you meet your CEO, offer support and help. He or she may seem god like in their superiority, but everyone needs something, and you have something to give. So, if you focus your conversations on finding opportunities to support others, you will find yourself building a bank of goodwill.

great networking skills Annie Ives is ex-Global Head of Learning at the FT, and regularly coaches managers and executives in personal influencing skills.

There is a great short French movie about a very rude woman who is angry at a man in the street. As she leaves, the man realises the rude lady passed him a small black ball. Later in the day he gets angry with someone, and he passes the ball on. Throughout the day the black ball is passed from person to person, until eventually it finds its way back to the original woman. She returns to her apartment, and throws the black ball on the floor, to join the 100 or so other black balls. Very French, very stylish, with a great message, you get back what you give. Click here for the movie.

So, make a concrete plan to develop your professional network. Nominate 5 people who you think you might need help from in the future, and plan to offer help to them first. For further ideas on how to develop powerful networking skills download our free eBrief.