Network, Network, Network: But I'm Not Any Good At It, I Don't Know Anybody, and Other Common Dilemmas
Networking. Everybody says it's the sure-fire fastest way to a new job. If you know someone who knows someone who knows someone, so it goes, you'll get to the hiring manager more quickly and cut through the search process in no time. Networking has been promoted as, by far, the most effective method of advancing your career or landing a rewarding position.

Still, if you're like most, you probably don't relish the idea of "working a room" or "schmoozing" among strangers in search of a job. If that's what "networking" is, you reason, you'll stick to your own means of job searching. At least you can take pride in the assurance that, when you do land that job, you will have earned it the old-fashioned way, through hard work and discipline. Noble maybe, but not too smart.

There was a time, not too long ago, when we held disdain for anyone who got their job because they "knew someone." Many of these folks were known underachievers with limited skills and little hope of making it without connections in high places. We were justified in our resentment.

But today you need to know someone, and the more people you know the better your chances of gaining an inside edge on job vacancies. Sure, you need to continually build your skills, but very few people are able to make it on skills alone. If you don't know how to develop and maintain solid relationships, you're likely to miss out on many plum opportunities simply because you're "out of the loop."

Most surveys show that the process of networking leads to as much as 80 percent of all hiring today. Given this statistic, it's no longer a question of whether you should network or not - you should - it's a question of how to network in a way that doesn't compromise your pride and integrity.

If you feel like you're asking for favors or begging for a job, you're probably approaching it all wrong. Get straight with yourself that you have some value and that somebody out there is looking for it. If you don't believe that, then there's probably not much point in looking for a job at all, is there?

Not good at mixing and mingling in professional groups? Then don't try to be something you're not. Find a way to network that fits you and your personal style. Make a vow to introduce yourself to just two people, and then go treat yourself to a hot-fudge sundae - or whatever it takes. In other words, don't berate yourself for not accumulating 50 business cards; reward yourself for taking a couple of steps outside of your comfort zone. Two contacts are better than no contacts. The next time you'll be so focused on the hot fudge sundae, you'll probably make four introductions in the time it previously took you to do two!

There isn't a "one size fits all" approach to networking. Some of the best networking occurs when you're not actually networking - when you bump into a friend at the gym, in the supermarket, or while you're out walking the dog - where simply by talking about your situation, you get suggestions and ideas.

Use these impromptu meetings to your benefit. When you're asked, "How are you?" don't fall into the same old "I'm fine. And you?" response. Try this: "Well, I've been very busy. I've been exploring new possibilities for my career, talking with a lot of people, and contemplating a change."

The friend will likely reply, "Oh really, what are you looking for?" Once you've answered, you've set the stage for lots of feedback, like "you should talk with my brother-in-law" and "my neighbor works at XYZ company - you should talk to her" and so on. Granted, the suggestions aren't always good, but sometimes you have to sort through the bad ideas to get to the really good ones - and one good one is all you need.

We use this "word of mouth" process every day in our personal lives without thinking about it much. For example, when looking for a car mechanic, we often ask our neighbors whom they would recommend. Or if we need to find a good dentist, we might ask our friends whom they use. We tend to trust the advice and opinions of those we know, because there is more comfort in a "known" than there is an "unknown." The same is true in the job market, both internally and externally. Hiring managers are more confident hiring someone who was referred to them than taking a chance on hiring a stranger.

We all have a personal network, people we know through business, professional, academic and social relationships - and our contacts also have business, professional, academic and social relationships - and so on. In the United States alone, with over 280 million people, we can link ourselves to any other individual in less than seven contacts. It's up to you to connect this chain of contacts to an organization that needs you.

Show others how they can help you. People generally like to help, they just don't always know how. To get started, review these action steps and, if need be, modify them in a way that fits your style:

Take an inventory of everyone you know. Don't just try to keep the names to memory. Jot them down. You can determine the best way to make contact later, but for now, just list them. Here are some categories to help you get started: friends and acquaintances, family members, friends of family, children's friends' families, neighbors, school friends and alumnae, present or past co-workers, present or past bosses, customers or clients, teachers and professors, colleagues from professional associations.

Still think you don't know a lot of people? Try focusing outside your field; everybody knows someone that you don't know. Include people you know from community relationships, recreational groups, health clubs, community and civic organizations, and military experiences.

If you still think you don't know anyone, take a look at your checkbook - you'll find lots of people in whose best interest it is to help you to continue working! Doctors, attorneys, accountants, bankers, insurance representatives, barbers, hairdressers, manicurists, pet sitters and other service providers know lots of people in lots of fields.

Divide your list of contacts into three groups - writees, callees and encountees. The writees are those whom you would want to write a note - the people on the periphery of your social network with whom you need to reconnect and reacquaint. The callees are the close relationships, the people who know you well - they wouldn't "get it" if you sent them a letter. The encountees are the people you just want to wait to run into - those whom you want to be sure to discuss your current situation because of who they may know.

Develop an introductory statement to communicate either in writing or verbally to your contacts. For example: "Hi Peter. As you may know, I am exploring (possible job options) (new opportunities in the area). My main reason for contacting you is to get your ideas and to gather some information about the department/industry/field. Let me start by telling you what I have been thinking, and how I think you could be of help."

Prepare a list of questions you would like to ask as well as a list of things you would like him/her to know about you. Don't assume that your circle of acquaintances knows what you're looking for, or qualified to do. Be prepared to ask the kind of questions that will allow your contacts to offer you ideas and suggestions.

For instance, you might ask how to best market your qualifications - or which skills to most emphasize in interviews. Don't ask your contacts for something they don't have. They may not know of any job openings, but they may have some useful information that could help you land a new position.

Ask for names of one to three people that you could contact for further information and advice. This doesn't have to be a person who has a job opening, but someone who might be willing to have a conversation or meeting with you.

Stay away from questions that would evoke a "yes" or "no" response. If you were to ask, "Do you know anyone I could speak with?" you risk putting the person in a position of saying "no" or "gee, I really don't know of any job vacancies right now." Instead try, "If you were in my shoes, with whom would you be speaking?" Then, contact the new referrals, mention the name of the person who referred you and convey your introductory statement.

Keep your network posted on your progress. Leave the door open for future contact. Send each person a thank you note within 48 hours, reminding him/her that you will keep in touch. And keep to your word - periodically check in to let them know how things are going.

It's amazing how many people skip this common courtesy. Often, the simple gesture of following up results in additional leads and contacts. The more times you can get your name in front of a someone, the better the chance that he/she will remember who you are and contact you if a vacancy develops that is compatible with your qualifications.

Think of networking as your personal search engine. By plugging in a few key names, you can generate several hits. One link leads to another and to another, until eventually, you find the information you need, in this case, the person who would have the authority to hire you.

Just as you don't need to be a technical whiz to search the Internet, you don't have to be a master schmoozer to network - even modest skills can yield several returns. And it sure beats "not-working."