Webster's Dictionary defines networking as, “The act or process of informally sharing information or support, especially among members of a professional group.” Networking is the process of developing a broad list of contacts you have made through various social and business functions with whom you share information, including job leads, job search advice, and introductions to others who might be able to help you find a position.

Since not all positions are advertised, networking can give you access to hidden jobs and thus increase your chances of success. Networking is consistently cited as the number one way to find a new job.

Plan your strategy

Set a timetable and achievable goals for your search. It is helpful to map out your plan in writing and commit to it. Remember, your job search is your full-time job if you are unemployed, and a major component of your job search is networking. Follow up on all leads promptly, regardless of whether you think they will lead anywhere.

Where to start

Networking is not making cold calls to people you don't know. It is talking to people you know and asking them for information and other contacts. There is an immediate trust factor when you share a common contact.

Initiate your network early in your career. Begin in college and continue to build your network throughout your professional career. Start with your friends, relatives and neighbors. Include colleagues at work, school contacts and alumnae networks. Get involved in professional groups such as AIHA and its local sections. You never know where you will find a lead, so network by striking up a conversation while waiting in line at the movies or the supermarket.

Promoting yourself

Most people do not like to sell themselves because they do not want to seem boastful or arrogant. However, no one will know what you want or what you can do unless you tell them. Proceed with caution when networking with clients and peers. You want to establish yourself as a talented, ambitious individual, not as an opportunist. The best way to inform people of your skills and abilities is to ask them what their needs are or what problem they need to solve and explain how you can help them. Remember that networking involves giving and receiving help, and most people are quick to detect when the relationship is not reciprocal. One of the best ways to keep in contact with someone is to remember their needs periodically. When you read an article that may be of interest, send it. This keeps your name fresh in their minds, while not appearing to be constantly asking for help.

Attention spans are limited these days, and you have a small window of opportunity to get your message across. Recruiters will tell you that the best way to make the most of face-to-face time is to prepare in advance. Write five or six sentences about yourself covering these points:

  • Progression of experience
  • Your most relevant accomplishments from the past few jobs
  • Work you are looking for

Be succinct and practice so that you can speak with ease and confidence without sounding rehearsed.

Be prepared

Carry business cards with you at all times. If you do not have them from a current employer, have them printed on high-quality paper. Do not offer a resume with your initial contact. Establish a relationship, get a business card, and ask whether you can send a resume to them at their business address. This ensures two things: (1) that you are willing to take the extra step to nurture the relationship, and (2) that the resume will make it to their office instead of being tossed aside. Remember to write on the back of the individual's business card notes of the conversation, follow-up information, and a description of the person.

Put it in writing

Send a well-constructed letter on good stationery with your resume. Introduce yourself, or remind the person when and where you met. Mention the reason you are approaching them, and let them know you would like to be notified if any employment opportunities arise. If you do not want your current employer to know that you are job hunting, be sure to ask your contact to be discreet about your inquiry. Do not do a resume mass mailing. Select the jobs that truly appeal to you, and focus on them. Saturating the market with resumes could alert your boss to your job search, at worst, or simply be a waste of valuable job search time.

Practice etiquette

Observing proper etiquette is probably the most important tool for effective networking.

  • Always ask permission to use a contact's name.
  • Keep your word. When you offer assistance to someone, be sure you follow through.
  • Thank everyone who lends a helping hand, even if the results are less than anticipated.
  • Always return a favor.

A successful networking opportunity does not always result in a job but can lead to other networking opportunities.

Follow up

Keep your network informed of your progress, and thank them with phone calls or notes. You are building a relationship that could serve you for years to come, but if people get the idea that you are using them, they will not make a sincere effort to help you.

Maintain your contacts

Networking is ongoing, so do not stop when you get hired. Organize a system for recording phone numbers and key information so you can continually add to it for the future. Keep in touch through professional meetings, phone calls, letters or e-mails. No one likes feeling “used” when you surface every few years to find a new position, so keep in touch and maintain your contacts.