Expanding Your Professional Network

In August, Challenger, Gray & Christmas reported that approximately 80% of human resources executives rate networking as the best way to get a job right now.

This should come as no surprise. People conduct job interviews—job boards don't. Job boards list positions either already taken or nonexistent. A job board doesn't build trust with a hiring manager, whereas your business contact personally recommending you for a position carries a lot of weight. The sooner you start networking, the more dividends it will pay later in life, as executives almost always get jobs through who they know.

If you're introverted, then a social network like Facebook, with its 300 million user population, is an anxiety pacifier and a place where you can start a conversation online and then talk offline later when you feel comfortable. Social networking allows you to connect with more people in less time, around a shared interest like sports, politics, or the stock market. You have the choice whether you want to start your own network or become a participant, or both.

Using social networks and blogs for networking is about reciprocation. You need to promote other people who work at companies you're targeting and business leaders you respect. "Promote what that person does well to your network through a newsletter, a link back to their Web sites on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or feature them as an expert on your blog," says Lewis Howes, author of LinkedWorking and owner of sportsnetworker.com. Shining the spotlight on someone else will build rapport and position you as a value provider. The end result is an addition to your network that will more than likely reciprocate down the road.

Background Checks Of course, you have to be careful. Conduct a background check before attending a networking event or reaching out to people online. This doesn't mean going to the CIA or your neighborhood police station. You can use search engines, social networks, and private information shared between friends to find out exactly whom and what you're getting involved with.

In addition to finding information that allows you to filter out any dubious prospective contacts, you'll discover useful information about the people you do decide to contact. "Jot down three things that you learned about them doing the preliminary research, and then when you connect with them, ask them about their story," explains Scott Bradley, a social media strategist and founder of Rapid Results Marketing Group. It'll show that you care.

Indeed, you don't need an immediate personal agenda when social networking. Connect other like-minded people you believe will mutually benefit from one another. For example, if you know that one of your friends is working on a project that another one of your contacts has experience with, why not send an e-mail introducing both? Although you may not feel any immediate career boost, you'll be viewed as someone they both can go to as a resource.

"When you connect others, you become their center of influence," says Lewis. This method of networking becomes easier as your database grows, but the result is that more people will come to you in search of help, and you'll be able to make those introductions. In return, people will make introductions for you and open up their Rolodexes.

Hunt Down Contacts Unless you're a celebrity or are extremely visible online, people aren't going to race to your doorstep looking to work with you and be part of your network. Instead you have to pursue relationships like you're hunting prey. Even when you have contacts, they won't always be an asset to you unless you cultivate them by actively engaging them and by figuring out ways to support their own goals.

It's the small things that count. Commenting on a contact's Facebook status or sending a holiday card can have a larger impact than you would imagine "Relationships are like muscles—the more you work them, the stronger they become," says Keith Ferrazzi, author of New York Times best-seller Who's Got Your Back.

Don't be intrusive or aggressive, however. Respect people's time demands, and don't go overboard trying to impress them. People are looking for genuine conversations, not self-promotional spiels. Instead of bragging about your accomplishments, listen to what they have to say first and make them want to hear about what you have to offer.

"A guy in my office connected with a well-known actress over Twitter because both their kids had a really bad flu at the same time," says Ferrazzi.

It's the best-connected people who are the most productive at work and have the most-helpful mentors. Start today by contacting at least one individual you've never dealt with and asking that person if she or he needs help. The response you get will surprise you.

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