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Building Your Network

How creating a network of contacts can lead to success

By John Robak

In today's business world, it's rare to land a first job by merely responding to an ad or job posting. Networking remains an important tool for landing a first job and a vital resource for continuing to grow as a professional. While many people dread the word, because they incorrectly think it means "schmoozing," name dropping or being insincere, networking can truly be one of the most authentic and rewarding elements of enhancing your career.

Simply put, networking is the practice of creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. Think of it as building a community. It's like a circle of contacts who are interested in seeing you succeed in your career pursuits.

While there are many benefits to networking, perhaps one of the best reasons for developing a strong network is that many job openings are never advertised. The U.S. Department of Labor notes that only about five percent of people get their jobs through online or print ads, and almost half of all job-seekers get their positions through personal referrals. That's because companies often consider referrals as a top source for recruiting, and network contacts are an excellent resource for hearing about all of those unadvertised job opportunities.

It is important to keep in mind that networking and going on informational interviews with your contacts is not the same thing as interviewing, and you should never directly ask for a job. When networking, you are seeking professional career advice only. During informational interviews or casual meetings with contacts, you're there to gain career information, advice and contacts. However, you never know whom your contacts might put you in touch with. They might know someone at another company that has an entry-level position that would be perfect for you.

And even if you aren't looking for a new job, networking is a skill that will help you in your professional career for years to come.

Easy Ways to Network

For many individuals, networking may seem like more trouble than it's worth, but it doesn't have to be a chore and can actually be enjoyable. Networking can be as simple as contacting someone you've worked with in the past or as involved as joining a professional association. The key is to not be afraid to ask for help from others.

Developing new contacts is more natural and easier than it may sound. Start with people you know such as family, friends, classmates and teachers. Other sources can include former co-workers, members of clubs, college alumni and neighbors. Make a list of people you know and begin to share your career goals and professional interests with them. Keep them updated on new jobs or your current job search.

Staying organized is imperative. Keep a list of your contacts and update it when you meet someone new. Check in with people you haven't spoken with in a while--send an email, note or call if appropriate.

Expand Your Contacts

Once you've exhausted the list of people you know, look beyond your core contacts. One easy way to do this is by using today's technology. You can reach out to others within your industry through discussion lists and online communities. Join email lists that keep you updated on industry events and news.

A more personal way to network is by volunteering.

The relationships you build while working with others that share similar passions and interests can prove invaluable in your career. This opportunity provides you a stage to showcase your skills and talents, while also offering an excellent way to round out professional skills and develop new areas of expertise.

There are many resources to help you find a volunteer organization. Most communities have a volunteer center that provides listings of volunteer opportunities in the area. These centers are an excellent starting point for those who want to get involved but don't know where to begin. The Internet also offers several free volunteer matching services.

Start Early

If you're still in college, a great way to hone important work skills while meeting new people is through internships. Tap into your college employment resource center or talk to your professors to find opportunities. You can also research companies in your area to see if they hire interns. Begin your search early; most companies hire their interns a few months before the semester begins.

Reaching out to potential employers by arranging informational interviews is also a great way to network and get your foot in the door. Informational interviews are just that--they are meetings with companies that interest you to gather information about the organization and the industry at large.

An informational interview is the ultimate networking technique, putting you in front of others within your field of interest. They are particularly useful for college students who are just beginning their careers.

Another way to network is to seek out mentoring programs. This technique allows you to pair up with others in the industry who can offer academic and career guidance, while strengthening your network of support. Such opportunities can help you develop professional relationships that take you well into your career.
Finally, a great way to meet new people in your field is to attend industry conferences, luncheons and discussion panels. Research business groups and trade associations and identify upcoming events or venues.

You never know when that next chance meeting will lead to a new contact in your network. The key is to continue placing yourself in situations where you can meet new people, and further strengthen your circle of support. Always be ready to put your best foot forward--whether you are at the grocery store standing in line or at an industry event. And don't forget when others come to you for help, return the favor and help them build their networks--for that's the true meaning of networking.

John Robak is the executive vice president of human resources for Greeley and Hansen based in Chicago. He frequently contributes articles on career-related issues.

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